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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.

I’m a globalist who favors free trade and open markets, so I hope people won’t take me the wrong way when I take a certain amount of umbrage with today’s capitalism.  A new generation of leaders and thinkers need to rework the way in which decisions are made and resources are allocated. The actions of the market—which so many economists and businesspeople regard as sacrosanct–are hemming us in to a stale repetitive worldview, which is ultimately a trap.

The way we live now...

Capitalism is very good at creating captivating plastic rubbish, dangerous motor-vehicles, elaborate insurance for said vehicles, and erection pills, but it is less gifted at facilitating fundamental scientific research.  Most of the really important technological innovations of the last century came from the military, from universities, or from crazy monopolies (before they got busted up).  Capitalists refined these ideas and made them marketable, but they were not interested in the initial open-ended “blue sky” research which was expensive and did not always proceed logically to money making technologies.  Virtually every part of the aerospace industry originated in military technology for solving cold war (or World War I & II) tactical problems. The internet grew up out of defense department computer and communications experiments. The capacitor was created in one of Ma Bell’s laboratories before AT&T was broken up. Antibiotics were discovered by an absent-minded professor with a messy lab!

Capitalists are necessary to refine and popularize great ideas, but they do not see farther than the bottom line…and the truly worthwhile discoveries are lurking out there in the wilderness beyond immediate financial recompense.

Yes, yes but where exactly are we going?

There are indeed avenues by which money travels into pure research. Rich bankers give money to universities and research hospitals. Taxpayers give money to NASA and the military.  All of us give money to monopolies (which have an insidious way of forming despite legislation prohibiting them). These avenues are not enough.  We are stagnating.  Ask anyone.  Or just look outside at a fossil fuel & automobile based world which seems pretty fundamentally similar to the 1920’s.

Dammit, that's what I figured. Can't you think bigger here for just a few minutes?

There is a world of wonder out there and our future could be bright indeed: By the end of my life we should have nanobots that eat cancers and repair brain damage. We should have space elevators and brilliant robot superservants which (or maybe I should say who) beat the Turing test.  We should be crafting true artificial ecosystems that exist outside of this world (because it doesn’t take a genius to see that there are too many of us). However, the investment bankers and wallstreet power brokers need to rethink the utility of the (musty oligarchical) world they are building, and politicians are going to have to think beyond the end of their term. Otherwise the glowing future is never going to come.

A probabilistic functional gene network of the small plant Arabidopsis thaliana (Image: Insuk Lee, Michael Ahn, Edward Marcotte, Seung Yon Rhee/Carnegie Institution for Science)

I have no idea how to incentivize these things better. Maybe we should ask an economist. But don’t you want to live a much longer life? Don’t you want space elevators and robot servants? Then write to your congressperson and ask them to send more money towards research (or better yet, vote for a new legislator—none of the current ones seem much good).  If you are a stockholder, vote out the current board.  I am blaming our shortsightedness on our leaders but they are a manifestation of all of us.  Our vaunted capitalist system needs to incentivize vastly more scientific research and it needs to reward bold long-term thinking (rather than myopic money-grubbing). We are going to have to stop thinking small and greedy–only then can we create a future which is truly big enough and great enough for our bright dreams.

A Bernal Sphere (painting by Don Davis)

The Groundhog, Marmota monax (photo by Bill Smith)

Happy Groundhog Day!  Preliminary reports coming in seem to indicate that the nation’s most eminent groundhog oracles are not seeing their shadows today (what with the continent bestriding blizzard and all).  Oddly, this is interpreted as a sign that spring will arrive early this year.  However I tend to think those groundhogs on TV are media personalities who have forgotten their rural roots.  When I lived on a farm, the concept behind the holiday was more straightforward:  if you saw an actual groundhog on Groundhog Day, then winter might indeed end early, but if you didn’t (and I never did) winter would not be over for six more weeks.  Today most non-celebrity groundhogs did not stir from their deep hibernation chambers.  We probably still have plenty of winter left.

Groundhog Day is observed on or around Candelmas, which ostensibly celebrates the presentation of Baby Jesus to the temple:   Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the Kohens & Levites to perform the redemption of the firstborn and ceremonially purchase their firstborn son’s life back from the priests (I’m not sure Jesus ever really escaped the priesthood or the temple of Solomon so maybe his parents should have gotten their money back–but that’s a different story).  Candelmas was elided with pre-Christian holidays involving the prediction of the weather by animal augury.  The holiday’s roots in America are from the Pennsylvania Germans.  Apparently in pagan Germany, the original animal weather prophets were badgers or bears.  Imagine how exciting this holiday would be if we stuffed our pompous civic officials together with a disgruntled bear who had just been prodded awake from hibernation so people could take flash photographs!

At any rate we have gotten rather far afield of the day’s celebrated weather oracle, the groundhog or woodchuck (Marmota monax) which is actually a rodent of the marmot family, Sciuridae. Marmots are large solitary ground squirrels which, like pikas, generally live in the mountains of Asia, Europe, and North America.  The groundhog is an exception among the marmots since it prefers to live on open ground or at the edge of woodlands.  The deforestation of North America for farms and subdivisions has caused groundhog population to rise.  Although groundhogs are omnivores, the bulk of their diet is vegetation such as grasses, berries, and crops.  They are gifted diggers who construct a deep burrow with multiple exits.  This burrow serves as their chief living quarters and refuge from predators.  Since groundhogs enter true hibernation, they usually also maintain a separate winter burrow (with a chamber beneath the frost line) for the sole purpose of their months-long suspended animation.

A Groundhog Enjoying a Garden

Groundhogs, however, have a deeper utility to modern humankind than as primitive weather gods.  Devoted readers will know my fascination with liver research, and groundhogs are the principal research animal used in studies of Hepatitis B and liver cancer.  Since groundhogs are prone to a similar virus in the wild, they always develop liver cancer when infected with hepatitis B.  Laboratory groundhogs have thus been responsible for many advances in understanding liver disease and pathology–including the discovery of a vaccine for Hepatitis B and the realization that immunizing against hepatitis B virus can prevent liver cancer.  Currently 350 million people around the world are suspected to have hepatitis B.  Forty percent of those infected will develop chronic liver damage or cancer.  According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 600,000 people die every year from complications related to the infection (which is more than the total number of United States citizens killed in World War I and World War II combined).  Perhaps the Groundhog should be thought of as a profound benefactor to humankind thanks to its utility as a laboratory animal.

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