So we’ve been posting again at a pretty steady pace! If you missed it, here’s what we wrote about the last two months. Apparently, we’ve been in the mood for wildlife.
- Jay’s nature photos, let him show you them!
- What’s thinking outside of the box compared to thinking outside of your scale?
- Parrots like their food rancid and nasty. (Emily’s post incidentally caught a rather radical wave on Facebook!)
- Everything awesome you ever needed to know about those alien-looking Horseshoe Crabs.
- A colorful fireworks show courtesy of fireflies.
- Why a sustainable economy isn’t automatically a sustainable ecology.
- What massive patience it takes to hunt for meteorites in the scalding sun.
Earlier this year, a giant green fireball lit up the sky over my hometown. With a sonic boom, a meteor exploded over Coloma, California — near Sutter’s Mill, the origin of the California Gold Rush — and littered my neighbors’ yards and horse pastures with chunks of deep black space rock.
Like many meteorites, the rocks were dense, with rounded edges and a slightly iridescent coating called a fusion crust which forms as meteorites streak through the atmosphere. However, unlike the vast majority of meteorites, these contained organic material which could potentially hold scientific clues about the origin of life.
They were also extremely valuable. Soon hundreds of people had flocked to Coloma and nearby Lotus, and were walking in slow, meandering circles, looking for meteorites on the ground with their heads down. I was in Baltimore at the time, but according to my father it looked like an invasion of zombies. My old schoolmate Sarah’s parents found a large meteorite in the rain gutter on their roof. A four year-old boy found one in his neighbor’s gravel driveway worth $15,000. To the disappointment of his parents, rumor has it that the owner of the driveway wanted a fifty-percent cut.
Taking a hint from Gold Rush-era entrepreneurs, someone printed a batch of T-shirts with a Sutter’s Mill meteorite decal. One of the first people to buy a T-shirt was scientist Peter Jenniskens from the SETI institute in Palo Alto. During the first few days of the meteorite rush, Jenniskens spent hours standing in front of an old Gold Rush reenactment gun shop in the James Marshall Gold Discovery State Park, helping people distinguish between meteorites and, as he calls them, “meteor-wrongs.” He encouraged people to contribute their finds to science, and not to touch the meteorites with their bare hands and risk contaminating them. (It’s better to pick them up with a piece of clean aluminum foil.)
People quickly found most of the easily-spotted rocks and fragments, but Jenniskens continued to come back for many weekends with a shifting team of volunteers and college interns. My father offered him and his volunteers a place to stay at our family’s whitewater raft camp. He was there when I came home for a visit, so despite strong misgivings about the 100 plus-degree heat, I asked to go along on a search.
We drove up a dusty dirt road toward the Spies’ place. Mrs. Spies was my elementary-school lunch lady and I hadn’t seen her for at least fifteen years! Yet here I was invading her driveway and horse pasture with scientists from NASA and SETI and even three camera crewmembers from the Discovery Channel, who huffed and puffed in the 106-degree heat, sweating profusely as they tried to make exciting television.
The Discovery Channel team had their work cut out for them. As we stepped slowly and gingerly through the scrubby underbrush, accumulating foxtails and burrs in our socks and using sticks to push aside forests of poison oak, I saw rounded river rocks, deer droppings, and even bits of charcoal that looked like meteorites. It was tedious and roasting hot. I gave up on finding anything after the first fifteen minutes, and couldn’t imagine how the team had managed to do this for eight hours a day on nearly every weekend since April — especially after several weekends had proven fruitless.
But then, a volunteer named Bev cried out. Lying dead center on the crumbly red dirt of an exposed molehill was a small black rock. It was about the size of a corn kernel, smooth and curved on one side, broken clean off on the other. Looking closely, you could see the tell-tale iridescence that looks like the sheen on an owl feather. About twenty minutes of rejoicing followed, as well as some hilarity as the Discovery Channel team discovered that they had unwittingly charged into a stand of poison oak in their eagerness to capture the action. “Is this poison oak?” they kept asking the locals with rising panic. “Yes,” the locals inevitably replied. “That’s poison oak.”
After the film crew got their shots and the team calmed down, I thought, great, we’re done, we can go back to an air conditioned room now, or at least get in the shade. But how wrong I was. How little I understood the fever which had gripped Jenniskens and the volunteers, bringing them back weekend after weekend to hunt for nearly invisible shards of rock in hot, rugged terrain. I began to understand the kind of fanatical patience I was dealing with: the same kind of patience that is required to comb the entire universe for clues to the origin of life.
Like the Gold Rush, when every new nugget sparked another wave of enthusiasm and seeking, the search for meteorites was self-perpetuating. As soon as their excitement about the fragment died down, the scientists and volunteers began to speculate that it must have hit a tree on its way down to the ground and shattered, which meant that there were other pieces nearby. Soon Jenniskens was urging his team further down the hill and deeper into the poison oak. I stayed with them until they finished looking on the Spies’ land, but didn’t drive with them to the next location. It was Father’s Day, after all.
In Bristol Bay, Alaska, fishermen catch and export about 70 percent of the wild salmon in the bay migrating inland to spawn. In recent years, the numbers of salmon that migrate into these Alaskan waters have remained stable. So, that must mean fishermen are harvesting this food resource sustainably, right?
Not necessarily, writes Joseph Burger, Jim Brown and others from the University of New Mexico in an essay published today in PLoS Biology. The fishery still affects the greater ecosystem. For example, the authors point out, fewer salmon in Alaska’s waters means less food for natural predators such as grizzly bears and bald eagles. Also, fewer salmon will die naturally in these waters, robbing the soil and waters of other nutrients the rest of the ecosystem depends on. So, while the commercial harvest of salmon may be sustainable from year to year, the fishery still has many indirect impacts on other resources.
It may seem obvious that ecologists have a vital role to play in building a sustainable globe. But as Burger and other scientists argue in several papers contained in the new PLoS Biology Sustainability Collection, ecology, especially the large-scale approach called “macroecology,” has played a smaller role than economics in building a vision of a viable “green economy.” They are calling for the inclusion of ecological principles in discussions on sustainability science both throughout the field and at this week’s Rio+20 sustainability conference.
Rio+20 is a global conference in Rio de Janeiro in which scientists and government representatives from throughout the world discuss how to create a world in which resources can continuously support future generations, while helping people in developing countries rise out of poverty. The first conference was held 20 years ago, and this week’s conference will be a discussion of both the progress made since and what steps come next.
The key, says Burger, is to get economists to think in terms of physics and ecology as well as economics. That means adding more natural sciences to the education economists receive as well as bringing more natural scientists, such as ecologists, into discussions on sustainability. “One could go through an entire bachelor’s or even Ph.D. program in economics and not have any exposure to basic principles like the physical laws of thermodynamics,” he says, “or the biological laws of population growth.”
John Matthews and Frederick Boltz of Conservation International say in their perspective piece that ignoring the dynamic nature of biology is dangerous and will hinder sustainability efforts. But they add that there is room for “cautious optimism.” Matthews and Boltz say scientists can draw from recent efforts to curb climate change for inspiration on how advancing technology can help create a more sustainable world. “Many developing countries understand that Western models of development are inappropriate if not impossible to achieve. We believe that these and other positive trends are both accelerating and permeating local, national, and global economies quickly and permanently,” they write.
Sustainability must be viewed in the context of the environmental sciences, says population biologist Georgina Mace of Imperial College London. She says that the perspectives offered by Burger and colleagues and Matthews and Boltz represent two extremes of “ecological pessimism” and “technological optimism.” But these extremes are sometimes needed, especially regarding resources that may run out entirely. “When resources are close to being depleted or exhausted, prices rise, pressures may increase, and complete collapse of the resource becomes more likely,” she writes. “In some other cases, such as the extinction of species or the loss of biomes and biodiversity, the loss is irreversible.”
These scientists argue that the current model for creating a sustainable Earth is too short-sighted, and overly focused on balancing specific sectors of economies while ignoring the intricate web of subtle effects that environmental scientists specialize in puzzling out.
Burger says the ultimate goal however is to get policymakers and environmental scientists working with a mutual framework, and he believes the best way to begin is by increasing education between fields. “We must get everyone on the same page,” says Burger. “Policymakers and economists have much to benefit from understanding the ecology of our own species and we need them to make our science actionable by implementing policy that considers the core ecological principles that govern all life.”
Behold! Another story of wildlife just beyond my doorstep! It’s not my fault. I can’t avoid the creatures. They’re everywhere, from the tiny red mites on the railings at school, to the slugs that migrate across my apartment sidewalk at the same location every night. I even have wildlife in my apartment. I know this because every time I eat popcorn at the desk in my home-office, some evil creature steals a couple kernels when I’m not looking and then places them under my desk so I’ll roll over them with my chair. Goodness knows I couldn’t be spilling popcorn myself.
But back to the wildlife outside my Baltimore apartment. A little after sundown a few days ago I was walking in the grass along the edge of the park across the street. As is common this time of year, the fireflies were out doing their thing.
Fireflies remind me of my years in Indiana. I must have been 12 or 13 years old when my family moved from steamy and sunny Florida to the Midwest and its long, chilling winters. One day during my first winter in Northern Indiana the temperature hovered around -14 degrees Fahrenheit. Still, my family’s house in Indiana had a huge perk. Beyond our backyard lawn was about an acre of woods, and down a small hill was a pond, about a quarter-mile long. Other homes were right on the pond, but they were all on the north end whereas we lived on the south end. We couldn’t see the other homes from the pond unless we walked around the point. On our end, we had the waterfront all to ourselves, and the whole thing was surrounded by tall trees. My memories from the pond are so fond that, when I’m in my final days of life, thoughts of my time there will be among those I ponder with the simplest but greatest satisfaction.
My older brother and I helped our dad build a sturdy set of wood stairs straight down the hill through the woods. From there, my dad cleared out a path to the pond and covered the path in wood chips. At the edge of the pond, he then mowed down an area big enough for a fire-pit and a dozen people to sit around it. He also built a short wooden dock and installed two floodlights on 20- or 30-foot studs at the end of the dock so that we could ice-skate after sundown (days are short in the Midwestern winter). We’d sit on the dock to put on our ice-skates, then we’d shovel the snow into a rectangle with rounded edges and play hockey with our school friends for hours on end.
Aside from the mosquitos, summers down on the pond were just as good if not better than winters. My dad had an old slightly waterlogged sailboat. We didn’t bother putting the mast and sail on — there wasn’t usually much wind down on the pond — but the boat had two oar-locks. So whenever I brought a girl over, even just a friend, my dad would suggest I take her out in the rowboat. I’d row and we’d chat while admiring the houses on the north end, and the fish, lily pads, turtles and tadpoles. Some evenings, my marching band pals and I would sit around the fire well into the night and talk about whatever. At other times, my dad and I would stroll around down by pond, talking about girls, my future, my brothers, or my awful grades.
But the end of the dock was where the real magic happened. If the water was low enough, you could sit on the dock without your shoes getting soaked and stare across the pond. On certain nights in the summer, the wall of trees across the pond would erupt into a silent light show. From high in the trees right down to the pond, the fireflies were everywhere shopping for mates.
But here’s the thing, I spent a lot of summer nights down by the pond, and I only ever noticed one color of firefly. In fact, it never crossed my mind that there were more than one species, let alone any firefly whose butt didn’t glow in a yellow-green color. I’ve enjoyed fireflies before and since, but only ever the one color. But on this recent night in Baltimore, walking along the trees near my apartment, I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me.
First, I started paying attention to the fireflies because of how they were lighting up. Several of the insects weren’t doing the familiar slow fadeaway after they glowed. They were flashing on, off, on, off with no fade. This caused me to do a double-take. I couldn’t remember fireflies flashing so quickly on and off. A moment later I forgot about that surprise because I thought I saw an orange firefly. I stared and waited, then saw not one orange firefly but three.
After a while it was easy to know I wasn’t mistaken because the orange fireflies were mingling near the yellow-green ones. Have you ever been unsure whether a certain pair of pants were black or dark blue? What do you do to make sure? You find a piece of clothing you KNOW is black, and you put it next to the pants in question. Suddenly, they’re clearly blue, not black. It’s the comparison that makes their color clear, and it didn’t take long to confirm these were orange fireflies.
I wondered if maybe the fireflies had evolved to use orange streetlamps to hide from predators, or maybe the lightning bugs had somehow ingested manmade chemicals, which then accumulated in the insects’ light organ and changed the chemistry enough to make an orange color instead of a yellow-green one. Was I the first to see this change in the species? Or maybe I discovered a new species of bioluminescent insects that just happened to come out and glow at the same time of day in the same places as fireflies. [Ahem] No. I’ll have to keep dreaming of the day when I can name an orange-glowing-butt insect after myself.
Turns out there are more than one species of firefly. Well, a whole lot more than one. The National Geographic Society says there are about 2,000 species of firefly, and fireflies’ flashing patterns are unique to each species. Scientists aren’t certain how the insects control the on/off switch, but they do know how they glow. Fireflies take in oxygen and introduce it to a chemical called luciferin in a special organ in the bug’s rear end. The chemical reaction creates almost no heat and almost all light. We’re talking not quite 100 percent but darn close, according to the Ohio State University, which offers firefly facts online. The university’s site also says that a normal lightbulb converts only about 10 percent of its energy to light. The other 90 percent becomes heat.
But what about the color of fireflies’ glowing butts? That can range from the common yellow-green to a reddish-orange. I had no idea.
While we’re at it, here are a few other things you might not know (and I certainly didn’t know) about fireflies, from Ohio State University’s and Nat-Geo’s websites:
- Fireflies are not flies. They’re beetles (of the family Lampyridae), and most firefly species, but not all, have wings.
- Like humans, fireflies are omnivores.
- Unlike humans, fireflies generally live only 2 months.
- Some firefly species don’t glow. In the U.S., you’re unlikely to encounter the glowing types west of central Kansas.
- Both firefly larvae and adults glow, and both taste not-so-good to predators.
- Some Asian species of firefly live underwater, breath using a type of gills, and eat snails.
- Fireflies live just about everywhere humans do, except for the southernmost tip of South America, most of Greenland, and the northernmost reaches of Alaska, Canada, and Russia. Also, you won’t find any fireflies in Antarctica, though you’re welcome to go there to look.
That said, keep an eye out and you just might see a firefly that’s not yellow-green. I’ve seen just three, and though I’ve kept looking since, I haven’t seen another orange one. Maybe I’ll never see another, but I’ll still remember the joy and surprise of this single occasion — one more fond memory to relish.
When the earliest dinosaurs were first evolving around 230 million years ago, horseshoe crabs had already been scuttling along the ocean floor feeding on marine worms and tiny shellfish for at least 100 to 200 million years; maybe even longer. Today, they still remain relatively unchanged—‘living fossils’ that have survived at least 5 mass extinctions throughout the eons and outlived most of their closest relatives, such as the ancient trilobites, whose famous fossils can be seen in museums throughout the world. Perhaps the term “lucky horseshoes” should really pertain to these amazing little creatures who are one of the oldest species on earth.
As a native of New Jersey, I hold a special place in my heart for these unusual animals. Every summer throughout the months of May and June, they arrive in large numbers along the beaches, most famously in the Delaware Bay, to spawn. I like to walk down the shoreline in the early morning to look for them; every now and then helping to right those that had been flipped upside-down by the surf. Since it is currently the peak of their breeding season, I figured I’d write a little bit about them for anyone who has never had the chance to see one in person.
First, I should point out that horseshoe crabs are not really crabs or even considered ‘crustaceans,’ at all. They are actually more closely related evolutionarily to spiders and scorpions, than crabs, lobsters, or shrimp. Millions of years ago, there were many different kinds of horseshoe crabs, though today only four species remain. Limulus polyphemus, is the species that we see most commonly on the eastern shores of North America and in the Gulf of Mexico, but other species can be found from the shores of India to Sumatra, Java, the Philippines, and China when they come ashore to breed.
All horseshoe crab species have the same general shape, with bodies made up of three sections covered by hard armor-like plating; some can even grow up to 3 feet long. The first and largest section resembles a semi-circle or horseshoe-shape, called the prosoma (I like to call this the head). Looking down at the animal from above, this section contains two large compound eyes on each side, but there are also 5 other rudimentary ‘eyes’ that are much smaller and harder to see. Some are sensitive to visible light, while others are sensitive to the ultraviolet range. It is believed that horseshoe crabs see very well at night, and also pick up on contrast better than we can, but this has not been verified.
If you turn the crab over to see the bottom of the prosoma, there are five pairs of legs—the pair closest to the tail of the animal are modified ‘pusher’ legs that they use to propel themselves with, and to clean their gills. Each leg, save for the pusher legs, have pincers at the end. In females, all these pincers look the same, but in males, their forward-most legs, called the pedipalps, are rounded with a little hook on the end that many researchers refer to as ‘boxing gloves.’ These help them hold onto the female’s shell during mating. Females also tend to be much larger than males, which is another way to tell them apart.
There are an additional two tiny legs in front of the others called chelicerae, which help push food towards the mouth, which is located between the five sets of main legs. The mouth structure is called a gnathobase, is lined with tiny hair-like spines, and the crab can only swallow food (always whole since it doesn’t chew) if its legs are moving. Spiders, the crab’s distant relatives, also have chelicerae, except they are usually in the form of pointed fang-like appendages that some use to grasp food. They are also often hollow, and/or connected to venom glands. But don’t worry–horseshoe crabs aren’t poisonous at all. They even have two additional light receptors or ‘eyes’ near their mouths, which are believed to help them orient while swimming.
The central section of a horseshoe crab’s body is called the opisthosoma. This is lined with movable spines on each side, and contains the musculature to move the tail as well as the ‘book gills’ underneath. These not only exchange respiratory gasses to allow the crab to breathe, but can also move like a series of fins and can help them swim. In fact, as long as the book gills remain wet, the crab can breathe—hence why they can come out of the water and survive by sitting on the wet sand. They don’t swim often though, usually only if necessary to escape predators like sharks, or to help move in rough surf. When they do, they usually swim upside-down.
The last part is called the telson, which is a fancy name for the tail. Many people think it is a poisonous spine, but this is a common misconception. The horseshoe crab just uses its tail to turn itself right-side up if it gets flipped over. Horseshoe crabs also cannot walk or swim backwards—if one gets cornered or stuck, it must use its tail to flip itself over and swim away. The series of bumps along the top and side of the tail are additional light receptors. Being primarily nocturnal animals, these are very important to help it synchronize with the day and night cycles.
Horseshoe crabs are also relatively long-lived, and it is believed they can survive up to 20 years or more. They grow in stages and molt their shells for about 10 years or so, until they mature. Once fully grown, they stop molting and often gain hitchhikers like mussels or barnacles that begin to grow on them. Each spring, during the high tides of the new and full moon, the males line the shores waiting for the females. Once they arrive, groups of males surround each larger female trying to grab on with their pedipalp. Once one does, he is dragged behind her as she lays up to 20 clutches of eggs in shallow holes that she digs, each clutch containing about 4,000 tiny pastel-green eggs. He fertilizes them as they are laid, and they hatch within 3-4 weeks.
These eggs attract huge numbers of shorebirds every year who gorge themselves with them to bulk up for their long migrations. One of the most famous of these birds has one of the longest migration routes known, and it is called the Red Knot. These small birds fly from the very tip of South America in Tierra del Fuego making a pit stop in Brazil, and then fly nonstop to the Delaware Bay to gorge themselves on eggs to prepare for the last leg of their journey—a nonstop flight to their arctic breeding grounds. Their total journey is about 9,300 miles!
Because horseshoe crabs have been hunted excessively in the last century for fertilizer (their bodies were ground up because they are high in nitrogen), and used as bait, the decline in crab numbers has also caused a decline in the numbers of these birds.The crabs have also been harvested in large numbers since the 1960s and 70s for use in the medical industry. Not only are their eyes being studied, but their blue blood is copper-based and contains an interesting substance called limulus amebocyte lysate (LAL) which can be extracted and used to detect bacterial toxins.
I suppose by writing this post, I just wanted to raise awareness of these amazing and fascinating creatures, as well as urge people to protect them. They have survived for so long, through such extreme conditions, that I find the fact that humans have done so much damage to their populations in such a short amount of time very disheartening. We are making advances though. Crabs are no longer killed for blood collection, but once they are captured, only about 30% of their blood is taken before they are returned to the ocean. Their blood volume rebounds within a week or so, while research has shown that it takes about 2-3 months for their blood cell count to return completely back to normal. In the past, moratoriums have also been placed on the harvest of horseshoe crabs in certain areas.
Finally, I can’t describe how many times I see kids at the beach picking the crabs up by their tails. This can seriously harm the crabs and parents must urge their kids not to do this. In addition, if there are shorebirds feeding on the beach, please do not disturb them. They need to eat as much as they can so they can make it to the arctic.
To learn more about horseshoe crabs and the shorebirds that depend on them, feel free to check out the following links:
Every morning and evening in the Amazon, wild parrots gather on exposed cliffs like this one to engage in geophagy, a fancy word for eating dirt. As the parrots scrape and lick the clay-rich soil, they socialize — loudly. “They’re all screaming their heads off,” says U.C. Davis conservation biologist James Gilardi. The smooth-textured clay, he says, acts like a water softener in the parrots’ guts, helping to neutralize the toxins the birds ingest from eating unripe and even poisonous seeds.
Gilardi studied two parrot “clay-licks” in Peru for his Ph.D thesis, and now runs a conservation organization called the World Parrot Trust. Despite their popularity, parrots remain mysterious in the wild. Geophagy is just one example of a behavior that has been largely overlooked. Gilardi studies wild parrots in the hopes of conserving them in their native habitats and allowing people to take better care of them as pets. This week, his team published new evidence in PLoS ONE showing that parrots seek out bitter, toxic foods other animals won’t touch.
To catch the birds snacking, Gilardi and his team spent several summers walking through Manu National Park in the Peruvian Amazon. They spent up to ten hours per day watching from the ground for parrots rustling in the canopy and listening for squawking cries or the sound of falling fruit. When they found the parrots, they wrote down the kind of tree the birds were in, and noted what dropped on the ground. They also climbed the trees to collect samples, and sat in the canopy watching the birds fly and forage. They wanted to know whether the birds preferred seeds or fruits, how thoroughly they “demolished” their food, as Gilardi puts it, and whether they gobbled up ripe or unripe fruit and seeds. Parrots are messy eaters, but it was soon clear that the birds were going after unripe seeds. Many of these are protected by bitter, potentially toxic substances like alkaloids, found in substances like hemlock and strychnine.
The parrots weren’t just swallowing seeds and pooping them out intact, like many animals do. Instead, they were digesting them. This wasn’t a surprise, says Gilardi. Large macaws can destroy softball-sized seeds with their beaks, cracking shells that would take a monkey many blows with a rock to break apart. “Anyone who’s ever watched parrots in the wild knows that they are destroying seeds.” What surprised him was the toxicity of the seeds they were digesting: “A lot of the things they’re eating are pretty nasty.” Sometimes they would see a tree full of fruit which other birds or animals shunned. Then the parrots would arrive and “just plough through” it.
In addition to detoxifying their systems by eating clay, Gilardi says that parrots’ livers and other aspects of their physiology are better equipped than ours to deal with poisonous substances. Although parrots are one of the most endangered bird species in the world, parrot conservation almost never has anything to do with food. “It’s one less thing to worry about.”
More often the threat is habitat destruction and capture. “Parrots are often threatened by something local to them,” says Gilardi. Parrot trafficking for pet sales, in addition to the clearing of tropical forests, threatens roughly more than one in four parrot species — about 95 out of 360 total. Although the World Parrot Trust doesn’t condemn bird-keeping, it works to protect parrot habitat, eliminate illegal and unsustainable parrot trafficking, and help pet owners care for their birds correctly. “If we’re going to do this,” he says, “let’s do it right.”
People tend to feed parrots things people like to eat: cereal crops that have been heated up, cooked, and shaped into pellets. They feed them ripe fruit when a parrot might actually prefer something as astringent as an unripe persimmon. “It’s a huge problem,” says Gilardi. He hopes that people will consider that their backyards might be a better place to find parrot food than the grocery store.
Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons
Like many kids in the ’80s, I spent way too many hours camped in front of the TV. My grandparents had a TV set that was practically a piece of furniture. It was heavy, cumbersome and encased in polished wood to match the bookcases and coffee table. It also had two gray dials — one that went no further than 13 and another that went higher but turned up nothing but static.
This old TV spewed electrons like crazy. When you turned it on, it crackled with electricity as an image inflated from a tiny square to its full size. I used to crawl up to the screen when my family wasn’t watching and touch the glass to feel the static electricity tingle around my fingers. It was like a fuzzy layer of air. Sometimes, to the dismay of the adults, I would even press my face up against it and watch the characters from Duck Tales break down into a crystalline pattern of red, green and blue rectangles.
Finding the three colors from which the images on TV emerged is the oldest memory I have of anything vaguely scientific popping into my head. I had no concept of what a cathode ray tube was, or how it was channeling photons and electrons. But I knew something whole was being made up of simpler bits, and you could only see those simpler bits if you were willing to get up close and personal.
Emergence is the idea that small things give rise to bigger things, often with different rules, and it’s prevalent throughout science. Everything is made up of tiny bits called particles. These particles stick together and make bigger particles, which stick together and make atoms. Atoms then stick together to make molecules, which stick together in fabulous chains to create DNA. The DNA guides other molecules into becoming cells. Enough cells stick together in the right pattern and you get creatures with brains, in which a pattern emerges into that we call a mind, from which arises language, knowledge and consciousness. It’s tempting to look at ourselves as the ends of this continual emergence, but the world is also full of non-living molecules too. Water and minerals emerge into oceans, glaciers, deserts, mountains, climates and weather patterns. It keeps going, and eventually we get the whole Universe out of it.
We’re stuck somewhere in the middle, peering in two directions at once, toward the tiny bits we are made of and the vast Universe we’re a piece of. Entire scientific fields often focus in on a level of emergence and study the rules that sliver of reality operates under. But most of us stick to the slim, everyday level of reality we’re best at — where buildings, work, pets, trees and other people exist.
The most fun part of science writing for me is also the toughest part: Applying our familiar, cozy mid-sized ideas to Realities Of Unusual Size and seeing how well those ideas stick. It’s a relief to think of the galaxies residing on an expanding balloon because, darn it, at least we have a reference point. On the tiny scale, when physicists found the force that sticks quarks together into becoming protons and neutrons, they found a new kind “charge,” only instead of coming in pairs, like negative and positive, this charge comes in threes. They needed a metaphor to help this relationship make sense, so instead of positive and negative, they called the quarks red, green and blue. The labels are perhaps fitting. Maybe scientists were also once kids who liked crawling into an unfamiliar space only to discover that Saturday morning cartoons are made of brightly-colored rectangles.