Even if it’s not at the front of my mind, the back of my mind is still mulling over February’s young earth creationism (or whatever it’s called) “debate” between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. I often wonder about the experiences and motivations that lead an individual to any form of science-denial, but the laughable absurdity of young-earth creationism isn’t the topic here. I’m only disclosing that the debate played a part in the curiosity that helped this particular blog entry bubble to the surface. That said, if you get time, please watch the “debate” in the video above.
Of all my friends and acquaintances, I knew of one person who preferred Shaun of the Dead until several weeks ago. But even then the question vexed me. How could even one person feel that way?
Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, along with last year’s The World’s End, are collectively known as the Cornetto Trilogy. All three were directed and co-written by Edgar Wright, and all three feature the young and brilliant British actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.
I’ll set aside The World’s End because it would unnecessarily complicate matters. So what of Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead?
Both are quirky comedies with a little slapstick and well-executed over-acting. Both have dark and sad moments that compel the viewer to reflect upon friendship, death, family, and morality. Both are also fast-paced with snappy, original dialogue. Perhaps the biggest difference is that Shaun of the Dead is a zombie comedy while Hot Fuzz is a buddy-cop-action-comedy-thing. I’ve never understood why anyone would prefer the former over the latter. To be clear, while I enjoyed Shaun of the Dead (watched it once), I am addicted to Hot Fuzz (watched it 20+ times, conservatively).
A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a tavern enjoying a pint of beer. I finished the glass and was eager to enjoy another when, as I approached the bar, a line of dialogue from Hot Fuzz popped into my head. “Another pint of lager, Mary.” The line probably isn’t funny if you haven’t seen the movie, but don’t worry about that.
I almost threw the line at the bartender but worried she wouldn’t know the movie, so instead, because she and I are pals, I asked if she’d seen Hot Fuzz. She had, but said she enjoyed Shaun of the Dead more. What?!!!
When it comes to aliens in science fiction, there are some standard tropes you run into. There are aliens that are essentially humans with themes. There are the bug-like aliens convenient for representing enemies because bugs are gross. (Spoiler alert: they’re usually more complicated than that after all!) And so on.
But lately I’ve been hungry for clever attempts at realistic depictions of aliens. I know “realistic” might sound silly here, since we have practically nothing to go on. But I think it’s fair to say a realistic depiction needs to reach away from our idea of what normal life is. Alien life would be something that evolved under who-knows-what conditions, so bipedal apes and giant insects are pretty much out.
Even more importantly, a good depiction of aliens should explore what social interaction between an advanced alien species and us would look like. In a sense, good ole Stephen Hawking is probably right. Any sufficiently advanced alien race would not be something we could fight off. But it’s perhaps a tad pessimistic to assume they would just kill us and take our resources, too. To me, it always seemed like the most likely scenario would be a painfully paternalistic relationship with a species that has a difficult-to-understand set of morals. They wouldn’t kill us, but might consider it perfectly right to run our lives for our own good.
I mentioned this to a friend not too long ago. His response: “Read ‘Dawn’ by Octavia Butler.”
I did. Then I read the two sequels soon after. And by the time I was done, I was awestruck that I had never before heard about this great story all about really weird aliens with well-developed personalities trying to get along with humans.
To be brief, the aliens in question are ancient, natural genetic engineers capable of both intense empathy and infuriating paternalism. The conflict somewhat resembles the paternalistic attitudes groups of people have historically had for each other, while not letting that relationship become a bald-faced symbol for imperial colonialism. The ultimate struggle is a matter of the alien species’ nature against human nature, and the story makes room for both tension and reconciliation.
I don’t want to get into too much detail, because I’d rather you find out from reading the book. But here are a few more themes if you don’t mind some spoilers: The aliens have a take on genetic meddling that, while daunting to human sensibilities, is part of the aliens’ nature; it’s what their third sex is essentially built to do, and in turn what makes their species who they are. I also loved how the story dealt with the aliens’ inability to lie: It’s not a part of any moral code so much as something they can only grasp intellectually, so their habit is to just fall completely silent when confronted with a question they don’t want to answer.
The second and third book move into entering the perspective of characters that aren’t fully human, which is admittedly a little tougher to get into, but are still worth the read.
I’m happy I’ve been exposed to Butler. It’s a shame she and her work is not better known outside of dedicated science fiction fans. I’d like to see more attempts to alien-human relationships that are willing to venture a little far from what’s familiar as a way to force us to question what we know to be right. That’s what science fiction is best at, when it’s good.
“Space is the last great frontier.” Space is indeed spectacular, but maybe not the last frontier of discovery, especially when completely new species pop up with some regularity on your own planet. Due to an inability to grow gills, humans have yet to sprawl into the ocean, so many of these new species are water-dwelling, surprisingly big, and good at hiding. A few of these new species we are newly distinguishing from their neighbors, and others we’ve just gotten to know. But these sharks and squids and jellyfish have been here all along, and are now rolling their eyes at the uninformed humans. Here are some quick introductions to our newly-identified global neighbors.
The half snake, half two-ducks-in-a-costume creature you see waddling around in the video above is a new species of walking shark, also known as carpet sharks. Named Hemiscyllium halmahera, it was discovered off the coast of the eastern Indonesian island of Ternate, the 16th member of the Hemiscyllium walking shark genus. This species is a mini version of its relations- on average 12 cm smaller than the 40 cm length of other species- and has distinctive snake-like dark bands running down its back. The nocturnal members of the genus Hemiscyllium prefer shallow, warm tidal pools, which have one major drawback as a habitat. As the pools are cut off from the ocean at high tide, any resident Hemiscyllium gradually use up the available oxygen, leaving them in a state of extreme oxygen depletion, known as hypoxia. They have evolved to survive until the tide comes in by carefully regulating blood flow, even ‘turning off’ – reducing the metabolism – of some areas of its brain. For an animal that looks like a cartoon creature come to life, that’s quite a talent.
I suspect no other relationship is more complex and fraught than that between humans and trees. I’ve been wanting for a long time to write something about it, but every time I try, I get overwhelmed. Where to begin?
For us humans, it indeed goes back to the beginning: Adam and Eve learned of their own humanity from a tree. Or if you prefer more scientific stories, our ancestors took a crucial step in speciating from other apes by descending from the trees. Since then we haven’t gone far from the tree, so to speak. We have eaten from trees, climbed trees, lived in trees, worshipped trees, studied trees, planted trees, bred trees, hugged trees, and saved trees. We have also, at various times, cut trees down for fuel, for lumber, to make paper, to make weapons, to clear farmland, to create subdivisions, because they threatened our infrastructure, because we didn’t like where they were growing, and for no reason whatsoever.
After hundreds of thousands of years of shared history, have we and trees come to understand each other better? Three stories I have come across recently suggest the answer is, it’s still complicated.
Thanks to the international press, social media, and some questionable comments from the head of a Russian pest control company, Sochi’s stray dog population made headlines over the past couple weeks. The controversy over what to do about the city’s strays has drawn criticism and activism from animal rights groups. Thankfully, some have stepped in and even set up shelters for dogs on the outskirts of the city to save some dogs from rumored culling. That’s all well and good, but as the spotlight fades, it’s important to note that this problem isn’t new, and it won’t end with the Olympic Games.
Beijing and Athens had similar problems. In the US, local animal welfare projects struggle to manage stray populations under limited resources. Moscow has a steady population of 35,000 stray dogs, and in the US, Detroit is reportedly home up to 50,000 strays roaming the city (though those numbers may be off). Stray dog populations are responsible for 99% of the world’s rabies cases. They can also spread other zoonotic diseases and attack humans.
The standard protocol for humanely handling urban stray dogs is capture, neuter, release. Almost a mantra, the tactic became the focus of urban animal control over the past two decades. Before that, the strategy was capture and kill, and still obviously is in some places around the world. Not all cities have trap-neuter release programs. That’s not to say they’re not searching for other solutions. The Hong Kong police department trains some homeless dogs for their canine unit. In Norway, the focus is also on training instead of neutering, for better or worse.
To some degree trap-neuter-release works, but there are a lot of studies out there with conflicting results. Because spay and neutering surgeries can also become impractical and expensive, those in the animal welfare field have been searching for alternatives that don’t involve surgery. Zinc neutering is a birth control option that has many animal welfare activists excited, and is already being implemented in the US and Europe. The FDA approved Zeuterin, a zinc gluconate drug, causes the testicles to atrophy, renders the dog irreversibly sterile, and reduces testosterone by 40-50%.
But, what of other alternatives, unrelated to reproduction. The whole Sochi situation reminded me of an email I got from a friend from college. She works on regional government projects in Texas, and was wondering if I had heard of any scientific solutions for keeping stray dogs out of neighborhoods and away from mail carriers (no joke, this is a legitimate issue). It’s not something I’ve ever covered, so I googled it. The only thing that seemed remotely useful was a project focused on wild African dog populations (Lycaon pictus). By mimicking scent signals in their urine, the researchers hope to keep wild packs off farmland and out of villages. But, domesticated dogs produce hormones at different levels than wild dogs, not to mention, they’re different species (domesticated dogs are a subspecies of wolves). So, applying something like that in an urban environment seems like a stretch.
A surprising amount of stray dog research has come out of another Russian city: Moscow. Known for their intelligence, Moscow’s stray dogs have their own Wikipedia page, and famously take the cities metro trains, like any other commuter. Andrei Poyarkov, a researcher at the A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution, classifies the dogs in four distinct behavioral types: guard dogs who follow and rely on security personnel for food, scavengers who roam for garbage, wild dogs who hunt cats and mice, and beggars who depend on Moscow residents and commuters for meals. The last group, according to Poyarkov, consists of dogs capable of riding the subway, and leadership in beggar dog packs is based on brains, not brawn. Poyarkov believes Moscow’s stray dogs have been evolving since the 1800s and subsequently lost key traits common in domesticated breeds. They’re not wolves, but they’re not totally the same as a pet.
If Moscow’s dogs are a natural urban evolution experiment, are packs of stray dogs in others cities also evolving, as well? It’s probably safe to say they’re experiencing some sort of evolutionary pressure, depending on their environment. Perhaps such studies aimed at understanding the animals could point to a more humane and innovative way of controlling stray populations, beyond the reproductive strategy. I honestly don’t know.
This problem isn’t new, so why don’t we have some better alternatives, or at least more innovative ideas? Stray dogs may not be the sexiest of scientific topics – it’s not black holes, it’s not climate change, and it doesn’t carry the threat to human lives that cancer and bird flu do. Research is expensive, and stray dogs don’t rank very high on the priority list — perhaps rightly so. But, Sochi seems to shed light on a global problem that requires a more creative solution.
Cats. The very mention of them has the power to generate innumerable lazy hits on a blog post. If one were to do an anthropological study of cats using only the Internet as source material, one might be lead to believe that we worship them as deities.
We wouldn’t be the first culture, either. The ancient Egyptians held them in pretty high regard. Their goddess of justice and execution, Mafdet, was a feline-headed creature who protected against snakes and scorpions. Baset, another feline goddess, represented protection, fertility, and motherhood.
Despite the high regard humans have had for cats since at least the dawn of written history, we know very little about how or when they became domesticated. We are pretty sure that the housecat is descended from the African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica), and people generally assume the process involved a mutually beneficial relationship between farmers and felines in which the cats protected the farmer’s grain from vermin, and the grain provided for a steady supply of vermin for them to eat.
But it is really hard to figure out when that would have happened, and even harder to figure out if that general picture, which makes a great deal of heuristic sense, is accurate. A recent study on this subject published by a team of archeologists got a great deal of press. They found a small Chinese farming village dated to about 5300 years ago with cat and rodent fossils (among others) discovered at the site.
The basic gist of the study was that chemical analysis of the animal bones found at the site revealed that the rodents ate grain, and that the cats ate those rodents or the grain products directly—suggesting a mutually tolerant relationship between human and cat. Other wild animals found at the site, like deer and hares, didn’t seem to eat any grain, suggesting their food web was independent of any human influence. It’s a fascinating and impressive result, and it seems to be consistent with the generally accepted theory of cat domestication.
The needle doesn’t even hurt—it just scratches meekly at my shoulder blade, like the world’s most gentle kitten sharpening its claws. I relax my grip on my friend Lauren’s hand just enough to give her back her pulse. Fifteen minutes later and it’s over. “All done,” says Kevin, my tattoo artist, and before I know it I’m climbing off the green surgical bed with a Band-aid and a distinct sense of anti-climax.
I suppose I’d expected my first tattoo to feel a bit more … momentous. Instead, it was basically like when I was 16 and got my nose pierced. That experience went something like this:
Actually, when I thought about it, the two were quite similar. Both involved needles, pain, and permanence. Both, teenage me thought, would help me express to the world how special and unique I was through my most easy-to-access canvas: my skin. Both have been practiced for thousands of years, and disapproved of for just as long. “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you,” says the Bible (Leviticus 19:28). “Whyyyy?!” says my mom.
They can’t be all that bad, I thought. So I decided to consult science on the matter: Which is worse, a piercing or a tattoo? Read the rest of this entry »
I sometimes worry that important discoveries, breakthroughs, and innovations are happening and no one is writing the stories. What might be a historic moment might be barely recorded, and will appear in high school textbooks 100 years from now looking like this:
While the dual-chronograph, high-alpha wormhole inducer remains the keystone technology making interstellar travel commonplace today, few accounts remain of its creation or whether the inventors recognized its significance at the time.
When I was a community newspaper reporter, I sometimes found story topics by bumping into them. On one telling occasion I was driving through my coverage area, probably to or from an interview — I can’t remember the scenario because it was a few years ago — and I must have made a wrong turn because I can’t remember why I was on a certain street just north of Baltimore. I then passed a burned out house. I pulled over, walked through the house, took photos inside and out, and asked neighbors about the person who lived there.
It was dusk and mildly chilly in Rome when I stepped out of Roma Termini, the city’s busy central train station, and heard relentless screeching noises from above. I looked up to see thousands of birds covering the treetops like bees on a honeycomb. A cloud of them sprang from one tree only to quickly dissolve into another. Bigger clouds of black specks curled and twisted even higher, over rooftops and looming cranes.
Starlings. Thousands of them, and just a small portion of the 1 to 5 million that overwinter in Italy’s capital.
To nature lovers, starling swarms – called “murmurations” – are fascinating and beautiful. Stunning videos of murmurations have captured the admiration of the Internet. They’re also a favorite example of swarming science, each individual bird following cues on speed and direction from its neighbors to form a massive, swirling shape in the sky.
Meet Bob. He’s in his late fifties, a quiet guy, wears rimless spectacles, and likes to read poetry. Do you think Bob is a classics professor or a truck driver?
If you answered classics professor, you’re with the vast majority of people asked this question. Quiet, spectacles, poetry reader, all of it pretty well fits the common image of a classics professor and not so much our image of a truck driver. But while there are approximately 7500, maybe at a stretch 10000 classics professors in the US, that number is blown out of the water by a couple orders of magnitude when compared with how many truck drivers there are. The American Trucking Association’s website says there are 3,500,000 truck drivers in the country, making it much, much more likely that Bob is a quiet, poetry-reading truck driver. He may not fit the NASCAR-loving truck driver stereotype, but it’s still more likely.
It’s much more likely, but that’s not the way we think. Humans look for patterns, make categories, and form stereotypes in order to make sense of the world. If our early ancestors heard a scream, they did not sit down to calculate the probability that their friend Og had trod on a surprise thorn bush versus the probability that Og had just been snack for a saber-toothed tiger. No, they used their learned pattern of scream = bad and got the hell out of there.