On dangerous air & the damnation of cyanobacteria.

On dangerous air & the damnation of cyanobacteria.

During the acute phase of the Covid-19 pandemic, I kept thinking of Margarita Engle’s poem “More Dangerous Air.” The title seemed particularly resonant, and its a beautiful poem about growing up in an atmosphere of fear.

Newsmen call it the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Teachers say it’s the end of the world.

Engle documents the way we might flail, attempting to protect ourselves & our loved ones. We know enough to be afraid; we don’t yet know enough to be safe.

Early in the pandemic, people left their groceries on the front steps for days before bringing the bags inside. A year in, we were still needlessly scrubbing surfaces with toxic chemicals.

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During the missile crisis, school children practiced fire drills, earthquake drills, tornado drills, air raid drills. (They didn’t yet need the contemporary era’s most awful: the active shooter drills.)

Hide under a desk.

Pretend that furniture is enough

to protect us against perilous flames.

Radiation. Contamination. Toxic breath.

The blasts are dangerous. But warfare with atomic weapons is different from other forms of violence. A bomb might kill you, suddenly; the poisoned air might kill you, slowly; the poisoned ground might maim generations yet unborn.

Each air-raid drill is sheer terror,

but some kids giggle.

They don’t believe that death

is real.

Radiation is invisible. Marie Curie didn’t know that it would kill her. Rosalind Franklin didn’t know that it would kill her.

We know, now. At least, some of us do.

Others – including a perilously large cadre of politicians – still think we ought to stockpile a behemoth nuclear arsenal.

Nuclear bomb: photograph by Kelly Michals on flickr.

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Viruses are invisible. And they act slowly. Breathe in an invisible virus; a week later, you might begin to cough; three weeks later, your cough might worsen; a month after that seemingly innocuous breath in which you sucked a microscopic package of genetic code into your lungs, you might be in the hospital, or worse.

Connecting an eventual death to that first dangerous breath is actually a tricky cognitive feat! The time lag confuses us. It’s much easier for human minds to draw conclusions about closely consecutive events – a vaccine followed within hours or days by fever or heart problems.

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Greenhouse gases are also invisible. If we drive past a power plant, we might see plumes rising from the towers, but we can’t see poison spilling from our cars, our refrigerators, our air conditioners, our meals. This is just good food on a plate! It doesn’t look like danger.

But we are changing the air, dramatically, in ways that might poison us all. Or – which is perhaps worse – in ways that might not affect us so much, but might make this planet inhospitable to our unborn grandchildren. Perhaps we will be fine. It’s humans born twenty years from now, or fifty years from now, who will suffer more.

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Each individual can take action. You, as an individual, could fly less, buy less, eat plants.

And yet.

You, as an individual, can only do so much.

When I hide under my frail school desk,

my heart grows as rough and brittle

as the slab of wood

that fails to protect me

from reality’s

gloom.

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We aren’t the first. Go outside and look around – the vibrant bursts of summer green are delightfully entrancing.

Our minds are plastic things – we make ourselves through the ways we live – but certain scripts were sculpted by our ancestry. Over hundreds of millions of years, the bearers of certain types of brains were more likely to be successful in life.

Creatures like us – who need air to breath, water to drink, shelter from sun and cold – often feel an innate love for the way summer light plays over a heady mix of blue and green.

We need all that green. The plants, the trees, the algae: for humans to survive the climate crisis we’ve been making, we’re depending on them. We need them to eat carbon dioxide from the air, and drink in hydrogen atoms from water, and toss back oxygen for us to breathe.

We’ve been poisoning the air, and they might save us.

Which is ironic, in a way. Because all that green – they wrought our planet’s first global devastation.

Saving us all this time would be like a form of penance.

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Early in our planet’s history, there was very little oxygen in the air. Which was a good thing for the organisms living then! Oxygen is a very dangerous molecule. When we fall apart with age, it’s largely because “oxidative damage” accumulates in our cells. When grocery stores market a new type of berry as a “superfood,” they often extol its abundance of “antioxidants,” small molecules that might protect us from the ravages of oxygen.

The first living organisms were anaerobic: they did not need, and could not tolerate, oxygen. They obtained energy from sulfur vents or various other chemicals.

But then a particular type of bacteria – cyanobacteria – evolved a way to eat air, pulling energy from sunlight. This was the precursor to modern photosynthesis. Cyanobacteria began to fill the air with (poisonous!) oxygen as waste.

Many years passed safely, though. There was abundant iron then, on land and in the seas – iron drew down oxygen to rust.

Approximately two billion years passed without incident. All that iron buffered our planet’s atmosphere! It must have seemed as though the cyanobacteria could excrete a nearly infinite amount!

But then they reached a tipping point. The iron had all become iron oxides. The concentration of oxygen in the air rose dramatically. This hyper-reactive poison killed almost everything alive.

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Perhaps cyanobacteria were punished for what they’d done. By filling the world with oxygen, they enabled the evolution of organisms with higher metabolisms. Creatures who lived faster, shorter lives, turbocharged by all that dangerous air. And these creatures – our forebears – nearly grazed their enablers out of existence.

Cyanobacteria were once masters of the universe. Then they were food.

And they were imprisoned within the cells of plants. Look up at a tree – each green leaf is a holding cell, brimming with cyanobacteria who are no longer free to live on their own. Grasses, ferns, flowers – every photosynthetic cell home to perhaps dozens of chloroplasts, the descendants of those who caused our planet’s first mass extinction.

A few outlaws linger in the ocean. Some cyanobactera still pumping oxygen into the air, the lethal poison that’s gulped so greedily by human lungs. Their lethal poison now enables our growth, our flourishing, our reckless abasement of the world.

And we are poisoning the air in turn, albeit in a very different way. In our quest to use many years’ stored sunlight each year, we dig up & burn the subterranean remnants of long-dead plants. The prison cells in which cyanobacteria once lived and died, entombed for millions of years within the earth, now the fuel for our own self-imposed damnation. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the air is slowly rising. Our atmosphere is buffered; for a while, our world will seem unchanged. Until, suddenly, it doesn’t.

Some species, surely, will survive. Will thrive in the hotter, swingier, stormier world we’re making.

It likely won’t be us.

On magic.

On magic.

There’s broad scientific consensus that school closures hurt children, probably making a significant contribution to future increases in premature death.

There’s also broad scientific consensus that school closures – particularly elementary school closures – aren’t helpful in slowing the spread of Covid-19. Children aren’t major vectors for this virus. Adults just have to remember not to congregate in the teachers’ lounge.

Worldwide, a vanishingly small percentage of viral transmissions have occurred inside schools.

And … our district just closed in-person school for all children.

In-person indoor dining at restaurants is still allowed. Bars are still open.

Older people are sending a clear message to kids: “Your lives matter less than ours.”

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For at-risk children, school closures are devastating. A disruption in social-emotional learning; lifelong education gaps; skipped meals.

But for my (privileged!) family, the closure will be pretty nice. I was recently feeling nostalgic about the weeks in August when my eldest and I spent each morning together.

Our youngest attends pre-K at a private school. Her school, like most private schools around the country, (sensibly) re-opened on time and is following its regular academic calendar.

My eldest and I will do two weeks of home schooling before winter break. And it’ll be fun. I like spending time with my kids, and my eldest loves school so much that she often uses up most of her energy during the day – teachers tell us what a calm, lovely, hard-working kid she is. And then she comes home and yells, all her resilience dissipated.

Which is normal! Totally normal. But it’s a little crummy, as a parent, to know you’ve got a great kid but that you don’t get to see her at her best.

Right now she’s sad about not going to school – on Monday, she came home crying, “There was an announcement that we all have to switch to online only!” – but I’m lucky that I can be here with her. Writing stories together, doing math puzzles, cooking lunch.

Maybe we’ll practice magic tricks. She loves magic.

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Last month, I was getting ready to drive the kids to school. T. (4 years old) and I were in the bathroom. I’d just handed T. her toothbrush.

N. (6 years old) walked over holding a gallon-sized plastic bag.

“Father, do you want to see a magic trick?” she asked.

“Okay, but I have to brush my teeth while you’re doing it.”

“Okay,” she said, and opened the bag. She took out a multi-colored lump of clay. It was vaguely spherical. Globs of red, white, and blue poked up from random patches across the surface, as though three colors of clay had been haphazardly moshed together.

“So you think this is just this,” she said, but then …”

She took out a little wooden knife and began sawing at the lump. “This is just this?”, I wondered. It’s an interesting phrase.

Her sawing had little effect. The knife appeared useless. I’m pretty sure this wooden knife is part of the play food set she received as a hand-me-down when she was 9 months old. “Safe for babies” is generally correlated with “Useless for cutting.”

She was having trouble breaking the surface of her lump.

I spat out my toothpaste.

She kept sawing. She set down the knife and stared at the clay intently. A worthy adversary.

I stood there, watching.

She grabbed the knife again and resumed sawing. More vigorously, this time. She started stabbing, whacking. This was enough to make a tiny furrow. She tossed aside the knife and pulled with her fingertips, managing to pry two lobes of the strange lump away from each other.

“Okay,” she said, “it’s hard to see, but there’s some green in there.”

T. and I crouched down and peered closely. Indeed, there was a small bit of round green clay at the center of the lump.

“Wow!” exclaimed T. “I thought it was just a red, and, uh, blue, and white ball! But then, on the inside, there’s some green!”

“I know!” said N., happy that at least one member of her audience understood the significance of her trick. “And look, I might even get it back together!”

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N. started performing magic when she was four. T. was asleep for her afternoon nap.

“Okay,” she said, “you sit there, and I’ll put on a magic show. Watch, I’ll make, um … this cup! See this cup? I’ll make it disappear.”

“Okay,” I said, curious. We’d just read a book that explained how to make a penny disappear from a glass cup – the trick is to start with the cup sitting on top of the penny, so that the coin looks like it’s inside the cup but actually isn’t.

I had no idea how she planned to make the cup itself disappear.

“Okay, so, um, now you’re ready, and …” she looked at the cup in her hands. Suddenly, she whisked it behind her back. And stood there, looking at me somberly, with her hands behind her back.

“I don’t have it,” she said.

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Magic – convincing an audience to believe in an illusion.

This is just this.

I don’t have the cup – it’s gone.

Much of our Covid-19 response has been magic-based. We repeat illusory beliefs – schools are dangerous, reinfections are rare, death at any age is a tragedy – and maybe our audience is swayed.

But that doesn’t change the underlying reality.

The cup still exists – it was behind her back.

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Everyone will die. Mortality is inescapable.

Our species is blessed with prodigious longevity, probably because so many grandmothers among our ancestors worked hard to help their grandchildren survive.

(The long lives of men are probably an accidental evolutionary byproduct, like male nipples or female orgasms. Elderly men, with their propensity to commandeer resources and start conflicts, probably reduced the fitness of their families and tribes.)

After we reach our seventies, though – when our ancestors’ grandchildren had probably passed their most risky developmental years – our bodies fail. We undergo immunosenescence – our immune systems become worse at suppressing cancer and infections.

We will die. Expensive interventions can stave off death for longer – we can now vaccinate 90-year-olds against Covid-19 – but we will still die.

Dying at the end of a long, full life shouldn’t feel sad, though. Everybody dies. Stories end. That’s the natural arc of the world.

What’s sad is when people die young.

Children will face the risk of dying younger due to unnecessary school closures.

Children will face the risk of dying younger due to unmitigated climate change.

Children will face the risk of dying younger due to antibiotic resistant bacteria.

These are urgent threats facing our world. And we’re not addressing them.

The cup is still there.

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For my daughter, of course, I played along. I smiled, and laughed. She stood there beaming, holding the cup behind her back.

“Magic!” I said.

N. nodded proudly, then asked, “Do you want me to bring it back?”

It’ll take the same measure of magic to bring back schools.

On childcare.

On childcare.

After my eldest was born, I spent the first autumn as her sole daytime caretaker. She spent a lot of time strapped to my chest, either sleeping or wiggling her head about to look at things I gestured to as I chittered at her.

We walked around our home town, visiting museums and the library. I stacked a chair on top of my desk to make a standing workspace and sometimes swayed from side to side while I typed. At times, she reached up and wrapped her little hands around my neck; I gently tucked them back down at my sternum so that I could breath.

She seemed happy, but it felt unsustainable for me. Actually getting my work done while parenting was nigh impossible.

And so our family bought a membership at the YMCA. They offer two hour blocks of child care for children between six weeks and six years old.

The people who work in our YMCA’s child care space are wonderful. Most seem to be “overqualified” for the work, which is a strange thing to write. Childhood development has huge ramifications for both the child’s and their family’s whole lifetime, and child psychology is an incredibly rich, complex subject. Helping to raise children is important, fulfilling work. No one is overqualified to do it.

Yet we often judge value based on salary. Childcare, because it was traditionally seen by European society as “women’s work,” is poorly remunerated. The wages are low, there’s little prestige – many people working in childcare have been excluded from other occupations because of a lack of degrees, language barriers, or immigration status.

I like to think that I appreciate the value of caretaking – I’m voting with my feet – but even I insufficiently valued the work being done at our YMCA’s childcare space.

Each time I dropped my children off – at which point I’d sit and type at one of the small tables in the snack room, which were invariably sticky with spilled juice or the like – I viewed it as a trade-off. I thought that I was being a worse parent for those two hours, but by giving myself time to do my work, I could be a fuller human, and maybe would compensate for those lapsed hours by doing better parenting later in the day.

I mistakenly thought that time away from their primary parent would be detrimental for my children.

Recently, I’ve been reading Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s marvelous Mothers and Others, about the evolutionary roots of human childhood development, and learned my mistake.

Time spent in our YMCA’s childcare space was, in and of itself, almost surely beneficial for my children. My kids formed strong attachments to the workers there; each time my children visited, they were showered with love. And, most importantly, they were showered with love by someone who wasn’t me.

Hrdy explains:

A team headed by the Israeli psychologist Abraham Sagi and his Dutch collaborator Marinus van IJzendoorn undertook an ambitious series of studies in Israel and the Netherlands to compare children cared for primarily by mothers with those cared for by both mothers and other adults.

Overall, children seemed to do best when they have three secure relationships – that is, three relationships that send the clear message “You will be cared for no matter what.”

Such findings led van IJzendoorn and Sagi to conclude that “the most powerful predictor of later socioemotional development involves the quality of the entire attachment network.”

In the United States, we celebrate self-sufficient nuclear families, but these are a strange development for our species. In the past, most humans lived in groups of close family and friends; children would be cared for by several trusted people in addition to their parents.

Kids couldn’t be tucked away in a suburban house with their mother all day. They’d spend some time with her; they’d spend time with their father; they’d spend time with their grandparents; they’d spend time with aunties and uncles, and with friends whom they called auntie or uncle. Each week, children would be cared for by many different people.

The world was a harsh place for our ancestors to live in. There was always a risk of death – by starvation, injury, or disease. Everyone in the group had an incentive to help each child learn, because everyone would someday depend upon that child’s contributions.

And here I was – beneficiary of some million years of human evolution – thinking that I’d done so well by unlearning the American propaganda that caretaking is unimportant work.

And yet, I still mistakenly believed that my kids needed it to be done by me.

Being showered with love by parents is important. Love from primary caretakers is essential for a child to feel secure with their place in the world. But love from others is crucial, too.

I am so grateful that our YMCA provided that for my kids.

And, now that they’re old enough, my kids receive that love from school. Each day when they go in, they’re with teachers who let them know: You will be cared for no matter what.

On apocalypse clocks.

On apocalypse clocks.

The world is complicated. There’s so much information out there, so much to know. And our brains are not made well for knowing much of it.

I can understand numbers like a dozen, a hundred. I can make a guess at the meaning of a thousand. Show me a big gumball machine and ask me to guess how many gumballs are in it, maybe I’ll guess a thousand, a few thousand.

But numbers like a million? A billion? A trillion? These numbers are important, I know. These numbers might be the population of cities, or of planets, or of solar systems. These numbers might be the ages of species or planets. These numbers might be how many stars are in the sky, or how many stars in the sky might harbor life.

These numbers don’t mean much to me.

I don’t think the problem is just my brain. I’m fairly good with numbers, relative to the average human. It’s been years since I’ve sat in a math class, but I can still do basic integrals and derivatives in my head.

Yet I can’t understand those big numbers. They don’t feel like anything to me.

So we make graphs. Charts. We try to represent information in ways that our meager human brains can grasp.

A good chart can be a revelation. Something that seemed senseless before is now made clear.

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An apocalypse is a revelation. The word “apocalypse” means lifting the veil – apo, off; kalyptein, conceal. To whisk away the cover and experience a sudden insight.

An illustration that depicts information well allows numbers to be felt.

Often, though, we illustrate information and we do it poorly.

The scientific method is gorgeous. Through guesswork, repetition, and analysis, we can learn about our world.

But science is never neutral. We impart our values by the questions we choose to ask, by the ways we choose to interpret the world’s ever-oblique answers.

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Geological time is often depicted as a clock. A huge quantity of time, compressed down into a 24-hour day. Often, this is done with the ostensible goal of showing the relative unimportance of humans.

Our planet has been here for a day, and humans appear only during the final two minutes!

Unfortunately, this way of depicting time actually overemphasizes the present. Why, after all, should the present moment in time seem so special that it resides at midnight on our clock?

The present feels special to us because we’re living in it. From a geological perspective, it’s just another moment.

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In Timefulness, geologist Marcia Bjornerud writes:

Geologic textbooks invariably point out (almost gleefully) that if the 4.5-billion-year story of the Earth is scaled to a 24-hour day, all of human history would transpire in the last fraction of a second before midnight.

But this is a wrongheaded, and even irresponsible, way to understand our place in Time. For one thing, it suggests a degree of insignificance and disempowerment that not only is psychologically alienating but also allows us to ignore the magnitude of our effects on the planet in that quarter second.

And it denies our deep roots and permanent entanglement with Earth’s history; our specific clan may not have shown up until just before the clock struck 12:00, but our extended family of living organisms has been around since at least 6 a.m.

Finally, the analogy implies, apocalyptically, that there is no future – what happens after midnight?

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Timefulness is a lovely book, but Bjornerud does not present a corrected clock.

And so I lay in bed, thinking. How could these numbers be shown in a way that helped me to understand our moment in time?

I wanted to fix the clock.

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The first midnight is easy – the birth of our sun. A swirling cloud of gas condenses, heating as gravity tugs the molecules into more and more collisions. Nuclear fusion begins.

Gravity tugs molecules inward, nuclear explosions push them outward. When these are balanced, our sun exists. Twelve o’clock.

Two minutes later, our planet is born. Metal and water and dust become a big rock that keeps swirling, turning, as it orbits the sun. It’s warmed, weakly, by light from the sun – our star shone dimly then, but shines brighter and brighter every day.

Our sun earns low interest – 0.9% each hundred million years, hotter, brighter. But wait long enough, and a low interest is enough.

Someday, shortly before it runs out of fuel, our sun will be blinding.

By 12:18 a.m., there is life on Earth. We’ve found fossils that many billions of years old.

And at 7:26 p.m., there will be no more life. Our sun will have become so bright that its blinding light evaporates all the oceans. The water will boil so hot that it will be flung into space. The Earth will be a rocky desert, coated perhaps in thick clouds of noxious gas.

Currently, it’s 10:58 a.m.

The dinosaurs appeared 35 minutes ago. 9.5 minutes ago, all of them died (except the ancestors of our birds).

Humans appeared 1 minute ago.

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So, we have 3.5 billion years remaining – another 8.5 hours on our clock – before we have to migrate to the stars.

Humans certainly can’t persist forever. Empty space is stretching. Eventually, the whole universe will be dark and cold, which each speck of matter impossibly far from every other.

But our kind could endure for a good, long while. Scaled to the 24-hour day representing the lifespan of our sun, we still have another 300 years before the universe goes dark.

So many stories could fit into that span of time.

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It’s 10:58 a.m., and life on Earth has until 7:26 p.m.

Humans crept down from trees, harnessed fire, invented writing, and built rockets all within a single minute. Life moves fast.

Quite likely, life from Earth will reach the stars.

But it needn’t be us.

The dinosaurs were cool. They didn’t make it.

We naked apes are pretty cool, too. I love our cave drawings, art museums, psychedelic street art. Our libraries. But we’ve also made prodigious mounds of trash. We’re pouring plumes of exhaust into the sky as we ship giant flatscreen televisions from place to place.

We burn a lot of fuel for the servers that host our websites.

We humans aren’t the first organisms to risk our own demise by pumping exhaust into the atmosphere. The industrial revolution was fueled by ancient plants – our engines burn old sunlight. But many microbes are happy to eat old sunlight, too. These microbes also pump carbon dioxide into the air. They’ve warmed our planet many times before – each time the permafrost thawed, microbes went to town, eating ancient carbon that had been locked up in the ice.

Foolish microbes. They made the Earth too hot and cooked themselves.

Then again, the microbes may have more modest goals than us humans. We’ve found no fossils suggesting that the microbes tried to build spaceships.

For our endeavors, we’ve benefited from a few thousand years of extremely stable, mild climate.

We still have 8.5 hours left to build some spaceships, but a thirty second hot squall at 10:59 a.m. would doom the entire project.

So much time stretches out in front of us. We could have a great day. We, in continuation of the minute of humans who preceded us, and continued by the seconds or minutes or hours of humans who will be born next.

We shouldn’t let our myopic focus on present growth fuck up the entire day.

Honestly? My children are four and six. I’d be so disappointed if I took them for a hike and they guzzled all their water, devoured all their snacks, within the first minute after we left our house.

On octopuses and family gatherings.

On octopuses and family gatherings.

Recently, a dear friend sent me an article from Scientific American about the blanket octopus.

She and I had been discussing unusual animal mating, because that’s what you do, right? Global pandemic hits and you share freaky trivia with your friends.

Miniscule male anglerfish will merge with the body of a female if they find her, feeding off her blood. Deadbeat male clinginess at its worst.

Blanket octopuses also have extreme sexual dimorphism – a female’s tentacles can span seven feet wide, whereas the males are smaller than an inch.

But, wait, there’s more! In a 1963 article for Science magazine, marine biologist Everet Jones speculated that blanket octopuses might use jellyfish stingers as weapons.

While on a research cruise, Jones installed a night-light station to investigate the local fish.

Among the frequent visitors to the submerged light were a number of immature female blanket octopuses. I dip-netted one of these from the water and lifted it by hand out of the net. I experienced sudden and severe pain and involuntarily threw the octopus back into the water.

To determine the mechanism responsible for this sensation, 10 or 12 small octopuses were captured and I purposely placed each one on the tender areas of my hands. The severe pain occurred each time, but careful observation indicated that I was not being bitten.

The pain and resulting inflammation, which lasted several days, resembled the stings of the Portuguese man-of-war jellyfish, which was quite abundant in the area.

tl;dr – “It really hurt! So I did it again.”

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My spouse teaches high school biology. An important part of her class is addressing misconceptions about what science is.

Every so often, newspapers will send a reporter to interview my father about his research. Each time, they ask him to put on a lab coat and pipette something:

I mean, look at that – clearly, SCIENCE is happening here.

But it’s important to realize that this isn’t always what science looks like. Most of the time, academic researchers aren’t wearing lab coats. And most of the time, science isn’t done in a laboratory.

Careful observation of the natural world. Repeated tests to discover, if I do this, what will happen next? There are important parts of science, and these were practiced by our ancestors for thousands of years, long before anyone had laboratories. Indigenous people around the world have known so much about their local varieties of medicinal plants, and that’s knowledge that can only be acquired through scientific practice.

A nine month old who keeps pushing blocks off the edge of the high chair tray to see, will this block fall down, too? That’s science!

And this octopus article, published in the world’s most prestigious research journal? The experiment was to scoop up octopuses by hand and see how much it hurt.

It hurt a lot.

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The article that I linked to earlier, the Scientific American blog post that my friend had sent me, includes a video clip at the bottom. Here’s a direct link to the video:

I should warn, you, though. The first section of the video shows a blanket octopus streaming gracefully through the ocean. She’s beautiful. But then the clip continues with footage of a huge school of fish.

Obviously, I was hoping that they’d show the octopus lurch forward, wielding those jellyfish stingers like electrified nun-chucks to incapacitate the fish. I mean, yes, I’m vegan. I don’t want the fish to die. But an octopus has to eat. And, if the octopus is going to practice wicked cool tool-using martial arts, then I obviously want to see it.

But I can’t. Our oceans are big, and deep, and dark. We’re still making new discoveries when we send cameras down there. So far, nobody has ever filmed a blanket octopus catching fish this way.

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Every time I learn something new about octopuses, I think about family reunions.

About twenty years ago, I attended a family reunion in upstate New York. My grandparents were celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Many people were there whom I’d never met before, and whom I haven’t seen since. But most of us shared ancestors, often four or five or even six generations back.

And we all shared ancestors at some point, even the people who’d married in. From the beginning of life on Earth until 150,000 years ago, you could draw a single lineage – _____ begat ______ who begat ______ – that leads up to every single human alive today. We have an ancestor in common who lived 150,000 years ago, and so every lineage that leads to her will be shared by us all.

There’s also an ancestor that all humans alive today share with all octopuses alive today. So we could host a family reunion for all of her descendants – we humans would be invited, and blanket octopuses would be, too.

I would love to meet a blanket octopus. They’re brilliant creatures. If we could find a way to communicate, I’m sure there’d be lots to talk about.

But there’s a problem. You see, not everyone invited to this family reunion would be a scintillating conversationalist.

That ancestor we share? Here’s a drawing of her from Jian Han et al.’s Nature article.

She was about the size of a grain of rice.

And, yes, some of her descendants are brilliant. Octopuses. Dolphins. Crows. Chimpanzees. Us.

But this family reunion would also include a bunch of worms, moles, snails, and bugs. A lot of bugs. Almost every animals would’ve been invited, excluding only jellyfish and sponges. Many of the guests would want to lay eggs in the potato salad.

So, sure, it’d be cool to get to meet up with the octopuses, our long-lost undersea cousins. But we might end up seated next to an earthworm instead.

I’m sure that worms are very nice. Charles Darwin was fascinated by the intelligence of earthworms. Still, it’s hard to have a conversation with somebody when you don’t have a lot of common interests.

On empathy and the color red.

On empathy and the color red.

I can’t fly.

I try to feed my children every night, but I never vomit blood into their mouths.

When I try to hang upside down – like from monkey bars at a playground – I have to clench my muscles, and pretty soon I get dizzy. I couldn’t spend a whole day like that.

And, yes, sometimes I shout. Too often during the pandemic, I’ve shouted at my kids. But when I shout, I’m trying to make them stop hitting each other – I’m not trying to figure out where they are.

It’s pretty clear that I’m not a bat.

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Photograph by Anne Brooke, USFWS

Because I haven’t had these experiences, philosopher Thomas Nagel would argue that I can’t know how it feels to be a bat.

In so far as I can imagine [flitting through the dark, catching moths in my mouth], it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves.

But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat.

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Perhaps I can’t know what it feels like for a bat to be a bat. And yet, I can empathize with a bat. I can imagine how it might feel to be trapped in a small room while a gamboling, wiry-limbed orc-thing tried to swat me with a broom.

It would be terrifying!

And that act of imagination – of empathy – is enough for me to want to protect bats’ habitats. To make space for them in our world. Sure, you could argue that bats are helpful for us – they’re pollinators, they eat pesky bugs – but empathy lets us care about the well-being of bats for their own sake.

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Literature exercises our minds: when we read, invent, and share stories, we build our capacity for empathy, becoming more generally aware of the world outside our own skulls.

Writing can be a radical act of love. Especially when we write from a perspective that differs from our own. The poet Ai said that “Whoever wants to speak in my poems is allowed to speak, regardless of sex, race, creed, or color.” Her poems often unfurl from the perspective of violent men, and yet she treats her protagonists with respect and kindness. Ai gives them more than they deserve: “I don’t know if I embrace them, but I love them.

Ai

That capacity for love, for empathy, will let us save the world. Although many of us haven’t personally experienced a lifetime of racist microaggressions or conflict with systemic oppression, we all need to understand how rotten it would feel. We need to understand that the pervasive stress seeps into a person’s bones, causing all manner of health problems. We need understand the urgency of building a world where all children feel safe.

And if we don’t understand – yet – maybe we need to read more.

Experiments suggest that reading any engaging literary fiction boosts our ability to empathize with others. Practice makes better: get outside your head for a while, it’ll be easier to do it again next time.

Of course, we’ll still need to make an effort to learn what others are going through. Thomas Nagel was able to ruminate so extensively about what it would feel like to live as a bat because we’ve learned about echolocation, about their feeding habits, about their family lives. If we want to be effective anti-racists, we need to learn about Black experiences in addition to developing our empathy more generally.

Luckily, there’s great literature with protagonists facing these struggles – maybe you could try How We Fight for Our Lives, Americanah, or The Sellout.

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As a bookish White person, it’s easy for me to empathize with the experiences of other bookish White people. In Search of Lost Time doesn’t tax my brain. Nor does White Noise. The characters in these books are a lot like me.

The cognitive distance between me and the protagonists of Americanah is bigger. Which is sad in and of itself – as high schoolers, these characters were playful, bookish, and trusting, no different from my friends or me. But then they were forced to endure hard times that I was sufficiently privileged to avoid. And so when I read about their lives, perched as I was atop my mountain of privilege, it was painful to watch Ifemelu and Obinze develop their self-protective emotional carapaces, armoring themselves against the injustice that ceaselessly buffets them.

Another reader might nod and think, I’ve been there. I had to exercise my imagination.

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In Being a Beast, Charles Foster describes his attempts to understand the lives of other animals. He spent time mimicking their behaviors – crawling naked across the dirt, eating worms, sleeping in an earthen burrow. He wanted a badger’s-eye view of the world.

Foster concluded that his project was a failure – other animals’ lives are just so different from ours.

And yet, as a direct consequence of his attempt at understanding, Foster changed his life. He began treating other animals with more kindness and respect. To me, this makes his project a success.

White people might never understand exactly how it feels to be Black in America. I’m sure I don’t. But we can all change the way we live. We can, for instance, resolve to spend more money on Black communities, and spend it on more services than just policing.

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Empathy is working when it forces us to act. After all, what we do matters more than what we purport to think.

It’s interesting to speculate what it would feel like to share another’s thoughts – in Robert Jackson Bennett’s Shorefall, the protagonists find a way to temporarily join minds. This overwhelming rush of empathy and love transforms them: “Every human being should feel obliged to try this once.

In the real world, we might never know exactly how the world feels to someone else. But Nagel wants to prove, with words, that he has understood another’s experience.

One might try, for example, to develop concepts that could be used to explain to a person blind from birth what it was like to see. One would reach a blank wall eventually, but it should be possible to devise a method of expressing in objective terms much more than we can at present, and with much greater precision.

The loose intermodal analogies – for example, “Red is like the sound of a trumpet” – which crop up in discussions of this subject are of little use. That should be clear to anyone who has both heard a trumpet and seen red.

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We associate red with many of our strongest emotions: anger, violence, love.

And we could tell many different “just so” stories to explain why we have these associations.

Like:

Red is an angry color because people’s faces flush red when they’re mad. Red blood flows when we’re hurt, or when we hurt another.

Or:

Red represents love because a red glow spreads over our partners’ necks and chests and earlobes as we kiss and caress and fumble together.

Or:

Red is mysterious because a red hue fills the sky at dawn and dusk, the liminal hours when we are closest to the spirit world.

These are all emergent associations – they’re unrelated to the original evolutionary incentive that let us see red. Each contributes to how we see red now, but none explains the underlying why.

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We humans are blue-green-red trichromatic – we can distinguish thousands of colors, but our brains do this by comparing the relative intensities of just three.

And we use the phrase “color blind” to describe the people and other animals who can’t distinguish red from green. But all humans are color blind – there are colors we can’t see. To us, a warm body looks identical to a cold wax replica. But their colors are different, as any bullfrog could tell you.

Photograph by Tim Mosenfelder, Getty Images

Our eyes lack the receptors – cone cells with a particular fold of opsin – that could distinguish infrared light from other wavelengths. We mistakenly assume these two singers have the same color skin.

When we look at flowers, we often fail to see the beautiful patterns that decorate their petals. These decorations are obvious to any bee, but we’re oblivious. Again, we’re missing the type of cone cells that would let us see. To fully appreciate flowers, we’d need receptors that distinguish ultraviolet light from blue.

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Most humans can see the color red because we’re descended from fruit eaters. To our bellies, a red berry is very different from a green berry. And so, over many generations, our ancestors who could see the difference were able to gather more nutritious berries than their neighbors. Because they had genes that let them see red, they were better able to survive, have children, and keep their children fed.

The genes for seeing red spread.

Now, several hundred thousand years later, this wavelength of light blares at us like a trumpet. Even though the our ancestors learned to cook food with fire, and switched from fruit gathering to hunting, and then built big grocery stores where the bright flashes of color are just advertisements for a new type of high-fructose-corn-syrup-flavored cereal, red still blares at us.

Once upon a time, we really needed to see ripe fruit. The color red became striking to us, wherever we saw it. And so we invented new associations – rage, or love – even though these are totally unrelated to the evolutionary pressures that gave us our red vision.

Similarly, empathy wasn’t “supposed” to let us build a better world. Evolution doesn’t care about fairness.

And yet. Even though I might never know exactly how it feels when you see the color red, I can still care how you’re treated. Maybe that’s enough.

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Header image: a greater short-nosed fruit bat, photograph by Anton 17.

On meditation and the birth of the universe.

On meditation and the birth of the universe.

This is part of a series of essays prepared to discuss in jail.

Our bodies are chaos engines. 

In our nearby environment, we produce order.  We form new memories.  We build things.  We might have sex and create new life.  From chaos, structure.

As we create local order, though, we radiate disorder into the universe. 

The laws of physics work equally well whether time is moving forward or backward.  The only reason we experience time as flowing forward is that the universe is progressing from order into chaos.

In the beginning, everything was homogeneous.  The same stuff was present everywhere.  Now, some regions of the universe are different from others.  One location contains our star; another location, our planet.  Each of our bodies is very different from the space around us.

This current arrangement is more disorderly than the early universe, but less so than what our universe will one day become.  Life is only possible during this intermediate time, when we are able to eat structure and excrete chaos. 

Hubble peers into a stellar nursery. Image courtesy of NASA Marshall Space Flight on Flickr.

Sunlight shines on our planet – a steady stream of high-energy photons all pointed in the same direction.  Sunshine is orderly.  But then plants eat sunshine and carbon dioxide to grow.  Animals eat the plants.  As we live, we radiate heat – low-energy photons that spill from our bodies in all directions.

The planet Earth, with all its life, acts like one big chaos engine.  We absorb photons from the sun, lower their energy, increase their number, and scatter them.

We’ll continue until we can’t.

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Our universe is mostly filled with empty space. 

But empty space does not stay empty.  Einstein’s famous equation, E equals M C squared, describes the chance that stuff will suddenly pop into existence.  This happens whenever a region of space gathers too much energy.

Empty space typically has a “vacuum energy” of one billionth of a joule per cubic meter.  An empty void the size of our planet would have about as much energy as a teaspoon of sugar.  Which doesn’t seem like much.  But even a billionth of a joule is thousands of times higher than the energy needed to summon electrons into being.

And there are times when a particular patch of vacuum has even more energy than that.

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According to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, time and energy can’t be defined simultaneously.  Precision in time causes energy to spread – the energy becomes both lower and higher than you expected.

In practice, the vacuum energy of a particular region of space will seem to waver.  Energy is blurry, shimmering over time.

There are moments when even the smallest spaces have more than enough energy to create new particles.

Objects usually appear in pairs: a particle and its anti-particle.  Anti-matter is exactly like regular matter except that each particle has an opposite charge.  In our world, protons are positive and electrons are negative, but an anti-proton is negative and an anti-electron is positive.

If a particle and its anti-particle find each other, they explode.

When pairs of particles appear, they suck up energy.  Vacuum energy is stored inside them.  Then the particles waffle through space until they find and destroy each other.  Energy is returned to the void.

This constant exchange is like the universe breathing.  Inhale: the universe dims, a particle and anti-particle appear.  Exhale: they explode.

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Our universe is expanding.  Not only are stars and galaxies flying away from each other in space, but also empty space itself is growing.  The larger a patch of nothingness, the faster it will grow.  In a stroke of blandness, astronomers named the force powering this growth “dark energy.”

Long ago, our universe grew even faster than it does today.  Within each small fraction of a second, our universe doubled in size.  Tiny regions of space careened apart billions of times faster than the speed of light.

This sudden growth was extremely improbable.  For this process to begin, the energy of a small space had to be very, very large.  But the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle claims that – if we wait long enough – energy can take on any possible value.  Before the big bang, our universe had a nearly infinite time to wait.

After that blip, our universe expanded so quickly because the vacuum of space was perched temporarily in a high-energy “metastable” state.  Technically balanced, but warily.  Like a pencil standing on its tip.  Left alone, it might stay there forever, but the smallest breath of air would cause this pencil to teeter and fall.

Similarly, a tiny nudge caused our universe to tumble back to its expected energy.  A truly stable vacuum.  The world we know today was born – still growing, but slowly.

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During the time of rapid expansion, empty vacuum had so much energy that particles stampeded into existence.  The world churned with particles, all so hot that they zipped through space at nearly the speed of light. 

For some inexplicable reason, for every billion pairs of matter and anti-matter, one extra particle of matter appeared.  When matter and anti-matter began to find each other and explode, this billionth extra bit remained.

This small surplus formed all of stars in the sky.  The planets.  Ourselves.

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Meditation is like blinking.  You close your eyes, time passes, then you open your eyes again.  Meditation is like a blink where more time passes.

But more is different.

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Our early universe was filled with the smallest possible particles.  Quarks, electrons, and photons.  Because their energy was so high, they moved too fast to join together.  Their brilliant glow filled the sky, obscuring our view of anything that had happened before.

As our universe expanded, it cooled.  Particles slowed down.  Three quarks and an electron can join to form an atom of hydrogen.  Two hydrogen atoms can join to form hydrogen gas.  And as you combine more and more particles together, your creations can be very different from a hot glowing gas.  You can form molecules, cells, animals, societies.

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When a cloud of gas is big enough, its own gravity can pull everything inward.  The cloud becomes more and more dense until nuclear fusion begins, releasing energy just like a nuclear bomb.  These explosions keep the cloud from shrinking further.

The cloud has become a star.

Nuclear fusion occurs because atoms in the center of the cloud are squooshed too close together.  They merge: a few small atoms become one big atom.  If you compared their weights – four hydrogens at the start, one helium at the finish – you’d find that a tiny speck of matter had disappeared.  And so, according to E equals M C squared, it released a blinding burst of energy.

The largest hydrogen bomb detonated on Earth was 50 megatons – the Kuz’kina Mat tested in Russia in October, 1961.  It produced a mushroom cloud ten times the height of Mount Everest.  This test explosion destroyed houses hundreds of miles away.

The fireball of Tsar Bomba, the Kuz’kina Mat.

Every second, our sun produces twenty billion times more energy than this largest Earth-side blast.

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Eventually, our sun will run out of fuel.  Our sun shines because it turns hydrogen into helium, but it is too light to compress helium into any heavier atoms.  Our sun has burned for about four billion years, and it will probably survive for another five billion more.  Then the steady inferno of nuclear explosions will end.

When a star exhausts its fuel, gravity finally overcomes the resistance of the internal explosions.  The star shrinks.  It might crumple into nothingness, becoming a black hole.  Or it might go supernova – recoiling like a compressed spring that slips from your hand – and scatter its heavy atoms across the universe.

Planets are formed from the stray viscera of early stars.

Supernova remains. Image by NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton.

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Our universe began with only hydrogen gas.  Every type of heavier atom – carbon, oxygen, iron, plutonium – was made by nuclear explosions inside the early stars.

When a condensing cloud contains both hydrogen gas and particulates of heavy atoms, the heavy atoms create clumps that sweep through the cloud far from its center.  Satellites, orbiting the star.  Planets.

Nothing more complicated than atoms can form inside stars.  It’s too hot – the belly of our sun is over twenty million degrees.  Molecules would be instantly torn apart.  But planets – even broiling, meteor-bombarded planets – are peaceful places compared to stars.

Molecules are long chains of atoms.  Like atoms, molecules are made from combinations of quarks and electrons.  The material is the same – but there’s more of it.

More is different.

Some atoms have an effect on our bodies.  If you inhale high concentrations of oxygen – an atom with eight protons – you’ll feel euphoric and dizzy.  If you drink water laced with lithium – an atom with three protons – your brain might become more stable.

But the physiological effects of atoms are crude compared to molecules.  String fifty-three atoms together in just the right shape – a combination of two oxygens, twenty-one carbons, and thirty hydrogens – and you’ll have tetrahydrocannibol.  String forty-nine atoms together in just the right shape – one oxygen, three nitrogens, twenty carbons, and twenty-five hydrogens – and you’ll have lysergic acid diethylamide.

The effects of these molecules are very different from the effects of their constituent parts.  You’d never predict what THC feels like after inhaling a mix of oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen gas.

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An amino acid is comparable in scale to THC or LSD, but our bodies aren’t really made of amino acids.  We’re built from proteins – anywhere from a few dozen to tens of thousands of amino acids linked together.  Proteins are so large that they fold into complex three-dimensional shapes.  THC has its effect because some proteins in your brain are shaped like catcher’s mitts, and the cannibinoid nestles snuggly in the pocket of the glove.

Molecules the size of proteins can make copies of themselves.  The first life-like molecules on Earth were long strands of ribonucleic acid – RNA.  A strand of RNA can replicate as it floats through water.  RNA acts as a catalyst – it speeds up the reactions that form other molecules, including more RNA.

Eventually, some strands of RNA isolated themselves inside bubbles of soap.  Then the RNA could horde – when a particular sequence of RNA catalyzed reactions, no other RNA would benefit from the molecules it made.  The earliest cells were bubbles that could make more bubbles.

Cells can swim.  They eat.  They live and die.  Even single-celled bacteria have sex: they glom together, build small channels linking their insides to each other, and swap DNA.

But with more cells, you can make creatures like us.

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Consciousness is an emergent property.  With a sufficient number of neuron cells connected to each other, a brain is able to think and plan and feel.  In humans, 90 billion neuron cells direct the movements of a 30-trillion-cell meat machine.

Humans are such dexterous clever creatures that we were able to discover the origin of our universe.  We’ve dissected ourselves so thoroughly that we’ve seen the workings of cells, molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles.

But a single human animal, in isolation, never could have learned that much.

Individual humans are clever, but to form a culture complex enough to study particle physics, you need more humans.  Grouped together, we are qualitatively different.  The wooden technologies of Robinson Crusoe, trapped on a desert island, bear little resemblance to the vaulted core of a particle accelerator.

English writing uses just 26 letters, but these can be combined to form several hundred thousand different words, and these can be combined to form an infinite number of different ideas.

More is different.  The alphabet alone couldn’t give anyone insight into the story of your life.

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Meditation is like a blink where more time passes, but the effect is very different.

Many religions praise the value of meditation, especially in their origin stories.  Before Jesus began his ministry, he meditated for 40 days in the Judaean Desert – his mind’s eye saw all the world’s kingdoms prostrate before him, but he rejected that power in order to spread a philosophy of love and charity. 

Before Buddha began his ministry, he meditated for 49 days beneath the Bodhi tree – he saw a path unfurl, a journey that would let travelers escape our world’s cycle of suffering. 

Before Odin began his ministry, he meditated for 9 days while hanging from a branch of Yggdrasil, the world tree – Odin felt that he died, was reborn, and could see the secret language of the universe shimmering beneath him. 

The god Shiva meditated in graveyards, smearing himself with crematory ash.

At its extreme, meditation is purportedly psychedelic.  Meditation can induce brain states that are indistinguishable from LSD trips when visualized by MRI.  Meditation isolates the brain from its surroundings, and isolation can trigger hallucination.

Researchers have found that meditation can boost our moods, attentiveness, cognitive flexibility, and creativity.  Our brains are plastic – changeable.  We can alter the way we experience the world.  Many of our thoughts are the result of habit.  Meditation helps us change those habits.  Any condition that is rooted in our brain – like depression, insomnia, chronic pain, or addiction – can be helped with meditation.

To meditate, we have to sit, close our eyes, and attempt not to think.  This is strikingly difficult.  Our brains want to be engaged.  After a few minutes, most people experience a nagging sense that we’re wasting time.

But meditation gives our minds a chance to re-organize.  To structure ourselves.  And structure is the property that allows more of something to become different.  Squirrels don’t form complex societies – a population of a hundred squirrels will behave similarly to a population of a million or a billion.  Humans form complex webs of social interactions – as our numbers grew through history, societies changed in dramatic ways.

Before there was structure, our entire universe was a hot soup of quarks and electrons, screaming through the sky.  Here on Earth, these same particles can be organized into rocks, or chemicals, or squirrels, or us.  How we compose ourselves is everything.

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The easiest form of meditation uses mantras – this is sometimes called “transcendental meditation” by self-appointed gurus who charge people thousands of dollars to participate in retreats.  Each attendee is given a “personalized” mantra, a short word or phrase to intone silently with every breath.  The instructors dole mantras based on a chart, and each is Sanskrit.  They’re meaningless syllables to anyone who doesn’t speak the language.

Any two-syllable word or phrase should work equally well, but you’re best off carving something uplifting into your brain.  “Make peace” or “all one” sound trite but are probably more beneficial than “more hate.”  The Sanskrit phrase “sat nam” is a popular choice, which translates as “truth name” or more colloquially as “to know the true nature of things.”

The particular mantra you choose matters less than the habit – whichever phrase you choose, you should use it for every practice.  Because meditation involves sitting motionless for longer than we’re typically accustomed, most people begin by briefly stretching.  Then sit comfortably.  Close your eyes.  As you breathe in, silently think the first syllable of your chosen phrase.  As you breathe out, think the second.

Repeating a mantra helps to crowd out other thoughts, as well as distractions from your environment.  Your mind might wander – if you catch yourself, just try to get back to repeating your chosen phrase.  No one does it perfectly, but practice makes better.  When a meditation instructor’s students worried that their practice wasn’t good enough, he told them that “even on a shallow dive, you still get wet.”

In a quiet space, you might take a breath every three to six seconds.  In a noisy room, you might need to breathe every second, thinking the mantra faster to block out external sound.  The phrase is a tool to temporarily isolate your mind from the world.

Most scientific studies recommend you meditate for twenty minutes at a time, once or twice a day, each and every day.  It’s not easy to carve out this much time from our daily routines.  Still, some is better than nothing.  Glance at a clock before you close your eyes, and again after you open them.  Eventually, your mind will begin to recognize the passage of time.  After a few weeks of practice, your body might adopt the approximate rhythm of twenty minutes.

Although meditation often feels pointless during the first week of practice, there’s a difference between dabbling and a habit.  Routine meditation leads to benefits that a single experience won’t.

More is different.

On domestication and Sue Burke’s ‘Semiosis’

On domestication and Sue Burke’s ‘Semiosis’

In Sue Burke’s Semiosis, humans reach an alien world with intelligent plants.

The settlers find themselves afflicted by inexplicable infertility.  Most women are able to bear children, but many men are sterile.  The settlement develops a culture in which women continue to marry based on the vagaries of affection, but from time to time, a woman will kiss her spouse goodnight before venturing off for an evening’s energetic tussle with a fertile man.

The human settlement has established itself at the base of a single plant.  This plant has ocular patches and can recognize individual humans.  The plant provides fruit that seems exquisitely tailored to each person’s nutritional needs.  In return, the humans carefully tend the plant – irrigating its groves, clearing away competitors, and fertilizing new growth.

The plant manipulates its human caretakers.  By tweaking the composition of their food, it controls the humans’ health.  Selectively instilling infertility or fecundity allows the plant to direct human evolution.  Among the fourth generation of human settlers, more than half of all children were sired by a placid man who was so contemplative and empathetic that he learned to communicate with the host plant.

The plant domesticated its human caretakers.

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Here on Earth, flowering plants also co-evolved with animals. 

Plants could very well consider themselves the dominant species in these relationships – after all, plants use animals to do their bidding.  Plants offer tiny drips of nectar to conscript insects to fertilize their flowers.  Plants offer small fruits to conscript mammals to spread their seeds.  And plants far outlive their servants – thousands of generations of animals might flit by during the lifetime of a single tree.

Some plants directed the evolution of their helpers so well that the species are inextricably linked – some insects feed on only a single species of plant, and the plant might rely on this single species of insect to fertilize its flowers.  If either the plant or insect disappeared, the other would go extinct.

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In Semiosis, the alien plant changes its attitude toward humans over the generations.  At first it was concerned only with control and utility.  The motile beasts were a tool that it could manipulate with pleasing colors and psychoactive fruits. 

Eventually, though, the plant develops an affection for its human wards.  Of course, these humans are markedly different from the people who first arrived on this planet.

The plant’s affections changed in the same way that our own attitude toward wolves softened as we manipulated the species.  Many humans are still reflexively afraid of wolves.  We tell children stories about Little Red Riding Hood; when I’m walking in the woods, sometimes I find myself humming the refrain from “Peter and the Wolf.”  The ecosystem of Yellowstone Park was devastated when we murdered all the wolves during the 1920s; willow and beaver populations have rebounded since wolves were reintroduced in the 1990s (most likely because wolves mitigate the damage done by uncontrolled elk populations); now that Yellowstone’s wolf population isn’t critically endangered, states surrounding the park are letting human hunters shoot wolves again.

And yet, we giggle at the antics of domesticated dogs.

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Among wild animals, the most aggressive individuals are often the most fecund.  Wolves who can fight for and hold the alpha rank get to breed; the others don’t.

During domestication, breeding patterns are altered.  To create dogs, we selected for the most docile individuals.  If you could expand your temporal horizons wide enough, all populations might seem as mutable as clay.  A species flows through time, ever changing, evolving such that the traits that best lead to viable children become more common.  In the wild, a speedy rabbit might have the most children, because it might survive for more breeding seasons than others.  On a farm, the most docile rabbit might have the most children, because its human handlers might give a docile male more time among the females.

Domestication seems to change animals in stereotyped ways.  Zoologist Dmitry Belyayev designed an experiment with wild foxes.  Only the foxes that were least fearful of humans were allowed to breed; over the course of some dozen generations, this single criterion resulted in a large number of behavioral and morphological changes.  The domesticated foxes produce less adrenaline; they have narrower faces; they have floppier ears.  This suite of traits seems to be present in almost all domesticated species.

Cats still have pointy ears.  As it happens, cats are barely domesticated.

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Humans seem to be self-domesticated. A few hundred thousand years ago, our ancestors lived in very small groups, maybe one or two dozen individuals.  After humans diverged from the last common ancestor that we shared with bonobos and chimpanzees, most human species still lived in groups of about this size.  Neanderthals may have lived in groups as small as six.

Eventually, Homo sapiens drove all other human species to extinction.  A major competitive advantage was that Homo sapiens lived and worked in groups as large as a hundred.  With so many people cooperating, they could hunt much more efficiently.  A violent conflict between six Neanderthals and a clan of a hundred Homo sapiens would not go well for the Neanderthals.

In the modern world, the population densities of urban areas force humans to be even more docile than our recent ancestors.  But even with our whole evolutionary history promoting cooperation, many people struggle to be calm and kind within the crowded confines of a city.  Some can do it; others feel too aggressive.

When a person’s disposition is ill-suited to the strange environment we’ve made, we punish.  We shunt people to high school detention, or jail.

In Semiosis, the plant overlord reacts by limiting fertility.

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As in Richard Powers’s Overstory, the perspective of a long-lived, immobile plant would be markedly different from ours.  Human generations flit by as a plant continues to grow.

The bamboo forest/grove in Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan. Photograph by Daniel Walker on Flickr.

Domestication takes generations – in Belyayev’s fox experiment, twenty generations passed before a third of the population was tame – but an intelligent plant could wait.  By selecting which individuals get to pass on their genes, huge changes can be made.  From wolves, we created Great Danes and Chihuahuas.  From a scruffy grass we evoked buxom ears of corn, as though by glacial magic.

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In particularly dark eras of our past, humans have tried to direct our own evolution.  Social Darwinists in the United States forcibly sterilized people whom they disliked.  Politicians in Nazi Germany copied the legal language of the United States when they sought philosophical justification for the murder of entire religious and ethnic groups.

By putting the motivation inside the mind of a plant, Burke is able to explore the ramifications of directed human evolution without alluding to these evil regimes.

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In jail, somebody said to me, “I heard that humans were evolving to have really long fingers, so we could type real fast, and big-headed hairless bodies.”

“Yeah, yeah,” somebody added, “I saw this thing on the Discovery channel, it was like, you know the way they show all those aliens on the X-Files?  That humans were gonna be like that, like the aliens were just us coming back to visit from the future.”

Illustration of “future humans” by Futurilla on Flickr.

I murmured in disagreement. 

“Humans are definitely still evolving.  But evolution doesn’t have a goal.  It just selects for whichever properties of a creature are best for making copies of itself.”

“With modern medical care, we don’t die so easily.  So the main driver of evolution is the number of kids you have.  If you have more kids than I do, then you’re more fit than I am.  Future humans will look more like you than me.”

“There’s not much data yet, because evolution happens over such a long time, but the one study I’ve seen recently showed that humans in the United States are evolving to be shorter.”

“But it’s not like we’re getting shorter so that we’ll fit better inside spaceships.  It’s just that shorter people have been having more kids.”

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Plants have directed the evolution of bees.  Of bats – there’s a bat species that fertilizes agave, another that fertilizes mangoes, and so on. 

Photo by Marlon Machado on Flickr.

Plants directed our evolution, too.  We owe our color vision to our history as fruit eaters – we needed to see the difference between ripe reds and green buds.

And, like all populations, we are changing.  Evolution isn’t done.

What might a clever plant want us to become?

On birds watching.

On birds watching.

In jail recently, we were talking about birds.

“Yeah, my grandfather had something like a thousand chickens, had them running all through the yard,” somebody said.  “And there was this one chicken, he was a mean one.  I was kind of afraid of it, strutting around like he owned the place.  So my grandfather, he told me to kick it.”

“Well, I did, but that only made things worse.  I didn’t make him scared, I just made that chicken hate me.  So after that, anytime we went to visit my grandfather’s place, that chicken would be there, waiting for me.”

“My parents, my brothers and sisters, everybody would get out of the car, but the chicken wouldn’t bother them.  He’d be sitting there, staring, just waiting for me.  And when I finally got out I had to run, every time, sprinting to my grandfather’s front door before that chicken got me.”

“They live a long time, too!  I had, like, five or six years of that!  And still to this day, anytime my mom sees a video or a picture of somebody running from a chicken on Facebook, she’ll tag me in it.  Like, ha ha ha, remember that?”

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“Maybe you didn’t kick him hard enough,” somebody suggested.  “Cause we used to have chickens, and I had to go into the coop sometimes, and the roof of it was real low to the ground, so I had to crouch in there like this, and one chicken would always strut up to me like it was going to start something.”

“Well, it did that every time for a few months, till one day it got in my face and I just went BOOM, and I wrestled that little fucker to the ground.  And that chicken never messed with me again.”

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Birds can recognize individual humans. 

Biologist John Marzluff noticed that crows became wary of particular researchers after the crows had been captured and tagged.  In an experiment where researchers captured a half dozen crows while wearing a caveman mask, they found that the whole flock learned to respond to that mask as a threat.  Several years later, even crows who hadn’t seen the caveman’s initial misbehavior would shriek a warning when they saw that mask.  They’d been trained by their flockmates.

The caveman mask is on the left. On the right: a control mask.

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Between their intelligence and acute eyesight, birds can serve as passable oncologists.  Pigeons were trained with a set of slides from biopsies – a pigeon had to inspect each image and then choose a button for “cancer” or “not cancer”.  If the pigeon chose correctly, the computer would dispense a pellet of food.

(Human medical students are often mistreated during their training, forced to work grueling hours with few breaks.  The pigeon trainees were also mistreated – to ensure that they valued each food pellet, the pigeons were starved during the experiment.  I’m 6 feet tall and about 150 pounds, but if I were participating in this study, I’d be kept at 127 pounds – eighty-five percent of my “free feeding” weight.)

Pigeons learned to diagnose biopsies with 80% accuracy.  A team of eight pigeons voting together could diagnose biopsies with 99% accuracy

The team of pigeons was just as good as a human oncologist, and far better than computerized image analysis.

You can buy 50 pounds of pigeon pellets for under $10.  That’d give you enough rewards for a flock of half-starved pigeons to diagnose thousands of patients.

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We used to think that an entire class of vertebrates had gone extinct – the dinosaurs.  But we now know that birds are dinosaurs. 

Several species of dinosaurs/birds are gone – millions of years have passed since tyrannosaurs or velociraptors roamed the earth.  But their lineage has continued.

When I was growing up, people often remarked that dinosaurs were clearly dim-witted creatures because they have such small cranial cavities.  There was not much room for brains in their skulls! 

But contemporary dinosaurs/birds have small brains, too, and many are extremely intelligent.  They can chase kids who’ve crossed them.  They can diagnose cancer.  They can make tools, solve logic puzzles, and guess what other animals are thinking.

All with minuscule brains!

When biologist Suzana Herculano-Houzel investigated the brains of various species, she found that the number of neurons in a brain typically correlates with cognitive capacity.  More neurons makes for a smarter critter!

The physical size of a brain doesn’t tell you how many neurons will be in a brain, though.  A bigger brain might just have bigger neurons

As it happens, birds’ brains are constructed better than our own.  Crows and parrots pack neurons into a brain more densely than we do, like the difference between old IBM mainframes and modern telephones.  Pigeon brains are better than ours at parallel computing, like the difference between a hypothetical quantum computer and your current laptop.

We can outsmart crows, parrots, and pigeons, but only because our raw neuron counts are so high that we’ve not been surpassed by their superior designs.

We don’t know when dinosaurs/birds evolved their high neuron densities – well-designed brains might be recent innovations, or they might be millions of years old.  Ancient dinosaurs may have been far more intelligent than we thought.

Yes, they still went extinct, but you can’t blame them for succumbing to climate change.  And it’s not like they caused the climate change that killed them.

Future archaeologists might judge humans to be more foolish than any stegosaurus.

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We humans have huge numbers of neurons in our cerebral cortex.  We are blisteringly clever.  We’ve made all variety of tools, languages, and complex social structures.  Yes, crows also have tools, language, and complex social structures, but in each category, human achievements are even more complex.

A crow tool is typically a hooked piece of stick.  We built telephones.

Well, humans collectively built telephones.  I couldn’t sit down and build one from scratch.  If I were to make a tool while out hiking, it’d probably be a hooked piece of stick.

Still, our best achievements are pretty incredible. 

But we’ve also brought our species to the brink of extinction.  Through overpopulation and excessive exploitation of the planet’s trapped resources, we’re making our world less habitable. 

Tyrannosaurus ruled this planet for a few million years.  Humans have been a dominant species for only a hundred thousand years – a few percent of T-Rex’s reign.  With the current pace of climate change, scientists soberly discuss the possibility that we’ll reap apocalypse within a hundred more years.

Measured by reign, we might prove 20-fold less successful than those giant birds.

On the study of naked mole-rats.

On the study of naked mole-rats.

This is a riff on an essay from several years ago.

In 1974, evolutionary biologist Richard Alexander gave a lecture describing the conditions that might spawn eusocial vertebrates. 

Alexander was a bug guy – “eusocial” refers to extremely cooperative animals like bees, ants, and termites. Individuals sacrifice themselves for others.  Non-breeders help with childcare.  The colony seems more intelligent than its members.

Alexander proposed that a eusocial mammal could evolve if the animals were small compared to their food sources, and if they lived in underground burrows that could be expanded easily and defended by a small percentage of the colony.

After the lecture, an audience member mentioned that this “hypothetical eusocial mammal” sounded a lot like the naked mole-rat.  Alexander was introduced to Jennifer Jarvis, who had studied individual naked mole-rats but not their social lives.  Alexander and Jarvis collaborated to write The Biology of the Naked Mole-Rat.

Eliot Weinberger condensed this 500-page textbook into his 3-page essay, “Naked Mole-Rats.”

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Like us, naked mole-rats are both good and bad.  They are cooperative.  They are affectionate.  They are always touching.  When they meet strangers, they fight to the death.  When a breeding female dies, many other females regain fertility and the colony erupts into civil war.

Weinberger wrote that naked mole-rats “are continually cruel in small ways.”  But they are outdone by naked apes. 

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For a research paper published in 2008, Thomas Park and colleagues found that being pinched by tweezers causes naked mole-rats pain, but injection with caustic acid does not.

“We tested naked mole-rats in standard behavioral models of acute pain including tests for mechanical, thermal, and chemical pain.  We found that after noxious pinch or heat, the mole-rats responded similarly to mice.”

“In contrast to the results using mechanical and thermal stimuli, there was a striking difference in responses to strong chemical irritants.  Two chemicals were used – capsaicin from hot peppers and hydrochloric acid – which normally evoke very intense pain in humans and other animals.  Injection of either rapidly evoked intense licking and guarding behaviors in mice.”

“In contrast, naked mole-rats showed virtually no response.”

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Perhaps you worry that acid-resistant naked mole-rats could conquer the world.  Fear not.  A form of kryptonite exists.  Injection of an 11-amino-acid signaling peptide allows acid to hurt naked mole-rats just as much as it hurts mice.  Or us.

Half a dozen animals were subjected to each treatment.

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Naked mole-rats don’t die from cancer. 

They should.  Their cells, like ours, are copied from copies of copies.  Errors compound.

Some errors are particularly deadly.  Our cells are supposed to stop growing when they touch.  They are supposed to commit suicide when old.  But the instructions telling a cell when and how to kill itself can be lost, just like any other information.

This is cancer.

In cancer, a single cell proliferates at the expense of others.  A cancer cell claims more than its fair share of space.  It commandeers nutrients.  This cell, and its progeny, and its progeny’s progeny, will flourish. 

Then the scaffolding creature dies.  Then the cancer cells die, too. 

But every cell that isn’t an egg or sperm is terminal anyway.  In the colony of our body, most cells are non-breeding members.  From a cancer cell’s perspective, it has nothing to lose.

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We develop cancer often.  With each passing day, we produce about 100 billion new cells.  Each time we produce a new cell, all 3 billion letters of our genome must be copied. 

The enzymes that copy our genome make one mistake every billion letters.  Each cell division: three new mutations.  Each day: three hundred billion new mutations.

Some mutants are trouble. 

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Our bodies kill cancer.  Your immune system – the same mess of mucous, inflammation, and goo that goes haywire during the flu – seeks and destroys renegade cells.  Your body is a fascist enterprise; white blood cells, its militarized police.

Chemotherapy does not kill cancer.  Chemotherapy means flooding the body with poisons that stop all cells from reproducing.  With luck, if the spread of cancer is slowed, your immune system can kill it before it kills you.

In naked mole-rats, cancers always grow as slowly as if the rodents were receiving chemo, allowing their immune systems to squelch cancers at a leisurely pace.  Their cancers are slowed by a heavy sugar called “hyaluronan,” which is packed so tightly into the space between cells that there is no room to grow.

In 2013, biologist Xiao Tian and colleagues wrote that “naked mole-rats may have evolved a higher concentration of hyaluronan to provide the skin elasticity needed for life in underground tunnels.  This trait may have then been co-opted to provide cancer resistance and longevity.”

They became impervious to cancer almost by mistake.

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The record lifespan for a naked mole-rat in captivity is 28 years, 4 months.  The record-holder was nicknamed James Bond.  He was senior consort to his queen and continued rutting – and siring pups – up until the day he died.

Bond was dissected.  His cells showed extensive oxidative damage in their lipids, proteins, and DNA.  Bond should have been hobbled by age.  But time did not slow him down.

Science writer David Stipp described him as “a little buck-toothed burrower who ages like a demigod.”

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Humans typically cease breeding long before we die.  From an evolutionary perspective, as soon as we stop having children, our fitness drops to zero.

And yet, we have long lifespans.  The dominant theory is an offshoot of “the grandmother hypothesis” – because we often care for grandchildren, there may have been evolutionary pressure to maintain good health until our grandchildren also reach reproductive age. 

With twenty-year generations, there’d be an incentive to survive until our sixties.

After that, perhaps our ancestors were no longer helpful.  And so we’ve inherited a propensity to decay.  Expensive medical interventions can preserve us longer, but once we pass our natural lifespans, brains and bodies weaken.

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When scientists starve animals in the lab, it’s called “caloric restriction.”  This protocol extends lifespan in a wide variety of species.  Monkeys, mice, flies, and worms.  Ten-fold increases in lifespan have been observed.

Caloric restriction should extend the lives of humans, too.

There are unpleasant side effects.  Caloric-restricted mice spend their time staring at empty food bowls.  They are listless: barely moving, barely sleeping.  They live longer, but worse – and if they are fed slightly less, they die of malnutrition.

Frequent starvation in the wild may have caused naked mole-rats to evolve their prodigious longevity.

Naked mole-rats expand their colonies outward, searching for edible roots.  When they find a good root, they gnaw it carefully, attempting to keep the plant alive as long as possible.  But a colony of naked mole-rats eats faster than any plant can grow.  When the plant dies, the colony plunges into famine. 

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Most eusocial animals carefully ventilate their homes.  Termites build giant pylons in the desert.  Although temperatures outside careen from 35 degrees at night to over 100 during the day, the interior of the mound remains a constant 87 degrees.  And the termites do not asphyxiate.  Their exhalations are swept away by circulating air.

Naked mole-rats burrow with less care.  They sleep in piles, hundreds of bodies lumped together underground.  Those near the center soon run out of oxygen.

We would die.

Most animals, deprived of oxygen, can’t fuel their brains.  Thoughts are expensive.  Even at rest, our brains demand a constant influx of energy or else the neurons “depolarize” – we fall apart.

Since the death penalty was reintroduced in the United States in 1976, we have killed eleven prisoners in gas chambers.  During the 1983 execution of Jimmy Lee Gray in Mississippi, officials cleared the observation room after eight minutes.  Gray was still alive, gasping for breath.  His attorney said, “Jimmy Lee Gray died banging his head against a steel pole in the gas chamber while reporters counted his moans.”

Gas chambers are pumped full of cyanide gas, carbon monoxide, or carbon dioxide.  Carbon dioxide is cheapest. 

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With each breath, we inhale oxygen, burn sugar, and exhale carbon dioxide.  When we drive, our cars intake oxygen, burn gasoline, and exhaust carbon dioxide. 

In small amounts, carbon dioxide is beneficial.  Carbon dioxide allows plants to grow.  But when you put too much inside a chamber, somebody dies.  Put too much in the air worldwide and we all die.

The planet Venus was habitable, once.  Humans could have lived there.  Venus had a deep ocean and mild weather.

Through some fluke, Venus experienced a temporary bump in the amount of carbon dioxide in the air.  Carbon dioxide traps heat, which caused water to evaporate.  Clouds formed, which trapped more heat.  The cycle continued. 

Venus is now a fiery inferno.  The ground is bare rock.  Sulfuric acid rains from the sky.

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Lab mice die in gas chambers.  Sometimes one mouse is set inside the plexiglass box; sometimes several mice inside a Chinese-food takeout container are gassed together.  A valve for carbon dioxide is opened; the mice lose consciousness; they shit; they die.

A naked mole-rat would live.  Unless a very determined researcher left the gas flowing for half an hour.  Or so found Thomas Park and colleagues – the same team that discovered that naked mole-rats dislike being pinched.  As they reported in 2017:

Human brains drink sugar.  We are like hummingbirds that way.  And our brains are very fussy eaters.  We are fueled exclusively by glucose.

Naked mole-rats are less particular.  Their minds slurp fructose to keep from dying.

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Naked mole-rats are the most cooperative of mammals.  They are resistant to cancer.  Unperturbed by acid.  They age with the libidinous gracelessness of Hugh Hefner. 

They are able to withstand the horrors of a gas chamber.

And yet, for all these talents, naked mole-rats are easily tormented by human scientists.

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Featured image from Wikimedia Commons.