Snips About Snails

Yesterday’s constant rain and drippy, overcast conditions brought the snails out of their normal hiding places and onto our driveway and other wet surfaces.  I took the picture of the little guy below just outside our front door.

Snails are common in Maine — so commonplace that the University of Maine has a web page entitled “slugs and snails” devoted to helping gardeners deal with the little creatures, and people have written entire academic papers about the “slugs and snails of Maine.”  Snails are interesting creatures and actually kind of fascinating to watch, as they move slowly but surely ahead.  Little boys are supposed to be made out of them, in part (“snips and snails and puppy dog tails”) so it’s worth knowing a few facts about them.

Terrestrial snails are part of the phylum Mollusca and the class Gastropoda and are closely related to slugs.  The name of the snails’ class comes from the Greek words for belly and foot, because snails move through the progressive expansion and contraction of one large, muscular foot under their shell.  The snail’s foot has a gland that secretes a coating of mucus, and the snail then glides on that coating of slime.  The fact of a single foot and the need for slimy mucus generation helps to explain why snail movements are so deliberate. 

There are dozens of different species of snails in Maine, some of which were actually brought to the state from Europe.  (Why Europeans did this is anybody’s guess.)  Because of their need for slime, snails avoid direct sunlight and wind and prefer moist, damp areas — like gardens, where they are commonly found.  If you’re trying to get rid of slugs and snails, which can cause harm to some plants, the U of Maine webpage helpfully notes that “removing boards, rocks, logs, leaves and dense growth helps” and that it “is also wise to minimize shaded areas, rock walls, rock gardens, or forested borders and leave bare ground or close-cropped grass next to vegetable or flower beds.”  No stones, or rock walls, or rock gardens, in Maine?  Good luck with that!

Interestingly, the snails of Maine all are supposed to have shells with whorls that move from the center in a clockwise direction.  Nobody really knows why.

Snails don’t bother me, and I try not to disturb them when I’m gardening.  I don’t think they are doing much harm to our flowers and plants, and I figure anything that is living in slime with only one foot deserves a break.   

The Fog Bank Lurks

The fog bank is out there.  You can see it on the water, lurking and looming, just beyond the little island in the middle of the harbor.  The fog bank is so thick that it totally obscures all but the highest hilltop on Isle au Haut, wiping it clean from the photo.

It’s been pretty foggy here for the last few days, and for the native Midwesterner the speed — and seeming perverseness — of the fog movement is breathtaking.  You might see fog in the distance, and the next thing you know it has barged into town and your bare skin is covered in moisture.  On other days, the fog might wait out on the horizon, keeping its own counsel and deciding if, and when, to roll in and blanket the sun.  And on other days, the fog is simply gone, and you can see for miles out into the harbor without a hint of fog to be seen anywhere.

Dr. Science would tell you that fog is a natural condition caused by a process called advection, when warm, moist air passes over a cooler surface — in this case, the bracing waters of the Penobscot Bay and the Atlantic Ocean just beyond the islands in the bay — and water vapor in the air condenses to form water droplets that make the fog opaque.  That’s a very scientific explanation, but it doesn’t quite capture the almost human, unpredictable qualities of fog.

Because we know the fog is out there . . . waiting. 

In A Star-Crossed Year, Anything Can Happen

It’s fair to say that 2020 hasn’t been a great year so far.  In fact, it’s fair to say that 2020 is not only below average, it is probably the worst year that I’ve experienced in my lifetime.  With the coronavirus pandemic, government-ordered shutdowns, massive shocks to the economy and resulting unemployment, and widespread civil unrest, it’s safe to say that, when the clock nears midnight on December 31, no one is going to be looking back fondly on the year limping to a close.  To the contrary, I would expect that people will be drinking heavily to forget the year gone by and to toast the arrival of a new year that is bound to be far better — that is, assuming we make it to December 31.

And that’s really the significant, underlying problem with 2020:  it has forever altered our perception of what could actually happen.  Before 2020, anyone predicting the arrival of a strange new virus, sweeping closures and stay-at-home edicts, and the other elements that make this year such a bummer would have been laughed out of town.  But now — well, it seems like just about anything is possible, doesn’t it?  That’s why gun sales, survival gear sales, and, relatedly, liquor sales are through the roof.  So far, 2020 has been like Edvard Munch’s The Scream brought to life.

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So when I read that scientists have measured significant “earthquake swarms” underneath Yellowstone National Park that could presage the eruption of a catastrophic “supervolcano” in one of Earth’s hottest hot spots — something I would have scoffed at until recently — I now think:  “well, it’s 2020 — why not?”

The strikingly counterfactual element of 2020 opens the doors to many possibilities that seemed absurd only a few months ago.  Remember those stories we see from time to time about asteroids and meteors coming uncomfortably close to Earth?  Well, it’s 2020, so . . . better get that survival gear handy.  And for everyone who’s wondered about when we’re actually going to make contact with intelligent alien life, well, it seems like 2020 is the ideal year for that to happen, doesn’t it?  And it’s not going to be cuddly, adorable E.T. aliens, either.  Because it’s 2020, after all, think Independence Day or Predator or Aliens, and you’re probably going to be closer to the mark.

To prepare myself mentally for the rest of this year, I’ve tried to identify every worst case, disastrous scenario that we’ve been warned could happen — locust invasions, massive solar flares, global warming and cooling, zombie apocalypses, Ragnarok, the reunion of ABBA — and am bracing myself that they all might happen this year.  And if we make it through without finding ourselves on a denuded, brutalized planet that has to endure a remake of Waterloo, I’ll raise my glass to 2020 come December 31.

A Time For Dragons

In a year where good news has been incredibly scarce, here’s a ray of sunshine:  two astronauts were successfully launched into orbit yesterday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  The two veteran astronauts aboard, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, are currently orbiting the Earth and will dock with the International Space Station today.

49927519643_b43c6d4c44_o.0The successful launch yesterday marks two milestones.  It’s the first launch of human beings into space from the Kennedy Space Center since 2011, when the last space shuttle mission occurred.  More significantly, the launch is a huge step forward in America’s entire approach to spaceflight and space exploration and development.  The launch vehicle and “Crew Dragon” capsule carrying the astronauts were designed and built by SpaceX, one of the many private companies that are working to make spaceflight a successful commercial venture.

It’s difficult to overstate how significant this step is.  For decades, the space program proceeded on a model where launch vehicles were designed by governmental employees and then built by contractors under “cost plus” contracts.  The SpaceX venture represents a radically different approach, in which NASA describes what it wants, says what it will pay, and then leaves it to the private company to design and build the vehicle that complies with the NASA requirements.  The decision to yield some of the governmental control, and trust private companies to do the job, is an interesting story, and one for which the Bush and Obama Administrations deserve significant credit.

The new approach has several consequences.  For one, it is unquestionably cheaper for taxpayers.  In addition, the interplay between private companies looking to control costs while delivering the required product and governmental engineers who have long experience with spaceflight issues is producing innovation and new perspectives on how to solve problems.  And finally, the successful launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, demonstrates that commercial spaceflight works.  SpaceX is one of many private companies that are making space their mission, and yesterday’s triumph will undoubtedly spur other companies to look to space as a new frontier for investment and commercial activity.  If, as many of us hope, spaceflight is to become a routine activity, with expansive space stations and lunar bases and the exploration of Mars as the next steps, the involvement of private investment and private capital will be essential to making that dream a reality.

Yesterday’s launch marks the Era of the Dragon in spaceflight.  It’s the first time in history that equipment built by a private company has carried human beings into space.  It won’t be the last.

Now Among The Tested

The United States has dramatically increased its testing for the coronavirus over the past few weeks.  According to the CDC website, nearly 11 million Americans have now been tested for COVID-19.  Yesterday morning, because I have a medical appointment coming up and getting tested was part of the pre-appointment checklist, I became one of them.

The testing was quick, easy, and efficient.  They’ve set up a drive-through testing facility in one of the rear parking lots of the administration building of the sprawling Mt. Carmel East hospital complex.  Your doctor puts your name on a list and writes you a prescription for the test, and you drive up and wait in your car for your turn.  As people are tested, the car line moves through two lanes of testing that occurs under tents, like cars moving through a toll booth on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  When I arrived shortly after the testing facility opened at 8 a.m., I was probably tenth in line, and all told, I think it took me less than a half hour to make it entirely through the process.

When it was my turn I donned my mask and drove through the tent, which was manned by four nurses who thoroughly disinfected themselves after each encounter with someone being tested.  A pleasant and professional nurse who was fully clad in protective gear — helmet, face shield, gown, and gloves — took down my information and then conducted the test.  It was one of the viral tests to determine if I currently have coronavirus, and it consisted of sticking a long Q-tip swab pretty deep into my nostrils, gathering some mucus, and putting it into a plastic bag.  I was told that the sample tested positive for coronavirus, I would be notified, and if the test was negative I wouldn’t be called and should just show up for my appointment.  I never got a call, so I’m apparently currently free of COVID-19.  (The viral test is different from the antibody blood test, which would tell you if you had the coronavirus at some point in the past and have developed antibodies against it.)

News reports on coronavirus typically report raw statistics on how many people have the illness.  Expect to see significant increases in the numbers, simply because more mobile testing stations like the one I used are springing up everywhere.  Given what I saw, I’d guess that my testing facility probably processes several hundred tests each day, and there are similar testing facilities in Columbus and across the country.  We’re going to start to get a lot more data on the coronavirus as a result.  

Home Schooling

On our midday walk yesterday Kish and I passed this display on one of the German Village byways.  I could be wrong, but I’m guessing it might have been part of a science project for some youngster who has been home schooled for the past six weeks after the shutdown of Ohio schools.  It reminded me, at least, of science fair displays in the gymnasium when I was a kid.

The coronavirus shutdowns have put pressure on everyone in many different ways.  Some people have been furloughed or lost their jobs altogether.  Some have had to continue working at their public-facing jobs under the threat of infection.  Some have had to learn new technology to do their jobs remotely.  And all of us have had to adjust to staying inside and not doing the things that we used to take for granted, like going to a restaurant for a lunch that you didn’t cook yourself or stopping off at a bar with friends to watch a ball game while drinking a cold beer.

But the challenges for those parents who have had to combine the adjustments that all of us are facing with trying to entertain, and educate, young kids at home is more difficult by several orders of magnitude.  In fact, it’s mind-boggling, and it takes the concept of the SuperMom and SuperDad to an entirely new level.  So if what we saw on our walk yesterday was in fact a kid’s science project, I tip my cap to the Mom or Dad who came up with the idea of their own little at-home science fair.  And who knows?  That little science project might spur a lifelong love of gardening for the student.

Many of us have talked about recognizing, thanking, and rewarding the health care professionals, the truckers, the people working in the grocery stores, the delivery truck operators, and the others who have played such an essential role during the shutdown.  Let’s not forget the parents of young children in that richly deserved chorus of praise and gratitude.  They are doing something that most of us would never even think of trying.  And, long term, what is more important that taking care of kids, and keeping them healthy, and safe, and heading in the right direction during a global pandemic?

The Subway Vector

If you look at the New York Times map and chart of coronavirus cases and deaths in the United States, one fact screams out for attention:  the New York City metropolitan area has been far, far more affected by the epidemic than any other part of the country.  The disparity is profound.

As of today, the Times reports 34,726 deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. — and fully half of those are in New York and New Jersey alone.  The incidence and mortality rates in those states are orders of magnitude higher than in other areas.  And it’s not the entire state of New York that is producing those staggering numbers, either.  Instead, the hot zone is for the most part limited to New York City and neighboring communities.

In fact, if you cut the New York City metropolitan area numbers out of the equation, you find that the per capita numbers for the rest of America are far less alarming than the overall numbers, and much more in line with the data reported from other countries.  The vast disparity in the virulence and transmission of the coronavirus in the New York City area, compared to the rest of the country, is compelling support for making decisions on reopening the country and the economy on a state-by-state, locality-by-locality basis.

6068390_040120-wabc-crowded-subway-imgThis drastic difference in the impact of COVID-19, though, begs the question:  why is the New York City area being hit so much harder than other areas?  Of course, it’s more densely populated than the rest of the country, which clearly must have an impact.  But there is an ongoing, increasingly heated controversy about whether New York City’s mass transit system — and, specifically, its subways — are a vector for transmission of the disease.  An MIT professor has looked at some data and argues that the subways are having a noticeable impact.  Others, including transit authority officials, contend that the MIT study is not scientifically valid and shows, at most, correlation — which is not causation.

It seems entirely plausible that subways could be a contributor to New York City’s bad coronavirus statistics.  If you’ve ever ridden the subway, you know that the platforms and cars are crowded, with people packed together, sharing metal poles as they steady themselves against the jostling of the cars, and also sharing limited breathing space.  The social distancing being practiced in other parts of the country just isn’t possible.  And, in my experience, the subway cars aren’t kept spotlessly clean, either.  If you compare that method of transportation to the “car culture” that prevails in other parts of the country, where most people travel in their own vehicles with windows closed, it could provide an explanation for at least part of the disparity in the coronavirus data.  At the very least, it is a possible cause and hypothesis that should be fully evaluated.

This is a hot-button issue, because New York City’s subway system is a primary source of transportation for hundreds of thousands of commuters every day, and if the subways are — after careful study and analysis, of course — determined to be a vector for transmission of COVID-19, that will dramatically complicate the process of reopening the Big Apple.  And mass transit is a political issue, as well, and there is a risk that political considerations will affect taking a hard look at the public health issues related to  subway use and operations in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen that our political officials can’t resist playing politics even in a time of global pandemic.  But at some point, public health considerations should trump petty political posturing.  We need to figure out why NYC is such a huge outlier, and then take steps to make sure that the causes for the disparity are properly addressed so that people in New York — and in the rest of the country — are protected the next time a virus sweeps across the world.

Scratching That Itch

There’s been a lot written about what to do to protect yourself from the coronavirus.  Some of it’s pretty easy.  Wash your hands regularly?  Check.  Avoid Wuhan province in China and locations within Iran?  Check, and check.

But some of the proffered prohibitions are a lot harder to comply with — like, the instruction that you’re supposed to avoid touching your face.  As one article somewhat alarmingly puts it, “[a]ll it takes is just one virus to hitch a ride on a contaminated finger and slip into the body through a nostril or a wet part of the face” — and then bad things could happen.  So, any contact between fingers and face is to be strictly avoided.  In fact, one reason some health officials encourage people not to buy face masks is that putting on and taking off and adjusting the mask causes wearers to touch their faces, and you don’t want to do that.

2fmethode2ftimes2fprodmigration2fweb2fbin2f1de94d19-91ed-3b68-804d-aadbfccc5363Not touching your face is harder than it sounds, because we’ve been unconsciously touching our faces for our entire lives — since earliest infancy, and probably before that in the womb, too.  We rub the sleep out of our eyes, and we scratch our noses when they get itchy.  We groom our our eyebrows, fiddle with our eyelashes, rub the bridge of our noses, and stroke our chins because we think it makes us look more intelligent.  We rest our cheeks against fists and palms.  These little gestures have been a basic part of our daily lives, and now we’re supposed to stop?

Of course, the issue of touching your face has been studied, like everything else humans do.  According to the article linked above, one study of medical students showed that, on average, they touched their faces 23 times an hour — and I’m surprised that, for people sitting idle in a classroom, that number isn’t a lot higher.   And researchers argue that there are lots of reasons for our reflexive face-touching.  Some say that face-touching is related to negative feelings, when we’re feeling uneasy or unsettled.  Others say face touching increases when people are distracted and need to refocus, and face touching is a kind of mental cue to help in the focusing process.

So, how do you stop touching your face?  The first step is to actually be aware when you are doing it.  If we can stop acting reflexively, and start doing things only purposefully and intentionally, maybe we can avoid those unconscious gestures and do something else to occupy our hands when the urge to scratch, rub, or fiddle becomes irresistible.  And washing our hands before and after is important, too.

But boy!  It’s going to be hard not to scratch that itch.

Going Medieval

The New York Times had an interesting piece on Friday about how the coronavirus is spurring a “new” approach to dealing with disease — “new” in the sense that it is different from how the modern world has handled disease over the past few decades, but really not new at all in that it harkens back to the methods used in medieval times.  The “new” approach is called the quarantine.

quarantineAs the Times article points out, the quarantine is a disease control method that’s as old as time.  During the medieval period, when the spread of disease wasn’t understood from a scientific standpoint, authorities still had techniques they used during a health crisis:  they fought the spread of the Black Plague by closing borders, quarantining sick people on ships and in pest houses, and heading out of the cities into the countryside to get away from the sick zones.  That method of dealing with the spread of disease lasted for centuries.

After advances in science and medicine, the invention of the microscope, and the development of ways of discovering, and treating, diseases and viruses, the approach to public health changed.  The Times article reports that the last time the U.S. government, for example, imposed a national restriction on entry into the country was in 1892, when President Benjamin Harrison ordered that ships from Hamburg be kept offshore for 20 days because Hamburg had lied about a cholera epidemic.  Since then, the U.S. has adopted the “modern” approach, which involves accepting the spread of the disease and trying to deal with it through antibiotics, vaccines, and other forms of treatment.

With the coronavirus, the Trump Administration has combined the “modern” approach with the “medieval” approach.  The Administration imposed a very early ban on entry into the country by non-citizens from China and discouraging travel to China, and over the weekend President Trump announced additional restrictions on travel to areas where new outbreaks have occurred:  Iran, and specific areas of South Korea and Italy.  And, as the Times article points out, these restrictions seem to have worked.  Although there are coronavirus cases reported in the U.S., the incidence rate is far below what some other countries have experienced, and the travel restrictions gave the country time to prepare for the virus.

When it comes to dealing with communicable disease. harsh measures are sometimes necessary, and time is frequently of the essence.  If travel bans and quarantines help public health officials, I’m all in favor of going a bit “medieval” in response to the coronavirus.

Into The Public Domain

Most Americans have been to the Smithsonian Institution museums on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.  — whether it was on a family vacation, or on their 8th grade field trip to the nation’s capital, or because they lived or worked in the D.C. area as Kish and I did back in the ’80s.  The museums are a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon and are filled with interesting things and insights.

But you can only enjoy them if you are on the National Mall.  Until now, that is.

dezp7clwsaed2ydThe Smithsonian is releasing 2.8 million images from its collection in all of its museums, libraries, and archives into the public domain.   The massive release includes both two-dimensional and three-dimensional high resolution images that have been downloaded onto an open-access online platform, which you can find here.  The on-line platform invites the public to “download, share, and reuse millions of the Smithsonian’s images—right now, without asking.”  The first download is just the beginning, as the Smithsonian continues an effort to digitize its collection of more than 155 million items and artifacts.

The Smithsonian’s release is part of a growing effort by museums to move their collections into the public domain, where they can be perused and enjoyed by anyone with access to a computer.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and more than 200 other museums across the world are part of the effort, although the Smithsonian release is by far the most extensive.  The Smithsonian magazine article linked above explains that the materials in the Smithsonian on-line platform are now covered by a Creative Commons Zero license, which frees the items “from all restrictions, copyright or otherwise, enabling anyone with a decent Internet connection to build on them as raw materials—and ultimately participate in their evolution.”  And the on-line platform is easy to use, with a simple search function.  I like dinosaurs, so I did a search for an allosaurus, and downloaded the image above — which is now in the public domain.

I’m a museum lover, and can happily spend hours browsing through exhibitions, so I hope there is always a place for the quiet, thoughtful, in-person museum experience.  But I also am a proponent of putting things into the public domain and increasing access, and applaud the Smithsonian and the other museums participating in the effort for taking a leadership role in making their collections accessible to everyone.

In Search Of Eyeball Planets

Let’s say we’ve moved some time into the future, when interstellar space travel has become commonplace.  You’re on board a Virgin Galactic or SpaceX or Blue Horizons or Heinlein Enterprises flight down to Nimbus, in a solar system in the Orion constellation, when you look down at your destination and . . . it’s a planet that looks like a giant, unblinking eyeball against the dark, star-filled sky.

That would make your cool little space voyage even cooler, wouldn’t it?

planetscouldlooklikeeyeballs_600Scientists believe that there may be “eyeball planets” out there, just waiting to be visited.  They would look like eyeballs because they would be tidally locked with the star they are circling, so one side of the planet always faces the star — just like one side of the Moon always faces the Earth, so that we Earth dwellers never get to see the Dark Side of the Moon.  In such circumstances, the “light side” of the planet facing the star and absorbing the brunt of the sun’s radiation, heat, light, and solar wind, is bound to be a lot different than the “dark side” — hotter than the dark side, for sure, and probably different in other ways, too.

Scientists theorize that there could be at least two kinds of eyeball planets out there, and probably more.  Hot eyeballs would be planets located close to their sun, where the sun side is totally dry because the heat has caused all of the moisture on that side to evaporate, and the dark side is one enormous ice cap — with a temperate ring caused by melting ice, in perpetual, unchanging twilight, separating the two sides.  Icy eyeballs would be farther away from the star, where the dark side would be one huge glacier but the sun side would still have liquid water — perhaps with a few islands and continents thrown in for good measure, just to give the eye an even creepier appearance.

The Elephant In The Room

As coronavirus continues to spread, with the total number of reported cases now exceeding 77,000 people worldwide, stock markets plummeting because of the impact of the virus on the global economy, and the World Health Organization saying that the world should be prepared for a pandemic, scientists are trying to figure out exactly how the virus spreads.

According to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, one of the apparent pathways for the disease is through the fecal matter of infected people.  The Chinese CDC “recommends strengthening sanitation and hygiene measures to prevent fecal-oral transmission” in areas where the coronavirus is present, with the hygiene measures to include “drinking boiled water, avoiding eating raw food, implementing separate meal systems, frequent hand-washing, disinfecting toilets, and preventing water and food contamination from patients’ stool.”  The concern is that infected persons’ “stool samples may contaminate hands, food, water” and cause infection when the microbes enter the mouth or eyes, or are inhaled.

gettyimages-693551624What does the apparent transmission route through fecal matter tell us about who is at risk in the event of a serious outbreak in the United States — something that hasn’t happened yet?  It seems that one logical course should be to target specific populations where sanitation and disposal of human waste aren’t well controlled.  If I were a public health official in America, I’d therefore be considering what can be done to anticipate and prevent a nightmare scenario in which coronavirus reaches one of the colossal homeless encampments found in some U.S. cities, like Los Angeles.  Public health officials have already identified poor health conditions and contact with fecal matter in “homeless zone” as the source for transmission of diseases like typhus, typhoid fever, and tuberculosis in Los Angeles.  What would happen if a rapidly spreading disease like coronavirus were to reach one of the densely populated, squalid encampments?

America hasn’t shown much of an appetite for tackling the issue of homelessness, which has become the unspoken of elephant in the room in many American cities.  When it comes to public health and disease prevention, however, we’re all in this together, and potential avenues for rapid disease transmission can’t simply be ignored away.

I’m hoping that the potentially disastrous implications of coronavirus reaching homeless populations will cause local, state, and federal officials to finally work out a solution that helps the homeless find places that are safe, secure, and healthy, with adequate sanitation facilities and running water.  If we’re going to get a grip on the spread of coronavirus, or the next disease coming down the pike, it’s time to be proactive and to act to protect the vulnerable and the rest of us as well.

Rediscovering Pompeii

In 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted, burying nearby Pompeii — a thriving Roman village during the height of the Roman Empire — killing the inhabitants, and covering the town in a thick and deep coating of volcanic ash.

pintura-de-gladiadores-e-descoberta-na-antiga-cidade-de-pompeiaHidden under its ashy cloak, Pompeii lay undisturbed, and forgotten, for hundreds of years.  The blanket of ash had the effect of preserving the town as it existed on the date of the eruption.  Excavation of the site at Pompeii didn’t begin until the mid-1700s, and continued haphazardly until the mid-1800s, when systemic, organized preservation efforts began and Pompeii became known as a unique opportunity to get a glimpse of what everyday life was like during the heyday of Rome.

Interestingly, Pompeii is still disclosing her secrets.  A huge, hundred million dollar preservation, restoration, and excavation project is underway at the site, which is aimed at repairing the parts of Pompeii that were crumbling and making new discoveries.  And new discoveries have been made, including uncovering an inscription that helps archaeologists better date the eruption of the volcano, a tavern with a vivid fresco of a bloody but victorious gladiator, and other colorful paintings and decorations.  And there are still areas that remain unexplored where the preservationists hope that excavations will yield additional surprises.

We visited Pompeii on our trip to Italy years ago.  It was a hot day, we stupidly did not bring bottled water with us for the visit, and the combination of broiling temperatures and the volcanic dust that still is found at the site made that day the thirstiest day I think I’ve ever experienced.  Still, it was fascinating to get that peek at life in the distant past.  With new discoveries being made, it may be time to make another visit to the town that time forgot.

The Oldest Oral Tradition

No one knows when human speech began, but estimates are that human speech has existed for tens of thousands of years, and perhaps since as long as 150,000 years ago. Writing — a system which allowed humans to store and organize information without the need for human speech — didn’t exist until cunieform was created using clay tablets in what is now Iraq 3,200 years ago, followed quickly, and independently, by the development of writing in China and Mesoamerica.

So, how did our early human ancestors bridge that gap and preserve information for those tens of thousands of years? Obviously, they did so through oral communication and memorization. Through talks around campfires and in hunter-gatherer villages, the early humans learned of the useful plants and herbs in their areas and how they could be used to treat illness or injury, were taught about successful techniques for hunting prey, and undoubtedly spoke of legends and heroes and creation stories. The Iliad and the Odyssey, attributed to the blind poet Homer, were part of the ancient Greek oral tradition and were told for generations before being reduced to writing. The ancient tale of Gilgamesh and countless creation tales also date back to the era before the written word. The evidence is that the oral tradition can be a remarkably durable way of preserving and conveying information.

Scientists believe they may have discovered the oldest existing piece of oral tradition on Earth — one that dates back 37,000 years and countless generations. It is the tale of Budj Bim told by the Gunditjmara people in eastern Australia, one of whom is shown above. Like other Aboriginal peoples in Australia, the Gunditjmara have a rich oral tradition in which all kinds of ecological information is conveyed through tellings and re-tellings. In the story in question, an ancient creator-being is transformed into a volcano called Budj Bim. Scientists have now determined that two volcanoes erupted in the area in which the Gunditjmara lived 37,000 years ago, and suspect that the tale of Budj Bim is actually an account of the explosions. And if their hypothesis is true, the correlation of the legend and the volcanic eruptions would be confirming evidence that humans lived on Australia 37,000 years ago.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to sit down with a member of the Gunditjmara and hear her tell the tale of Budj Bim, as she heard it from her mother who heard it from her mother, understanding that it was told in the same way, in an unbroken line of generations, going back 37,000 years? It would be almost like sitting around the campfire with our early human ancestors, hearing the tale directly in their voice. I would like to hear that tale.

 

 

Death By DNA

Scientists have been studying the extinction of the woolly mammoth — those colossal, fur-covered, elephantine creatures that thrived during the last Ice Age.  And, specifically, the studies have been looking at the role genetics played in the demise of the shaggy giants with the huge, curved tusks.

example-museum-replica-species-canadian-de-extinctionThe last woolly mammoths died surprisingly recently — about 4,000 years ago, during the Old Kingdom period in Egypt.  By that time, the mammoths had vanished from the European and Asian continents due to habitat change due to global warming and the efforts of human hunters.  The last of the species lived, and died, on Wrangel Island, in the Arctic Ocean north of Russia.

According to scientists, declining numbers put the mammoths on a death spiral caused by inbreeding and genetic mutations that the population was too small to overcome.  With a shrinking pool of mates, and a lack of genetic diversity, the harmful mutations multiplied, affecting male fertility, the mammoths’ sense of smell, and other important functions.  Scientists confirmed this by taking mammoth genes from the Wrangel Island population and placing them in the cells of the mammoths’ nearest living relative, the Asian elephant, to see how they performed.  The tests showed that the mammoth genes were pitiful and failing.  The scientists also compared the genes of the last mammoths with genes from mammoths that existed thousands of years earlier, when vast herds of mammoths thrived during the height of the Ice Age.  The comparison showed that the last mammoths had an “accumulation of detrimental mutations … consistent with genomic meltdown.”

We can’t do anything for the last mammoths that perished on the frozen wastes of Wrangel Island, but their fate shows what happens when the population of a species simply becomes too small to overcome genetic mutations.  It’s a cautionary tale to keep in mind as we look to identify, and protect, the endangered species currently inhabiting planet Earth.