Category Archives: Science and Nature

Nineteen Ways of Looking at Consciousness by Patrick House

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The brain…is a thrift-store bin of evolutionary hacks Russian-dolled into a watery, salty piñata we call a head.

…consciousness is not something passed on or recycled–like single molecules of water, which are retained as they move about the earth as ice, water, or dew–from one living creature to the next…instead consciousness should be grown from “scratch” with only a few well-timed molecular parts from plans laid out. It is not drawn from a recycled tap of special kinds of cells or dredged from the vein of free will. No, the darn thing grows. From its own rules. All by itself. And we have no idea how or why.

When I was still a programmer it was necessary to understand the many characteristics of, and rules about using, the objects that we would place on the screen in an application. Under what conditions did one appear? Physical dimensions, like width and height. Does it have a borderline around it? How wide is that line? Does it have a background color? How about a foreground color? Can it display images, text, both? Where does it get its information, keyboard entry, internal calculation? and on and on and on. Fairly simple and straightforward once one knows how it works. But consider the human brain, with billions of neurons, and a nearly infinite possible range of interactions among them. Somehow, within that biological organ, there is a thing we refer to as consciousness. We are who and what we are, and saying so, thinking so, makes us conscious, at the very least. But how did this gelatinous, gross substance, come to develop awareness of self? And just what is consciousness, anyway?

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Patrick House – image from Attention Fwd ->

Patrick House, a Ph.D. neuroscientist, researcher and writer, offers a wide range of looks at what consciousness might be, mostly by looking at details of the brain. How do the characteristics of zombie food come to be, and how do they combine to create something far greater than a tasty meal for the hungry dead? He looks at many of the currently popular ideas that try to get a handle on the fog that is consciousness.

The book is a collection of possible mechanisms, histories, observations, data, and theories of consciousness told nineteen different ways, as translations of a few moments described in a one-page scientific paper in Nature, published in 1998, titled “Electric Current Stimulates Laughter.” The idea is an homage to a short book of poetry and criticism, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, which takes the poem “Deer Park” by Wang Wei and analyzes nineteen different translations of it in the centuries since it was originally written.

He points out more than once that our brains did not emerge in an instant, all sparkling, from the build-a-brain factory. They evolved, from the very first living cell, so at each step of the evolutionary ladder, whatever traits favored survival and reproduction became dominant, pushing prior adaptations into the DNA equivalent of attic storage. Some of the accretion of the prior adaptations may vanish over time, but bags of the stuff are still lying about.

In tracing how our brains evolved, He points out qualities, like the brain’s need for cadence, and timekeeping, shows that language and action are comparable products of the brain and reports on how speech arose from systems that governed movement. He looks at the brain’s mission of preventing our bodies from losing 1.5 degrees of internal temperature, at how we map out the sensate terrain around us, and at the significance of size in brain complexity.

Imagery runs rampant. There is a chapter on the pinball machine as an appropriate metaphor for consciousness. It was a TILT for me. But ineffective chapters like that one are rare, and can be quickly forgotten when the next chapter offers another fascinating perspective, and bit of evolutionary vision. Another, more effective image, was scientists looking for “surface features” of the brain that might tell us where consciousness lies, like geologists surveying terrain to identify likely ore locations.

Throughout the book House refers to a patient, referred to as Anna, who, while having neurosurgery, had her brain poked in various locations by the surgeon, testing out the function of different parts of her gray matter, prompting some unexpected results. Grounding much of the discussion in the experience of an actual person helped make the material more digestible.

As I read, questions kept popping up like synapses flashing a signal to the next synapse. First of all is a definition of consciousness. What is it? How is it defined? Probably the most we can hope for is to infer its existence from externalities, in the same way that astrophysicists can infer the presence of a black hole by measuring the light coming from nearby objects, without ever being able to actually see the black hole, itself. Is there a measurable range of consciousness? Is entity #1 more or less conscious than entity #2. (Man, that is one seriously self-aware tree) How might we measure such a thing? This is actually addressed in one of the chapters. I would have been interested in more on consciousness in the world of Artificial Intelligence. If programmers put together a sufficient volume of code, with a vast array of memory and data, might there be a possibility of self-awareness? What would it take?

For an item on an electronic screen, one can find out the specific characteristics that comprise it. And with that knowledge, check against a list of possible items it might be. It might be a text-box, or a drop-down menu, or a check-box, a button that triggers an action when clicked. But with the brain, while we can compile a considerable list of characteristics, there is not really a list against we can check those things to arrive at a clear conclusion. Oh yeah, any entity, biological or electronic, that possesses at least some number of certain core characteristics, can be considered to be conscious. Nope, it does not work that way.

I found by the end of the book that I had learned a fair bit about how brains evolved, which is always a wonderful experience, but was as uncertain at the end as at the beginning about just what consciousness is. I expect that House shares that leaning, to at least some degree.

There is no one such thing as “consciousness,” and the attempt to study it as a singular phenomenon will go nowhere.

But he does suggest that consciousness exists as a range of experiences rather than as a singular entity with firmly defined borders. It is a fascinating read, even if the core definition is lacking. One thing is for sure, it is brain candy of the first order whether you are self-aware or not.

And just for fun, for next week’s class, be prepared to discuss the difference between consciousness and the mind.

Review posted – October 29, 2022

Publication date – September 22, 2022

I received an ARE of Nineteen Ways of Looking at Consciousness from St. Martin’s Press in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the House’s personal, and Twitter pages

Items of Interest
—–Wang Wei – Deer Park

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Filed under Non-fiction, Psychology and the Brain, Science and Nature

The World As We Knew It – edited by Amy Brady and Tajja Isen

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“At a time when our planet is experiencing terrifying and unprecedented levels of change, what corresponding transformations have you witnessed in your lives, yards, neighborhoods, jobs, relationships, or mental health?” That’s the question that Tajjia Isen and I asked the contributors to this anthology. We wanted to hear their personal stories, allow then to serve as witnesses of this incredibly complex moment in history. – from the Introduction

This is what climate change is. It’s what it does to the psyche, along with the body and the places we love. It’s nearly invisible until the moment something startles you into attention. A creeping catastrophe waiting with arms outstretched to deliver a suffocating embrace. And once the knowledge is gained, there is no unknowing it. You are no longer climate blind. You see and cannot unsee.

Things change. Often it happens too slowly for us to notice. Sometimes processes have been evolving for a while and take a sudden, tipping point jump into the observable. But often it takes being away for a while to get a visceral sense of change.

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Tajja Isen – image from Catapult, where she is Editor in Chief

What do you notice, and what slips by as just the normal range of expected experience? I have been around long enough to have personal elements that fit in with the editors’ approach. I was not keeping track of the frequency or height of the snowfalls that marked winter growing up in the Bronx. Does it snow more now? Less? Maybe, but not that I could say from personal observation, particularly. Although there was a stretch of years when it began to seem that snow was a thing of the past. Then it returned. I would have to look through tables of data to really know. Summers were hot growing up, days in the 90s, maybe a few in triple digits. Fire hydrants, including the one in front of the apartment building where I was raised, were opened, sometimes by friendly firefighters, sometimes by unauthorized people, so kids like me could get some relief from the heat. Are NYC summers hotter now? I don’t really know off the top of my head. Again, I would have to check tables of historical data. But I do know that Summer nights in New York were increasingly uncomfortable over my many years there, with overnight lows far too often in the 80s. Yes, the city holds the heat well, but it held it well during the entirety of my life. Something had changed. Then there was Superstorm Sandy.

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Amy Brady – image from LitHub

In a way, the editors asked their contributors to respond to a lawyerly question: What did you notice and when did you notice it? With the extra of asking how the noticed change(s) impacted them. Editors Amy Brady and Tajja Isen have put together essays from nineteen writers from around the world, each exploring what they have noticed.

In 2022, we are witnesses to one of the most transformative moments in human history: a time when climate change is altering life on Earth at an unprecedented rate, but also a time when the majority of us can still remember when things were more stable. We are among the first—and perhaps one of the last—human populations to have memories of what life was like before. To us, the “new normal” is not how it’s always been. Our lives jostle against incongruous memories of familiar places. We are forced to confront, in strange and sometimes painful ways, how much those places have changed.

Being swamped with relentless tales of big scale environmental horror can have a numbing effect. Numbers, estimates, projections, possible outcomes, blah, blah, blah. We can stop hearing after a while, tune it out. Outrage is appropriate and we experience that, but it is not something we can endure continuously. At our core, humans are creatures of story, not statistics. For as long as we have existed people have concocted origin stories, not origin reports. So, maybe story is a better way to communicate, to connect, to inform people, some people anyway, about the real on-the-ground reality of global warming. And that is what we have here.

These nineteen stories are memoirish, covering the far reaches of the planet and a range of personal experiences. Landscapes that have been transformed by warming, devastating long-term drought, massive reduction in wildlife, invasive species wreaking havoc on formerly stable ecosystems, growing public consciousness of particles per million in the air, and on.

Some are a bit tangential. In Unearthing, Lydia Yuknovich focuses on the harm done by the Hanover, Washington facilities that produced much of the fissile materials used in America’s nuclear bombs. Her witness to the very personal impact of radioactive pollution on a peer growing up is not really a global warming tale, however heart-breaking. Some focus less on personal global warming miseries to look more at human interactions, class, racial and gender politics coming in for some attention

Some tales are wonderful in their strangeness. Walking on Water looks at how those charged with relocating both people and native deities to make way for a huge dam in Africa interact with local people and customs. Signs and Wonders notes, and celebrates, the increasing weirdness in the world, as long-hidden things begin to reappear when landscapes change and glaciers recede.

Some offer strong imagery. In Cougar, Terese Svoboda builds on an experience she had while driving, in which she narrowly avoided hitting a cougar that was making a dash across a Nebraska highway. She looks at ways the creature is making a comeback, among other elements in her story, and sees cause for hope that humanity can find a way as well.

In The Development, one of my favorite stories in the collection, Alexandra Kleeman notes a slice of green near her Staten Island apartment and pays attention as this (at least temporarily) abandoned piece of NYC is taken over by nature, plants left alone to grow, to spread, wildlife moving in. The optimism of regeneration lives side by side with the dread that it is only a matter of time before developers carve a pristine, straight-line urban walkway out of it.

Lacy M. Johnson tells of her religious father, in Leap. He was a white collar at a coal plant, justifying the environmental carnage being caused as God giving people the Earth to use however we want.

Some focus on illness. Warming has expanded the range of ticks that carry Lyme disease to the chagrin of well, everyone. Having had the pleasure some years back, I can very much relate to this concern. Lyme disease gets a mention in two of the stories. Porochista Khakpour’s Season of Sickness tells of his travails with Lyme and the joys of black mold in his apartment, and on. Is warming only generating more risks, or is it also impacting our resistance?

The collection is rich in beautiful writing and insight. The sense of place is particularly strong throughout. It certainly offers a prompt most of us can work from. What have you noticed? And how has it impacted your life?

One change that stands out from personal experience is a product of the others, expectations. Growing up, most of us, I believe, expected that the physical world would continue on pretty much as it had. That is no longer the case for anyone who pays any attention to environmental events in the world. While the fear of imminent and instantaneous destruction in the 1950s and 1960s, helped along by duck-and-cover drills during the Cold War, may have dissipated, (although it has certainly not been eliminated) the existential threats of today have more to do with our less flash-bang demise. The ticking up of temperatures worldwide makes us all frogs in the proverbial pot of warming water. And it seems an insuperable task trying to get those in charge of the range to turn off the flame, or at least turn it down enough. Will my children and grandchildren be able to see the places in the world I have been able to see? Will all those places even exist? What does warming mean for their longevity? Human lifespans increased significantly in the USA over the 20th century. I have already outlived my father. Will my children outlive me? We know that change is possible. When I was a kid it seemed that everyone smoked. After decades of effort, smoking was much reduced. Hope is a reason to go on, to keep trying, but one change I see is a whittling back of hope itself. Sure, there are positive developments. Electric cars have arrived and renewable energy production is growing as a percentage of overall supply. General awareness has surely grown. Our understanding of the complicated parts that make up global warming is expanding, increasing the possibility that fixes, or at the least ameliorations, can be identified, whether or not they are implemented. But is that enough to stave off the worst? Is anything, at this point, enough? Are we in the world of Don’t Look Up, where the only sane response is resignation? I sure hope not.

We must learn to become conservationists of memory. Otherwise, this damage we have done to our planet will cost us our past, as it may already have cost us our future. And without a past or a future, what are we? Nothing. A flickering violence of a species, here such a short time, insatiable, then gone. – Omar El Akkad

Review posted – July 8, 2022

Publication date – June 14, 2022

I received a copy of The World As We Knew It from Catapult in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to Amy Brady’s personal, FB, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Links to Tajja Isen’s’s personal, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–Publishers Weekly – ‘The Raw Data of Someone Else’s Life’: PW Talks with Amy Brady and Tajja Isen by Liza Monroy
—–Writer Unboxed – Seeking the Existential, the Intimate, and the Urgent: Essays That Model Masterful Storytelling by Julie Carrick Dalton

Items of Interest from the author(s)
—–LitHub – A list of pieces Brady wrote for LitHub
—–Orion Magazine – excerpt – Faster Than We Thought by Omar El Akkad

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Filed under Non-fiction, Public Health, Science and Nature

The Last Days of the Dinosaurs by Riley Black

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The disaster goes by different names. Sometimes it’s called the end-Cretaceous mass extinction. For years, it was called the Cretaceous-Tertiary, or K-T, mass extinction that marked the end of the Age of Reptiles and the beginning of the third, Tertiary age of life on Earth. That title was later revised according to the rules of geological arcana to the Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction, shorted to K-Pg. But no matter what we call it, the scars in the stone tell the same story. Suddenly, inescapably, life was thrown into a horrible conflagration that reshaped the course of evolution. A chunk of space debris that likely measured more than seven miles across slammed into the planet and kicked off the worst-case scenario for the dinosaurs and all other life on Earth. This was the closest the world has ever come to having its Restart button pressed, a threat so intense that—if not for some fortunate happenstances—it might have returned Earth to a home for single-celled blobs and not much else.

The loss of the dinosaurs was just the tip of the ecological iceberg. Virtually no environment was left untouched by the extinction, an event so severe that the oceans themselves almost reverted to a soup of single-celled organisms.

This is a story about two things, Earth’s Big Bang and evolution. K-Pg (pronounced Kay Pee Gee – maybe think of it as KFC with much bigger bones, where everything is overcooked?) marks the boundary between before and after Earth’s own Big Bang, manifested today by a specific layer of stone in the geologic record.

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Riley with Jet – image from The Museum of the Earth

Ok, yes, I know that the catastrophic crash landing of the bolide, a seven-miles-across piece of galactic detritus, most likely an asteroid, that struck 66.043 million years ago, give or take, was not the biggest bad-parking-job in Earth’s history. An even bigger one hit billions of years ago. It was nearly the size of Mars, and that collision may have been what created our moon. Black makes note of this in the book. But in terms of impact, no single crash-and-boom has had a larger effect on life on planet Earth. Sure, about 3 billion years ago an object between 23 and 36 miles across dropped in on what is now South Africa. There have been others, rocks larger than K-Pg, generating even vaster craters. But what sets the Chicxulub (the Yucatan town near where the vast crater was made, pronounced Chick-sue-lube) event on the apex is its speed and approach, 45 thousand mph, entering at a 45-degree angle. (You wanna see the fastest asteroid ever to hit Earth? Ok. You wanna see it again?) It also helps that the material into which it immersed itself was particularly likely to respond by vaporizing over the entire planet. An excellent choice for maximum destruction of our mother. And of course, its impact on life, animal life having come into being about 800 million years ago, was unparalleled. In the short term, it succeeded in wiping out the large non-avian dinosaurs, your T-Rex sorts, Triceratops grazers, brontosaurian browsers, and a pretty large swath of the planetary flora as well, burning up much of the globe and inviting in a nuclear winter that added a whole other layer of devastation. Aqueous life was not spared. You seen any mososaurs lately? Even tiny organisms were expunged en masse. (Cleanup in aisle everywhere!)

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Image from Facts Just for Kids

Here’s what the Earth looked like just before, just after, and then at increments, a week, a month, a year, and on to a million years post event. It is a common approach in pop science books to personalize the information being presented. Often this takes the form of following a particular scientist for a chapter as she or he talks about or presents the matter under consideration. In The Last Days… Black lets one particular species, usually one individual of that species per chapter, lead the way through the story, telling how it came to be present, how it was impacted by the…um…impact, and what its descendants, if there would be any, might look like. She wants to show why the things that were obliterated came to their sad ends, but also how the things that survived managed to do so.

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Quetzcoatlus – image from Earth Archives

But as fun and enlightening as it is to track the geological and ecological carnage, like an insurance investigator, (T-Rex, sure, covered. But those ammonites? Sorry, Ms. Gaea, that one’s not specified in the contract. I am so sorry.) is only one part of what Riley Black is on about here. She wants to dispel some false ideas about how species take on what we see as environmental slots.

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Mesodma – image from Inverse

Some folks believe that there are set roles in nature, and that the extinction of one actor (probably died as a result of saying that verboten word while performing in The Scottish Play) leads inevitably to the role being filled by another creature (understudy?) As if the demise of T-Rex, for example, meant that some other seven-ton, toothy hunter would just step in. But there is no set cast of roles in nature, each just waiting for Mr, Ms, or Thing Right to step into the job. (Rehearsals are Monday through Saturday 10a to 6p. Don’t be late), pointing out that what survived was largely a matter of luck, of what each species had evolved into by the time of the big event. If the earth is on fire, for example, a small creature has a chance to find underground shelter, whereas a brontosaurus might be able to stick it’s head into the ground, but not much else, and buh-bye bronto when the mega-killer infrared pulse generated by you-know-what sped across the planet turning the Earth into the equivalent of a gigantic deep fryer and making all the exposed creatures and flora decidedly extra-crispy.

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Thescelosaurus – image from Wiki

Black keeps us focused on one particular location, Hell Creek, in Montana, with bits at the ends of every chapter commenting on things going on in other, far-away parts of the world, showing that this change was global. When the impact devastates the entire planet, it makes much less sense to think of the specific landing spot as ground zero. It makes more sense to see it as a planet-wide event, which would make the entire Earth, Planet Zero. It was not the first major planetary extinction, or even the second. But it was the most immediate, with vast numbers of species being exterminated within twenty-four hours.

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Thoracosaurus – image from artstation.com

I do not have any gripes other than wishing that I had had an illustrated copy to review. I do not know what images are in the book. I had to burrow deep underground to find the pix used here. I expect it is beyond the purview of this book, but I could see a companion volume co-written by, maybe, Ed Yong, on how the microbiomes of a select group of creatures evolved over the eons. For, even as the visible bodies of critters across the planet changed over time, so did their micro-biome. What was The Inside Story (please feel free to use that title) on how the vast array of bugs that make us all up changed over the millions of years, as species adapted to a changing macrobiome.

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Purgatorius – image from science News

I love that Riley adds bits from her own life into the discussion, telling about her childhood obsession with dinosaurs, and even telling about the extinctions of a sort in her own life. What glitters throughout the book, like bits of iridium newly uncovered at a dig, is Black’s enthusiasm. She still carries with her the glee and excitement of discovery she had as a kid when she learned about Dinosaurs for the first time. That effervescence makes this book a joy to read, as you learn more and more and more. Black is an ideal pop-science writer, both uber-qualified and experienced in her field, and possessed of a true gift for story-telling.

Also, the appendix is well worth reading for all the extra intel you will gain. Black explains, chapter by chapter, where the hard science ends and where the speculation picks up. Black incorporates into her work a wonderful sense of humor. This is always a huge plus!

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Eoconodon – image from The New York Times

Pull up a rock in the Hell Creek amphitheater. Binoculars might come in handy. An escape vehicle (maybe a TVA time door?) of some sort would be quite useful. Get comfortable and take in the greatest show on Earth (sorry Ringling Brothers) There literally has never been anything quite like it, before or since. The Last Days of the Dinosaurs a joy to read, is one of the best books of the year.

From the time life first originated on our planet over 3.6 billion years ago, it has never been extinguished. Think about that for a moment. Think through all those eons. The changing climates, from hothouse to snowball and back again. Continents swirled and bumped and ground into each other. The great die-offs from too much oxygen, too little oxygen, volcanoes billowing out unimaginable quantities of gas and ash, seas spilling over continents and then drying up, forests growing and dying according to ecological cycles that take millennia, meteorite and asteroid strikes, mountains rising only to be ground down and pushed up anew, oceans replacing floodplains replacing deserts replacing oceans, on and on, every day, for billions of years. And still life endures.

Review posted – May 13, 2022

Publication date – April 26, 2022

I received an ARE of The Last Days of the Dinosaurs from St. Martin’s Press in return for working my ancient, nearly extinct fingers to the bone to write a review that can survive. Thanks, folks.

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads. Stop by and say Hi!

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter pages

Profile from Museum of the Earth

Vertebrate Paleontologist & Science Writer
Riley Black is a vertebrate paleontologist and science writer. She is passionate about sharing science with the public and writes about her experiences as a transgender woman in paleontology.

Riley began her science writing career as a Rutgers University undergraduate. She founded her own blog, Laelaps, and later wrote for Scientific American, Smithsonian Magazine, National Geographic, and more. Riley has authored books for fossil enthusiasts of all ages, including Did You See That Dinosaur?, Skeleton Keys, My Beloved Brontosaurus, and Written in Stone.
Riley loves to spend time in the field, searching the Utah landscape for signs of prehistoric life. Her fossil discoveries are in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the Natural History Museum of Utah, and the Burpee Museum of Natural History. Riley’s work in the field fuels her writing. She believes doing fieldwork is the best way to learn about paleontology.

In your own words, what is your work about?

“What really holds my work together is the idea that science is a process. Science is not just a body of facts or natural laws. What we find today will be tested against what we uncover tomorrow, and sometimes being wrong is a wonderful thing. I love the fact that the slow and scaly dinosaurs I grew up with are now brightly-colored, feathered creatures that seem a world apart from what we used to think. I believe fossils and dinosaurs provide powerful ways to discuss these ideas, how there is a natural reality we wish to understand with our primate brains. The questions, and why we’re asking them, are more fascinating to me than static answers.”

Interviews
—–IFL Science – IFLScience Interview With Riley Black: The Last Days of the Dinosaurs – video – 15:40 – with Dr. Alfredo Carpineti – There is a particularly lovely bit at the back end of the interview in which Black talks about the inclusion in the book of a very personal element
—–Fossil Friday Chats – “Sifting the Fossil Record” w/ Riley Black” – nothing to do with this book, but totally fascinating

Items of Interest from the author
—–WIRED – articles by the author as Brian Switek
—–Scientific American – articles by the author as Brian Switek
—–Riley’s site – a list of Selected Articles
—–Science Friday – articles by the author
—–Excerpt

Items of Interest
—–Earth Archives – Quetzlcoatlus by Vasika Udurawane and Julio Lacerda
—–NASA – Sentry Program
—–Science Friday – Mortunaria – a filter-feeding plesiosaur
—–Biointeractive – The Day the Mesozoic Died: The Asteroid That Killed the Dinosaurs – on the science that produced our understanding of how the dinosaurs died out – video – 33:50
—–Wiki on the Hell Creek Formation

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Filed under Non-fiction, paleontology, Science and Nature

The Treeline by Ben Rawlence

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Big changes are taking place across the vast plain stippled by spruce and striated with water that unfolds below the aircraft at 10,000 feet. The skin of the earth is melting, microbial life waking after thousands, possibly millions, of frozen years. The soil is transpiring—perspiring one could say since more moisture is being released than absorbed—and animals and plants are taking note. It is a new world, and intelligent life—the smart genes—is sniffing it out, sending out suckers, seeds and scouts, ranging north, getting ready.

The Treeline is a mind-blowing piece of work that will teach you many, many things you never suspected, while feeding your sense of awe and your sense of dread. We look to the margins for evidence of large changes in the world, tell-tale signs like rising levels along water frontages, expanding desert edges, changes in growing seasons, changes in wildlife. The treeline was the edge Ben Rawlence chose.

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Ben Rawlence – Image from 5 x 15

He had spent years writing human rights reports and trying to get the UN and governments to address refugee issues, but when he started writing through the eyes of the refugees themselves, in several books, many more people began to listen.

Understanding that the conflict and the displacement that was going on was driven by climate change I began to look for other examples, other parts of the world where we could see this process in action, where we could see climate breakdown as history already, and we could catch a glimpse of the future that awaits the rest of us. So I began digging around and doing research and came across this very arresting image of the trees and the forest moving north towards the pole. I discovered that the forest was on the move and the trees were turning the white arctic green. They shouldn’t be on the move. That’s not supposed to happen. And this sinister fact has huge consequences for all life on earth. – from the 5×15 piece

So, what exactly is the treeline? Generically, it is the latitude above which there are no trees, roughly the Arctic Circle. Another measure is the rippled line around the globe south of which the average July temperature is ten degrees centigrade or higher. (The Arctic Squiggle?) Discovering that the Arctic treeline consisted of mostly six types of trees, he set about to look at each of these.

Scots pine in Scotland, birch in Scandinavia, larch in Siberia, spruce in Alaska and, to a lesser extent, poplar in Canada and rowan in Greenland. I decided to visit each tree in its native territory, to see how the different species were faring in response to warming, and what their stories might mean for the other inhabitants of the forest, including us.

The Arctic treeline is actually fairly squishy, not so much a line as an area of transition, an ecotone, where tree presence diminishes rather than ceases. Rawlence begins with a look at where he lives, in Wales, at the yew, struggling to persist in a world that is no longer conducive to its needs. But that may be changing. Then, it is off to the Cairngorm Mountains in Scotland, the Scandinavian interior, Siberia (larch), Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, looking at the role the boreal plays in our environment, and at the impact of global warming on these borderlands.

More than the Amazon rainforest, the boreal is truly the lung of the world. Covering one fifth of the globe, and containing one third of all the trees on earth, the boreal is the second largest biome, or living system, after the ocean. Planetary systems—cycles of water and oxygen, atmospheric circulation, the albedo effect, ocean currents and polar winds—are shaped and directed by the position of the treeline and the functioning of the forest.

One of the things that most impressed me, among the many fascinating nuggets to be found here were descriptions of the structures underlying forests.

Wherever there are mushrooms, ferns, bracken and particular kinds of woodland plants like violets there was once forest. Rings of mushrooms are usually the outline, the long-ago earthwork of a tree stump. There are between fifteen and nineteen ecto-mycorrhizal fungi (fungi growing around the roots) in a mature pine forest, and they play a role in everything from carbon and nutrient transport to lichen cover, taking sugar from the tree and providing it with minerals in exchange. Planting trees without regard for the essential symbiotic “other half” of the forest below ground may be far less effective than allowing the ground to evolve into woodland at its own pace. Oliver Rackham describes a planted oak wood in Essex that even after 750 years still does not possess the orchids, plants and mushrooms that you would expect of a natural wood.

I was reminded of what it might look like to see a city like New York or London from above and believe it to be constructed entirely of the visible structures, not appreciating that there are vast underground networks, water lines, sewer lines, gas lines, electrical lines, communication cables, transit tubes, and the like that provide the lifeblood which allows the above-ground, visible city to survive. Globally, these threads of mycorrhizal fungi make up between a third and a half of the living mass of soils. Soil is in fact a huge, fragile tangle of tiny connected threads. Having done some digging in our back yard, I can very much appreciate that.

Another impressive feat is Rawlence’s strength in communicating how local populations interact with the trees among which they live. There are many surprises to be found here, in the range of specific benefits trees provide for one, which includes the fact that they transmit aerosols carrying chemicals that help maintain health in humans, that their leaves, berries, bark and other parts providing medicine for a wide range of illnesses, that they provide materials that oceans need to sustain life, that they drive planetary weather. Did you know that there are birch trees with things called trichomal hairs on the underside of their leaves, that capture particulates from the air, natural air filters that then allow the materials to be dropped to the ground, and washed away with the next rain? They also act like a fur coat for the leaves. The list goes on. You will be surprised by many of the uses that Arctic peoples have devised to make use of their local trees.

Will it be possible to continue such a positive relationship as the land becomes less supportive of human endeavors? The Sami people, for example, are finding it increasingly difficult to manage their reindeer herds. Snowmobiles are less than ideal when there is no snow. Substituting four-wheel All Terrain Vehicles may allow them to herd their critters, but using them damages the landscape even more. At what point will it be impossible to continue at all?

There are plenty of dark tidings. In this ring of melting ice global warming is taking place at a rate far in excess of what we experience in the more temperate zones. And then this unnerving bit; with more Co2 in the air, trees do not need to work so hard to get what they need, thus will produce less oxygen. Uh oh. As the forests of the northern hemisphere migrate north (race actually, at a rate of hundreds of feet a year in some places instead of inches per century) they are pursued on their southern end by increasingly fire-prone conditions. How much of our forest land will be consumed by a Langolier-like army of drought and flames before finding more welcoming climes? And then there is methane, pretty pearl-like bubbles when seen through clear Arctic ice, but how about this cheery nugget as permafrost becoming permaslush?

Some studies have suggested that an unstable seabed could release a methane “burp” of 500–5000 gigatonnes, equivalent to decades of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to an abrupt jump in temperature that humans will be powerless to arrest.

In pop science books, the author acts as a guide to the subject matter, introducing us to the places he visits, and the experts he consults. Rawlence is an engaging and informative teacher with a gift for extracting local cultural lore and area-specific histories, as well as reporting the science in accessible terms. He seems like someone you would want to hang out with. You would certainly like to sign up for any class he teaches. You will learn a lot. He is also a lyrical writer, able to offer not only straight-ahead exposition, but poetical, sometimes emotion-filled reactions to the places he visits and the experiences he has on this journey.

The brilliant sun on the pinkish cliffs and the starched blue of the sky, which has been mostly hidden all week, make the morning sing. The scent of a meadow is so heady it should be bottled. The hay has been freshly cut: huge plastic-covered bales guide the eye to a combine harvester abandoned mid-job, its windows covered in sparkling dew. Beyond, the path crosses the meadow to a wide bend that the flooding river has worked into a series of interlinked channels. The little bridges have been overwhelmed and carefully placed stepping-stones lie visible in the clear stream, half a meter underwater. Feet have cut a higher path along the edge of the valley, around drowned shrubs, riparian willow now floating midstream. The roar of the main river is all around. Gray water cradling slabs of dirty ice meanders around a cliff and then widens into a foaming skirt over even-sized white granite boulders that snag the ice and make it dance and nod until it falls apart and joins the sea-ward torrent.

Rawlence a not a fan of western capitalism, and it would be difficult to argue that the short-term profit motive is not at variance with the long-term health of the planet, but places that were at least nominally socialist did a pretty good job of devastating their environments too. Maybe the problem is a human one first, and a economic-political one second. Maybe if we lived as long as some trees (not all are long-lived) we might have a more long-term view of what matters, and not keep rushing to use everything as fast as we possibly can before someone else does. Rawlence keeps his eyes on the scientific and anthropological issues at hand. How is warming impacting these trees, the landscapes in which they exist, the societies that have lived with them for centuries, and the wider world? What can we learn from the changes that have already taken place? What can we look forward to? What can we do about it?

Despite the growth of electric car usage and renewable power generation, we have arrived at this party too late, and relatively empty-handed. Attempts to mitigate global warming cannot change the fact that there is warming to come that is already baked in. We can do nothing to change that. It will continue, even were we to cease all carbon usage tomorrow. Not that we should abandon attempts to reduce emissions. But we should know that we will not see the benefits of those actions. The mitigation work we do today may impact future generations, but the planet will continue heating up for quite some time regardless. The most we can hope for in the short term is to slow the rate somewhat.

The Treeline is a must read for anyone interested in environmental issues, global warming in particular. Who doesn’t love trees? After reading this you will love them ever more. As Rawlence points out, we are at our core tree people, having evolved thumbs to get around in an arboreal world, and having lived among or near trees for all of human history. We have evolved together, and will continue to do so. But we will have to adapt to the new Anthropocene world rather than attempting to force it back into its prior form.

In the future, when the ice is gone, there may be no such thing as a treeline at all.

Review posted – February 18, 2022

Publication date – February 15, 2022

I received an ARE of The Treeline from St. Martin’s Press in return for a fair review, and a promise to plant a few saplings. Thanks, folks. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s Twitter page

Lizzie Harper, a Welsh illustrator, provided many images for the book. Sadly, there were none in the e-galley I read. But you can see some on her site. Here are links to Harper’s personal, FB, LinkedIn, PInterest, and Twitter pages

Interview
—InterMultiversal – An Interview with Ben Rawlence by Simon Morden

Items of Interest from the author
—–Video trailer for the book – 1:09
—–5 x 15 – Ben Rawlence on The Treeline – video
—–The Big Issue – ‘As the planet warms, the forest is on the move’ by Rawlence

Items of Interest
—–Patagonia Films – Treeline (Full Film) | The Secret Life of Trees – video 40:16
—–Cairngorms Connect – 200-year vision to enhance habitats, species and ecological processes across a vast area within the 600 square kilometer Cairngorms National Park.
—–NY Times – Feb. 4, 2022 – Seen From Space: Huge Methane Leaks by Henry Fountain

You Might Also Want To Check Out
—–Land by Simon Winchester
—–Being a Human by Charles Foster
—–The Earth’s Wild Music by Kathleen Dean Moore
—–Road of Bones – not in form, obviously. But this one offers a fictional horror-story take on the great north rebelling against the outrages of humanity

Music
—–George Winston – Forest
—–Sondheim – Into the Woods

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Filed under Non-fiction, Public policy, Science and Nature

The Social Leap by William von Hippel

book cover

…dealing with fellow group members is a much greater mental challenge than manipulating objects. For this reason, many scientists have adopted the social brain hypothesis, which is the idea that primates evolved large brains to manage the social challenges inherent in dealing with other members of their highly independent groups.

…lying is a uniquely human form of social manipulation that requires substantially greater cognitive sophistication. To tell a lie is to intentionally plant a false belief in someone else’s mind, which requires an awareness that the content of other minds differ from one’s own. Once I understand what you understand, I’m in a position to manipulate your understanding intentionally to include falsehoods that benefit me. That is the birth of lying.

William Von Hippel’s The Social Leap looks at the crucial importance of our social evolution as we developed from australopithecines to Homo erectus to the Homo sapiens of today. The first phase was cutting out dependence on

Trees – come on down, why don’t ya. Of course, it was more like an eviction than an option, as changes in the environment made it necessary to descend to find greener pastures, or savannahs, actually. (Sure sounds like being kicked out of Eden to me, going from top tier predator to prey, leaving a verdant, arboreal life for a world of danger). And once our great-great-grandparents had been forced down, there was a clear advantage to

Bipedalism – stay up on those legs, and get a better view over the tall, tall grass, big guy. It might give you a heads up on those incoming lions. Of course, that took many millennia to evolve. Those who succeeded at walking on all twos lived to breed and make more little two-steppers. As we no longer had the need to climb, well, constantly anyway, those lower limbs could be re-focused on locomotion.

If we had not become bipedal, we almost assuredly would never have learned to throw so well, in which case the social-cognitive revolution that made us human might not have happened, either.

The physical realignment that resulted over hundreds of thousands of years is why we have creatures like Jacob deGrom walking the earth. It allowed them to do something their predecessors could not, throw things, rocks in particular, but I expect whatever was lying about would do, which came in pretty handy when something with large claws and teeth was coming at them. But being able to hit a moving strikezone from a distance was not, in and of itself, sufficient. It took something more to turn this rather huge change into a formidable force,

Cooperation – Instead of running in all directions from an incoming large kitty, they learned to join together with their fellow homo saps and throw rocks at the invaders. Voila, y’all get to live another day, or at least until the next predator attack, (and you might even get a nice meal out of the exchange) but that is a lot better than it might have been had you not joined together. This confluence of the ability to throw and the ability to throw as a group at a specific target, allowed humankind to claim the throne (iron?) of apex predator. Think of those films about medieval battles in which a phalanx of archers launches five hundred arrows at the enemy at once. More effective than a single archer, no? The only things we needed to fear, as a group, were other groups of Homo erectus.

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William von Hoppel – image from Singularity University

This combination is a major element in what separates us from our forebears (which sounds uncomfortably ursine in this context) in the primate family tree, cooperation, and learning to kill at a distance. It is not that no other species cooperates, but there is no species that has done so to the astronomical level of Homo sapiens. And that initial cooperation, for self AND group protection has led to a world of change. Also, no other species has mastered the art of long-distance defense, or offense, depending, perhaps the greatest advance in military technology ever.

That change is manifest in the considerable size of our brains. Much larger than our Australopithicus, erectus, habilis, and all our early ancestors. Did we gain our cranial advantage from having to invent methods of coping with the world? von Hippel says not. He argues that most of the cause of our sudden boost in gray matter occurred because when we opted for cooperation for self-defense, that blossomed into cooperation across a passel of other matters as well, and created a social species, and that very pact of cooperation forced us to change.

…dealing with fellow group members is a much greater mental challenge than manipulating objects. For this reason, many scientists have adopted the social brain hypothesis, which is the idea that primates evolved large brains to manage the social challenges inherent in dealing with other members of their highly independent groups.

Cooperation may have been born out of a need for self-defense, but it broadened to form the basis of a community. Instead of only ever thinking of personal survival, our orientation was changed to having to consider the needs of the group at least as much as our own needs. So cooperation within the group was paramount. Anyone found to be slacking in doing their bit to support the group, piss enough of the group off, for whatever reasons, and you would likely be tossed out on your loincloth, and make a fine meal for a large local predator. Ostracism = death = no more babies for you = how natural selection externalizes those whose behavior leads to their death. But there was still

Competition within the group for mates. Von Hippel points out that mate choices were largely driven by females, who had a far greater amount at risk than any male. It is not really so different today, even to the physical characteristics that we find attractive in a mate. And then there was competition with those outside the group, which led to a not groundless

Hating/Fearing of the outsider, the other. When we evolved to the apex predator point that the only real threat to the group was from other groups of Homo erectus, we became particularly wary of outsiders. Not only might they attack us militarily, maybe take prey and other foods in our hunting domain, but they could make us ill. One does not need to have a theory of microbes to learn from experience that contact with certain groups is likely to result in illness. This inclination to be wary of anyone outside our group, however that may be defined, has certainly flourished in our DNA and in our social organizations. Thus racism, xenophobia, and bigotry of all sorts. Part of the development of our groups, clans, tribes, et al, was the development of a

Theory of Mind, meaning a desire, and some ability to see what is in someone else’s mind, gauge what they are thinking, even if the people of that time had no such grad school terminology. They learned to evaluate what other people were thinking and learned how to turn that knowledge to their advantage. The methods for accomplishing this make considerable use of

Lying and Exaggerating

But most of our smarts are going be dedicated to jockeying and manipulating our position among others. And if that’s the case, then the truth is only semi-important. If I can convince you of a world that’s actually favorable to me, then I can get you to back down in conflicts or defer to me when you really shouldn’t; that is a form of power. – from the Vox interview

Sound like something that might be relevant today? Even with our predilections we are not creatures of instinct. Unlike other animals we do not carry inside us a set of instructions on how to get by in the world. And our brains are not even ready to take in the information until we have been around a relatively long time. So we must be taught. Our urges, our impulses will still be there, but we do not have to yield to them. At least 50% of who we are, what we do, is the product of choice, and education. As a result, our genes may not be able to order us around, but they are ever-present, and bossy.

The tale revs up big time when it gets to the beginning of agriculture. I will leave that, and it’s very relevant look at the beginnings of contemporary society, for you to discover for yourself. It explains a lot.

Von Hippel certainly makes a strong case for our cranial ballooning being more the result of having to cope with other people, rather than from having to invent things. We are social creatures, who are both inclined toward cooperation, but also primed for competition, for mates and against outsiders. Thus the aphorism All’s fair and love and war.

This book was written as an attempt to help explain why we behave today in the ways that we do. What evolutionary basis might there be for those behaviors.

…potential ancestors who wandered the woods in the moonlight were less likely to survive and procreate, and thereby less likely to pass on their proclivity for midnight strolls. This is how evolution shapes our psychology, with the end result being that no one needs to tell you to be afraid of the dark; it comes naturally.

There are plenty of roots to be found here to the forest of our current world. Many of the ancestral behaviors described in this book were waaaaay too familiar. I found that throughout the book, while the socio-psychological evolution of humans was totally fascinating, I kept flashing specifically to the politics of today. So much of what von Hippel writes of offers an understanding, or at least some insight into the psychology of politics in the time of Trump. Don’t mistake me, I am not saying this is an anti-Trump screed. It is not. But some of what is in here makes understandable what seems singularly opaque about the motivations of any true Trump (or any other demagogue or authoritarian) supporter (those who are not cynically supporting Trump in order to accrue personal gain in some specific way). As in, how can any sane person buy into Trump’s transparent stream of lies, xenophobia, and demagoguery? There are plenty of group-think practitioners on the left as well, but those tend not to have guns, or to bother, ya know, voting, or threatening to kill people. But the innate need for the approval of the group makes it possible that people will believe whatever they want to believe, regardless of objective truth, and that is a very difficult barrier to breach. Von Hippel may make this dynamic more understandable, but it makes it no less frightening and disheartening.

The similarities between ancestral and contemporary mate selection preferences was quite interesting, as is his discussion of leadership styles, contrasting the styles of those who rule for all (elephants) with those who rule only for themselves (baboons), as is his discussion of how a division of labor enabled early man a great ability to do well in the world, as is his explanation for the basis of politeness.

This is very much a pop-psychology book, aimed at a general audience. It is eminently readable, and offers brain candy of the first order. Von Hippel cites his sources (including his own research) for the sundry opinions offered, without leaving one struggling with obscure charts or mathematical formulae. He is an excellent writer with a friendly, familiar style that will make the information go down very easily. I recommend checking out some of the videos linked in EXTRA STUFF, to get a feel for how he sounds as a lecturer and interviewee. He comes across very much the same in the book. Von Hippel is absolutely the prof you want for your psych classes.

You will not have to get an ok from your group to go ahead and check this book out. The Social Leap will expand your brain, without you having to wait a few hundred thousand years. That counts as real progress.

Of all the preferences that evolution gave us, I suspect the desire to share the contents of our minds played the single most important role in elevating us to the top of the food chain.

Review posted – December 17, 2021

Publication date – November 13, 2018

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, LinkedIn, and Twitter pages

Von Hippel was born, raised, and educated in the USA. He taught at Ohio State and Williams College for over a decade. He has been teaching and conducting research in evolutionary social psychology in Australia for more than twenty years, since 2006 as a professor at the University of Queensland. He lives in Brisbane with his family

Interviews
—–Vox – Why humans evolved into such good bullshitters By Sean Illing
—–The Covid Tonic – Autism and Innovation – 2:03
Most folks. Because we are inherently social creatures, will seek social solutions to presenting problems. But people who are much less socially adept, those on the autism spectrum, for example, will, as a group, turn more to technical solutions to problems.
—–Owltail – There are several audio interviews available here
—–Vox – Why humans evolved into such good bullshitters – by Sean Illing
—–London Real – What Women Look for in Men – 3:32
—–London Real – WILLIAM VON HIPPEL-THE SOCIAL LEAP: Who We Are, Where We Come From, and What Makes Us Happy Part 1/2 – 45:37 – begin at 3:20

Items of Interest from the author
—–The Evolutionary Origins of Human Culture – Von Hippel offers a lecture on the origins of culture
—–The Royal Institute of Australia – Seven Deadly Sins: Lust – Is Love Blind? – Bill von Hippel – 26:38 – on how physical differences between males and females result in psychological differences as well, the impacts of testosterone, selecting long-term mates, and the significance of menopause

Just in case the ones linked here are not enough, there are many videos of the author being interviewed or delivering lectures.

Item of Interest
—–Five Early Hominids – Introduction to Hominids

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Filed under Non-fiction, Psychology and the Brain, Reviews, Science and Nature

Fuzz by Mary Roach

book cover

…I…follow along behind a small group of conservation officers heading to the lawn outside. Their leather hiking boots squeak as they walk. “So she looks in her rearview mirror,” one is saying, and there’s a bear in the back seat earing popcorn.” When wildlife officers gather at a conference, the shop talk is outstanding. Last night I stepped onto the elevator as a man was saying, “Ever tase an elk?”

Mary Roach is up to her old tricks. A science writer now publishing her seventh book, Roach has written for many publications, including National Geographic, Wired, NY Times Magazine, and many more. She begins with a notion, then goes exploring. Roach tells Goodreads, in a book-recommendation piece, that she came across a potential story about cattle breeders staging deaths to commit insurance fraud. She even had a grand theft avocado story lined up, but the local Smokeys would not let her come along, which was a requisite. She shifted to wildlife.

I paid a visit to a woman at the National Wildlife Service forensics lab who had authored a paper on how to detect counterfeit “medicinal” tiger penises. – from the GR piece

Wait! What? (there is link to the study in EXTRA STUFF, of course) But again it was nogo accompanying the officers into the field. Really? Her presence would blow a National Wildlife Service raid on a market selling junk johnsons? It is pretty easy to come up with a descriptive for such unwarranted reticence. (Rhymes with sickish.) In any case, in her investigative travels, Mary came across a weird 1906 book about the prosecution and execution of animals and realized she had her hook. What if animals were the perpetrators of crimes instead of people? She breaks the book down into “criminal” categories, homicide, B&E, man-slaughter, larceny, even jaywalking, and off we go.

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Mary Roach – image from Lapham’s Quarterly

First, and foremost, I need to let you know straight away that you will be laughing out loud at least every few pages. This is not an experience I have with any other writer, and yet have had it consistently with Mary Roach, across the several books of hers that I have read. Ditto here. Well, fine, your sense of humor may not be like mine, but Mary has the key to my funny-bone.

Her intro offers a stunning representation of just how stupid people have been when attempting to enforce laws on animals over the course of history. Python-worthy material, totally side-splitting, and jaw-dropping. Really, they actually did that? Yes, gentle reader, they totally did.

On June 26, 1659, a representative from five towns in a province in northern Italy initiated legal proceedings against caterpillars. The local specimens, went the complaint, were trespassing and pilfering from people’s gardens and orchards. A summons was issued and five copies made and nailed to trees in forests adjacent to each town. The caterpillars were ordered to appear in court…Of course no caterpillars appeared at the appointed time, but the case went forward anyway.

It goes on. Would have been tough making a charge stick anyway. They would have just blamed each other. It was that caterpillar, not me. I was nowhere near that orchard. And even if they were jailed they would have just flown out anyway. The law may be a ass, far too often, but sometimes it truly boggles the mind.

As usual, Mary interviews experts in all the areas she investigates. She begins her contemporary explorations with a gathering of Canadian Conservation officers (in the USA) getting Wildlife Human Attack Response Training or WHART. They don’t, but you go right on ahead and call it what it is, CSI-Wildlife – DUUUUUM-DA-DUM! Mary brings plenty of funny to her reporting, but a lot of it is simply laying out the facts and letting them make you laugh themselves. For example, the test manikins are named for brands of beer. Good one, eh? And there is that quote at the top of the review. You will also learn some real-world intel like the significance of a round versus a more oval drop of blood at a crime scene.

As usual with Mary, you will find yourself learning a whole bunch of information you never knew you wanted to know, like how to tell the difference between a bear and a cougar kill. (No, not that sort of cougar, the one with fur and claws, a mountain lion, Geez! and no, no, no, not that sort of bear, creatures of the Ursus genus, not those other large hairy beasts. Stop that right now!) She considers issues with elephants, leopards, cougars, bears, macaques, gulls, vultures and other birds, rats and mice, trees, and beans. Come again?

The lines here get a bit vague. It is not just animals that are the focus but some non-critter-based elements of nature as well. Sticking with critters for the moment, there are considerable challenges in managing the interface between people and animals. For instance, the vig that farm mice seem to extract from farmers regardless of what is done to get rid of them can turn peaceable crop-growers homicidal. Mary looks at the control methods that have been tried, and explores a promising, more laid-back approach.

Rats in the Vatican (which is an outstanding name for a band, just sayin’) present the challenge of managing the property while taking seriously the lead of Saint Francis of Assisi, an animal rights figure of long-standing, and a major inspiration for Pope, ya know, Francis. Mary talks to the guy in charge of this problem (I could not help but imagine Father Guido Sarducci, sorry), the Vatican Director of Gardens and Garbage, Rafael Torning. The considerable Vatican rat population has a taste for wires, and damages a lot of machinery. VG&G does what they can, trying to avoid using nasty chemicals. But even so, aren’t there ethical concerns? So, she talks with the house bioethicist, Father Carlo. Let’s just say that if you could count the number of angels on the head of a pin, Father Carlo could very nicely twist all of them into pretzels with his words.

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A possible solution to half of the Vatican’s Gull-and-rats problem? – image from the Irish Sun

The Vatican has a considerable problem with herring gulls as well, thousands of ‘em. None of this Mary Poppins Feed the Birds nonsense. The feathered rabble that descend on Saint Peter’s seem more like the gathered horde in that Hitchcock movie. You will not come away from this book fond of gulls. I found her lapsed-Catholic’s tour of the Vatican to be worth many, many indulgences, rich as it was with fun details and ambience.

Chapters on elephants and leopards are particularly alarming.

…when a leopard stalks and kills more than three or four people, villagers consider it a demon. – [it, clearly, considers them takeout]

There was one historical case in which a single leopard killed over a hundred people. Mary travels with government and non-government people as they try to educate local populations in best practices for avoiding potential conflict. Not all leopard attacks are the same. You will learn the sorts. And not all attacking leopards are handled the same way. She looks at changes that have been at least partially implemented to try to reduce the carnage. (Indoor toilets, for example), and the challenges going forward in handling the problem, getting leopards to leave people alone.

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Leopard – image from Wild Cats India

When it comes to elephants, Mary Roach knows her shit, literally. She reports on a Smithsonian project that measured daily defecation by an Indian elephant. A poop scooper will not do. Maybe a poop plow? 400 pounds, give or take, per diem. Elephants loom large as a danger, laying waste to crops, trampling fields and bulldozing buildings. People are sometimes accidentally trampled. Sometimes it is no accident, as when one elephant did a headstand on someone. A bull elephant in an elevated period of breeding excitement, called musth, is particularly aggressive and a mortal peril. She can also tell you about the effectiveness of small arms against big pachyderms. Keep your powder dry. Most bullets do little or no damage. Even a bit of armor-piercing ordnance intended for tanks needs a follow up to get the job done.

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Indian elephant in musth – image from Wikipedia

Monkeys in India come in for a look. Macaques in particular, have made pests of themselves in urban areas, becoming aggressive thieves, to the point of violence, and even of extortion, as some will steal your phone, handing it back only when you pay the fee in food. Government officials struggle to come up with solutions, tough in a place where the monkey is a sacred animal. It is impossible to deliver directed doses of birth control without endangering other native wildlife, for example. Roach delivers a bleak portrait of official finger-pointing and inaction.

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Street Monkeys in India – image from Outlook

While reporting on the damage done to area farms and people, and the impact of wildlife in places populated with humans, Roach does point out that a lot (all) of these conflicts result from people expanding into the native territory of dangerous or potentially pestiferous, animals.

I was surprised that there were parts of the book dedicated to non-creature natural perils. The material is interesting, but thematically it felt a bit off the central topic.

There is much surprise information (well, for me anyway) about “danger trees,” those fully grown trees that have come to the end of their lives, at least in terms of growing. They still serve as useful woodland citizens by providing places in which creatures can nest, wood in which bugs can live, biomaterials that will be absorbed back into the woods. This is all good, but there is still one problem. The rotting tops of these gentle souls can come crashing down on passers-by, unaware of the peril. The approach that is taken, by woodland managers makes one wonder whether it is better to yell “Timber” or “Fire in the Hole!”

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Decay throughout this tree makes it too hazardous to fell with a saw. It was felled with one bundle of fireline explosives taped to the side of the tree – image and text from the US Forest Service

There is an element in this book that you should be aware of. The disposal of animals considered pests. This is of particular relevance in places where invasive species have arrived and laid waste to significant segments of the local fauna, and/or flora. Not all of these are the usual suspects, stowaway rats wiping out bird populations with their fondness for eggs, brown snakes, ditto and far too many others, often foolishly introduced by people attempting to counteract an earlier invasives problem. Some of the invaders are adorable and not on your likely list of things that MUST BE EXTERMINATED NOW. Mary looks at the techniques attempted (usually failed) and on the thought that goes into trying to make a creature’s passing as quick as possible. You might want to skip that chapter (14). Many of my daily companions are on that list and, although I did read it all, it was disquieting at times. Just lettin’ ya know. I hope this does not turn you off the book if you are otherwise interested.

She does focus on ways in which people can live in coexistence with nature. This includes a greater understanding of the deer-in-the-headlights syndrome, and a workable approach for reducing roadway carnage.

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Deer in the headlights – image from Bryans Blog

I have issues with the titling of the book. The raised-patch addition to the hardcover jacket goes very nicely with the patches my wife and I picked up at many US National Parks. Mary might have called it Nature Gone Wild, but that was already taken. Naming it Fuzz, though, (maintaining the tradition of single-syllable Mary Roach book titles) does make it seem like it is about the police-type officials who are charged with coping when forces of nature interfere with people. Although there were indeed some badged officials in her stable of interviewees and guides through these fascinating worlds, she spoke as often with people who were researchers or administrators, and the stories were about the problems, not so much the law enforcers. Many may be related to parks here and there. Some were employed by wildlife services, but it just did not sit well with me. Her reporting is as much about a wider view of the issues as it is about the direct, Book-em, Danno “crimes” supposedly perpetrated on people by the furry or feathered set. So, I will not shy away from this. When it comes to actually describing what the book is about the title is decidedly fuzzy. There. I did it, and I am not sorry. Well, ok, maybe a little. Not that I can come up with anything better, just whining.

That done, it is clear that wherever Mary Roach shines her light there will be surprises, there will be new knowledge, and there will be smiles, lots and lots of smiles, covered with copious quantities of laughter. Follow along behind Mary as she opens some closed doors, peeks into some hidden corners, and pesters defenseless officials to find fascinating, wondrous real-world material. Even despite that one grim chapter, I found myself reacting as I always do to a Mary Roach book, laughing out loud, often, very, very often. There is a definite joy in trailing after Mary as she shines her very bright light into unseen corners and calls back “Hey guys, come see what I found!” If you have enjoyed her books before, this one should do quite nicely. There is nothing fuzzy about that at all.

Feeding animals, as we know, is the quickest path to conflict. The promise of food motivates normally human-shy animals to take a risk. The risk-taking is rewarded, and the behavior escalates. Shyness becomes fearlessness, and fearlessness becomes aggression. If you don’t hand over the food you are carrying, the monkey will grab it. If you try to hold onto it, or push the animal away…it may slap you. Or bite you. The Times of India put the number of monkey bites reported by Delhi hospitals in 2018 at 950. [When your teenager makes off with your car, just remember that it all began when they were small, and you made the mistake of offering them food]

Review posted – October 29, 2021

Publication date – September 21, 2021

I received this book from Barnes & Noble in return for cold, hard cash

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal and Twitter pages

Interviews
—– Mary Roach Discusses Craft & Humor in Science Writing With the Northwest Science Writers Association with Hannah Weinberger and Ashley Braun of Northwest Science Writers Association – video – 1:05:08 – Covers her entire career
—–Commonwealth Club – Mary Roach’s Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law – with Kara Platoni – audio – 1:04:44 – a lot of fascinating material in this one – more focused on this book
—–Bookpage – Mary Roach – Hot on the trail of nature’s outlaws by Alice Cary
—–Goodreads – Mary Roach’s Highly Unusual True Crime Recommendations

Other Mary Roach books we have enjoyed
—–2016 – Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War
—–2013 – Gulp
—–2010 – Packing for Mars
—–2006 – Spook
—–2004 – Stiff

Items of Interest
—–National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory – Distinguishing Real Vs Fake Tiger Penises – Where it all began for Mary re this book – You know you’re curious – yes, there are illustrations
—–The Guardian – Vultures who came to stay bring year of acid vomit and toxic feces to small town by Adam Gabbatt – Geez, talk about pests!
—–NY Times – Indians Feed the Monkeys, Which Bite the Hand by Gardiner Harris

Songs/Music
—–Mary Poppins – Feed the Birds – Julie Andrews

Scrabble Words – from the book, to weaponize against family and friends in the game
–—-frass – insect excreta – white powder that appears on trees (Not a birch! Please do not lean there.)
—–kerf – space left by a saw-blade cut in a tree (not necessarily by a man wearing a leather mask)
—–kronism – the eating of one’s offspring (named for Saturn. Did not work out well for him, though)
—–musth – a periodic condition in bull (male) elephants characterized by highly aggressive behavior and accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones. (from Wiki) (aka Friday night?)

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Filed under Non-fiction, Reviews, Science and Nature

Life’s Edge by Carl Zimmer

book cover

…the question of what it means to be alive has flowed through four centuries of scientific history like an underground river… More than 150 years later, despite all that biologists have learned about living things, they still cannot agree on the definition of life.

I have had the pleasure of driving up a mountain through mist and cloud, and of walking in London through pea soup fog. Where exactly did the clear air end and the more particulate air begin? It is not entirely…um…clear. Sure, there is a difference between standing, or driving in air that one cannot visually penetrate and looking through a wide outdoor expanse on a cloud-free, crystalline winter day. But it is not a barrier drawn with a straight edge. Thus it appears with the line between living and not-living. With the examples detailed in Life’s Edge, it is clearer than ever that there are more things under heaven and earth than had been dreamed of in our philosophies. There are those, certainly, who proclaim that this or that specific location is where the thing called life begins. Rules have been drawn up to plant markers, to draw lines. But like an outdoor crime-scene police-tape, the fog of what lies within and without wanders freely past those lines, with no regard for the designs or preferences of humans.

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Carl Zimmer – image from The Psychology Podcast

New York Times science columnist and multiple-award-winning science-writer Carl Zimmer’s fourteenth book takes readers on an exploration to that amorphous borderland between the living and the non-living. It is a journey that raises a lot more questions than it answers. Zimmer employs a tried and true approach, each chapter moving on to the next lab, the next researcher, the next wild bit of research, and filling in with nice chunks of science history, as he circles around the question.

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Alysson Muotri – image from The Stem Cell Podcast

Many of the things Zimmer reports on are fascinating. Some, however, will disturb your sleep. For an example of the latter, Alysson Muotri, at the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, takes skin samples and reprograms them into neurons to study neurological diseases and possible treatments. They are grown into miniature organs called organoids, and are allowed to reproduce, up to a point. When he started growing these things, he assumed that they could never become conscious. “Now I’m not so sure, he confessed.” Zimmer tells, also, of a researcher, a very long time ago, who was notorious for experimenting on living animals.

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Cerebral organoid – image from European Research Council

Clearly a significant concern for our culture is where “life” begins, and further, where “human life” begins. It all comes down to definitions. Is Thomas Aquinas’s notion of the “ensoulment” of human embryos the same as defining when life becomes human life? There have been other notions employed in the history of Christianity. Zimmer looks at how legal definitions of life, for purposes including supporting abortion laws, and concerning a widening spectrum of medical and legal issues, fail to hold up under scientific scrutiny.

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”It’s Alive!” (or is it?) – from Frankenstein – image from Buzzfeed

The concern here is not just what is life, but how can we tell when something actually is alive? He looks at how humans perceive life and react to it. We have a sense of life being present or absent, an intuition that is not unique to our species. Ravens hold what can only be seen as funerals for dead flock members. Chimps engage in group laments for late members, as do many other creatures.

To be alive is to not be dead…Humanity did not come to this realization through logic and deduction. Our understanding of death is not like Darwin’s theory of evolution or Thompson’s discovery of the electron. It has its origins in ancient intuitions.

Zimmer looks at metabolic rate. In the 17th century, there was a widespread fear of being afflicted with a death-like state that might leave its victims without detectable breath or heartbeat, thus generating a rampant terror of being buried alive. This concern inspired a well-known short story.

The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. – Edgar Allan Poe, The Premature Burial

Zimmer reports on a woman who was pronounced dead, twice. (third time’s the charm?) Where is the line between brain death and true, no backsies, total death? Can a person meet the criteria for brain death one day, and later not meet it?

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From The Night of the Living Dead – image from Wikipedia

But what constitutes life? How about adding some ingredients to agar, leaving it alone for a few hours and then finding a thriving slime mold, one with remarkable survival skills. What about spores, some of which can survive in space? Are spores alive? Or only potentially alive, or an ingredient in a recipe for making life?

Scientists have been arguing over whether viruses are alive for about a century, ever since the pathogens came to light. Writing last month in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology, two microbiologists (Hugh Harris and Colin Hill) at University College Cork took stock of the debate. They could see no end to it. “The scientific community will never fully agree on the living nature of viruses,” they declared. – from Zimmer’s Secret Life piece in the NY Times

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“I vunder vut it vood be like to be really dead” – image from The Indy Channel

Whether you prefer your undead to be of the vampiric, zombie, or reanimated sort, or are more inclined to unicellular spore candidates, or maybe pre-conscious organoids, there are plenty of candidates for entities on the fringes of life.

In addition to providing readers with a better handle on the attempt to delineate the line between life and not-life, there are plenty of interesting questions raised and fun facts to be gleaned. We learn, for example, that Erwin Schrödinger was set up by the government at Trinity College. (But he may have simultaneously both been there and not, depending on whether any students saw him give a lecture.) We also learn that when Vitamin C was discovered, the discoverer wanted to name it “Godnose.” And how about meteorites as a possible source of Terran life? Or maybe they contributed one or more of the ingredients necessary for the recipe? I particularly enjoy when science writers imbue their work with a sense of humor. That is mostly lacking here, which is disappointing. But there is plenty of material to keep your brain cells flashing on and off.

Who decides on a definition of life? In an ideal world, science should lead on matters that are subject to physical investigation and repeatable experimentation. And yet…

It may be enough for you to align with Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who, when it came time to issue a ruling pertaining to pornography, said that he knows it when he sees it. We as a species tend to think that we know life when we see it. But it would be a good thing to recognize that all extant definitions of life are squishy, relying on philosophy or religion for their support. So I would appreciate it if no one would use their definition to tell me or anyone who does not share their perspective what they can or cannot do. Because when it comes to folks twisting science to political ends, I know it when I see it.

Life’s Edge may not provide a definitive guide to the line between living and nonliving. Such a line does not really exist in biology. But it does point out where the arguments lie about where those lines might be drawn, or, at least, where they might be investigated. It raises the larger question, though, of whether that line can, at least from a scientific perspective, be drawn at all.

Life is what the scientific establishment (probably after some healthy disagreement) will accept as life.

Review first posted – March 19, 2021

Publication dates
———-March 9, 2021 – hardcover
———-March 8, 2022 – trade paperback

I received an e-book ARE if Life’s Edge from Dutton in exchange for an honest review, and some of those interesting things that have been growing, unasked, in my basement.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, Tumblr, PInterest, and Twitter pages

I heartily recommend you check out Siddhartha Mukherjee’s amazing NY Times review What Does It Mean to Be a Living Thing?

Items of Interest from the author
—–What is Life – audio – A series of live conversations between writer Carl Zimmer and eight leading thinkers on the question of what it means to be alive.
—–Slate – excerpt – What on Earth are These Things? – on organoids
—–NY Times – The Secret Life of a Coronavirus – is it alive?

Songs/Music
—–From Sondheim’s CompanyBeing Alive
—–Aerosmith – Livin’ On the Edge
—–Opening of Saturday Night Fever – The Bee Gees Stayin’ Alive
—–Madonna – Borderline
—–GaGa – Edge of Glory
—–Shruti Haasan – Edge
—–Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life – Every Sperm is Sacred

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Filed under History, Non-fiction, Public policy, Reviews, Science and Nature

Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour

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Like a bird flying repeatedly into a pane of glass, I kept seeking Heathcote. Each time I reached out for him, the crack yawned open just a little wider, until eventually. I hurtled straight through.

How do you let go of someone you never had?

Charlie Gilmour was living in southeast London when his partner’s sister came across an abandoned chick.

Magpies leave home far too soon—long before they can really fly or properly fend for themselves. For weeks after they fledge their nests, they’re dependent on their parents for sustenance, protection, and an education too. But this bird’s parents are nowhere to be seen. They’re nor feeding it, or watching it, or guarding it; no alarm calls sound as a large apex predator approaches with footfalls made heavy by steel-toed boots. It could be no accident that the bird is on the ground. If food was running short, a savage calculation may have been performed, showing that the only way to keep the family airborne was to jettison the runt.

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From infancy to adulthood – From Charlie’s eulogy for Heathcote –photos by Polly Sampson and Charlie

This small bird with a huge personality caught his attention. Charlie’s struggles to care for, to raise, this raucous magpie parallels his growth as a person, and his lifelong struggle to get to know the man who had abandoned him as a chick months-old baby, his father, a well-known poet, artist and playwright. Heathcote Williams, for a brief period in his life, had likewise nurtured a corvid, a jackdaw, bequeathed at a country fair by a pair selling pancakes, fulfilling
an old boyhood dream
Of having a jackdaw on your shoulder, like a pirate.
Whispering secrets in your ear

Charlie seizes on this connection when he discovered the poem his father had written about the experience.

“Initially it was just meant to be a light-hearted story about this magpie that came to live with me, roosted in my hair, shat all over my clothes and stole my house keys. When my biological father died, though, it became a much, much more complicated story. Honestly, I really didn’t know what the book was about until I was quite far into the writing process.” – From the Vanity Fair interview

Williams was quite a character, a merry prankster, a Peter Pan sort, grandly creative but not the best at responsibility, able to charm all those around him, doing magic tricks, persuading people that he really was there for them, while never really being able to handle the demands or needs of the people who needed him most, leaving domestic carnage in his wake. Charlie had never really understood why, one day, he suddenly just got up and flew the coop on him and his mother, Polly Samson. This memoir tracks Charlie’s quest to make sense of the father he never really knew.

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Charlie Gilmour and his beloved magpie Benzene – image from Vanity Fair – photo by Sarah Lee

Charlie lucked out in the parent department in another way. When Mom remarried, it was to David Gilmour of Pink Floyd fame. None of David’s music career is addressed here. But he is shown as a stand-up guy, a supportive, understanding, and loving father who takes Charlie under his wing by adopting him.

Absent fathers are hardly uncommon. In 97 percent of single parent families, it’s the mother who ends up taking responsibility for the kids. The child’s impulse to seek them out is just as widespread: psychiatrists call it “father hunger”. I was lucky: I was adopted, and the man who became my dad is both a brilliant man and a brilliant parent. But the longing to know your maker is something that lives on. – from the Public reading Room piece

We follow the growth of Charlie along with Benzene. It is made clear early on that a magpie presents both challenges and delights that are uncommon in human-critter relations. Tales of bird behavior that might have one pulling out hair in clumps (which might actually be useful, as the bird stores food in Charlie’s hair) are told with warmth, and, frequently, hilarity. My favorite of these occurs when Benzene is under the sway of a nesting instinct, having settled on the top of the fridge as a place on which to construct her DIY nest. At a birthday party for her:

My dad strums her a song; my younger sister reads a poem; and a family friend, a venerable literary academic named John, unwillingly provides the sex appeal. This rather reserved man of letters is too polite to do anything but quote Shakespeare as Benzene places her birthday bluebottles and beetles lovingly up his sleeve and tugs the hem of his trousers insistently nestward.

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Heathcote Williams planning one of the Windsor free festivals in his Westbourne Park squat, London, in 1974 – Image from his obit in the Guardian – Photo by Richard Adams

Charlie’s nesting life is also under development. After he marries his partner and they talk about growing their family, he must confront his fears of being a parent himself. Nature vs nurture. Will he be the absentee his biological father was, or the rock-solid mensch of a parent he lucked into in David Gilmour? Clearly a concern that requires some resolution before going ahead and fertilizing an egg. The issue extends to a question of mental illness. Heathcote had been ill-behaved enough to get institutionalized. It was certainly the case that his behavior often crossed the line from eccentric to certifiable. Did Charlie inherit his father’s proclivities? Is genetics destiny? Charlie had committed some behavioral excesses of his own, consuming vast quantities of illegal substances, which fueled some extremely bad behavior. This landed him on the front pages of the local tabloids, swinging from a beloved and respected war memorial during a protest, and then in prison.

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Charlie with David Gilmour – image from The Guardian – photo by Sarah Lee

Charlie takes us through the attempts he made for many years to connect with Heathcote, but his father offered only teases of interest, always managing to disappear before Charlie could latch on, a hurtful bit of legerdemain.

In addition to the title, the names, which largely focus on feather development, given to the five parts of the book, set the tone. All the expected imagery is used throughout, including fledging to nest-building, to mating behavior, to molting, egg-laying and so on. It could easily have been overdone, but I found it charming. In rooting about in Heathcote’s history Charlie offers us, in addition to his personal tale, some of Heathcote’s outrageous adventures from back in the day. Charlie’s personal growth as a person adds heft.

I was reminded of a few other memoirs. In Hollywood Park, musician and writer Mikel Jollett tries, a lot more successfully than Charlie, to connect with his missing father, confronting issues of nature vs nurture. Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk looks at her training a goshawk as a coping mechanism to help in grieving for and remaining connected to her late father, similar in feathery subject matter, although it is quite a different book. Alan Cumming, in Not My Father’s Son, looks at the damage his father had done to him, trying to figure out how this mercurial man had become so cruel, as Charlie tries to figure out how his mercurial, if not overtly cruel, father had become so nurturing-phobic. John Grogan’s Marley and Me looks at the difficulties of caring for a difficult pet, and the corresponding rewards.

It is not necessary to love the memoirist to enjoy their book, but that is not an issue here. Charlie behaved rather poorly, both as a child and an early twenty-something, but learned his lesson, grew up, straightened out, and became a likable, decent sort, a very good writer who is very well able to communicate the struggles through which he has grown. It is easy to root for him to get to the bottom of what made Heathcote tick, and to find a way to make peace with what their minimal relationship had been. His writing is accessible, warm, moving, and at times LOL funny. You will need a few tissues at the ready by the end. Just for padding your roost, of course.

In the Archive, the sour smell of mold is somehow even more overpowering than it was at Port Eliot, as if the material is rebelling against the light. At the end of each day I come away filthy, sneezing, and feeling lousy—but I keep going back for more. I need this. My approach is far from methodical. I attack the body of words and images like a carrion bird, looking for the wound that will yield to my prying beak, the original injury that unravels the man. I peel back layers of skin, pick over the bones, snip my way to the heart of the matter. A patchwork biography begins to emerge; a rough story told in scavenged scraps. It feels almost like stealing, like robbing the grave, except it’s not the treasure that interests me. Heathcote’s glories get hardly a glance. It’s the traumas I’m searching for. Answers to those same old questions. Why does a person disappear? What makes a man run from his child? Why was Heathcote so afraid of family? What forces guided that nocturnal flight in Spring so many years ago?

Review posted – February 19, 2021

Publication date – January 5, 2021

I received an ARE of this book from Scribner in return for an honest review. No feathering of nests was involved. Thanks, folks.

And thanks to MC for bringing this to my attention. You know who you are.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–The One Show – The One Show: Elton John meets Charlie Gilmour
—–David Gilmour: ‘I’ve been bonded to Charlie since he was three. We were incensed by the injustice’ – Charlie and David Gilmour on their relationship and history
—–Bookpage – Charlie Gilmour: From feathers to fatherhood by Alice Cary
—–Vanity Fair – Birds of a Feather. Interview with Charlie Gilmour by Chiara Nardelli Nonino

Songs/Music
—–Donovan – The Magpie
—–The Beatles – Blackbird

Items of Interest from the author
—–Vogue – What Raising a Magpie Taught Me About My Famous, Troubled Father
—–Waterstones – a promo vid for the book – 1:52
—–5×15 Stories – Featherhood – a story about birds and fathers
—–The Guardian – ‘One spring morning my dad vanished’: the son of poet Heathcote Williams looks back
—–Public Reading Rooms – Heathcote Williams: Eulogy to the Dad I never knew
—– Charlie’s articles for Vice

Items of Interest
—–BBC – My Unusual Life | The Man Who Lives With a Magpie – a short doc on Charlie
—–Wiki on Pin feathers
—–The Guardian – David Gilmour: ‘I’ve been bonded to Charlie since he was three. We were incensed by the injustice’
—–Straight Up Herman – an arts journal blog – Being Kept by a Jackdaw – Heathcote Williams’ poem

Other memoirs of interest
—–Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett
—–H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
—–Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming
—–Marley and Me by John Grogan

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Filed under Bio/Autobio/Memoir, biography, Non-fiction, Science and Nature

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Stephen Brusatte

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Hope A Tyrannosaurus Rex is a thing with feathers.
—– Emily Dickinson Steve Brusatte

Wait, what? You’re kidding, right? Say it ain’t so. Well, there is some disagreement about this among paleontologists, but, according to Steve Brusatte, while they may not have matched up to Marc Bolan in a boa, and the feathers in question were maybe more like porcupine quills than the fluffy sort of plumage one might find on, say, an ostrich, those things poking out of the T. rex’s body were indeed feathers.

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Image from the Smithsonian

And if you think the notion of a 40-foot, seven-ton eating machine, with ginormous, dagger-like, railroad-spike-size teeth bearing down on you, is scary, consider this. They travelled in packs. Sweet dreams! I have to confess that after reading this chapter, I did indeed have at least one dream that night that included multiple representatives of the T. Rex family. Not a wonderful image to induce one back to the land of Nod, after having bolted suddenly upright from REM sleep in fight-or-FLIGHT mode.

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Hello, lunch – Image from The Real T-Rex BBC special – this one from the Mirror

But I promise, not all the revelations in The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs will make you reach for some extra alcoholic or pharmaceutical sleep inducement. What we know about dinosaurs has continued to evolve, at an accelerating rate. Some revelations in the book are surprising and delightful, like the fact that new dinosaur species are being discovered at the rate of about one a week, and that this has been going on a while. There is a lot of catching up to be done since we mastered the basic few, Triceratops, T-Rex, Brontosaurus, Archaeopteryx, Stegasaurus, Dimetrodon, and the usual gang of idiots. Much bigger gang to keep track of these days. [I strongly urge you to check out Brusatte’s U of Edinburgh lecture, linked in EXTRA STUFF, for some very decisively feathered other members of the T. rex family. Fluffy indeed!]

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Steve Brusatte – looking for Triassic vertebrate footprints in a quarry in Poland – image from palaeocast.com (Sorry, dear. I could have sworn I dropped the engagement ring right here!)

Dinosaurs had a pretty long reign as kings/queens of the hill, but they had to begin sometime. Once upon a time all the land was one, linked from north to south, called Pangea. Monster monsoons raked much of the Earth, blistering heat, deserts, jungles, except of course at the poles, which were relatively balmy. This time, from about 300 to about 250 million years ago (mya) is called The Permian Period. Then, boys and girls, the earth split a seam. All that hot material that is constantly coursing through the earth found a way out and spewed forth. Not a good time to be an earthling. It is referred to as The Permian Extinction. 90% of all life was wiped out, by lava flows, fire, global warming, airborne particles blocking the sun, and thus a dramatic, if temporary end to photosynthesis, which killed off most plant life. And the ensuing acidification of water did seriously unpleasant things to aqueous life. But, after things settled down again, which took a while, a new class of critters came to dominate, dinosaurs. Yay!

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From Pangea to now – image from LiveScience.com

The Permian period was followed by the Triassic, from 250 to 200 mya, fifty million years of nature gone wild (I have that videotape in the attic, I think). Over the course of the Triassic, things on the land started to look like the world we know today. But the continents would have to drift for many millions of years yet before they would resemble our current landmass configuration. The first true dinos showed up around 230 to 240 mya. But they did not have the planet to themselves. There were reptiles, fish, birds, insects, even mammals, small ones, around at the time.

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Metoposaurus, Kermit’s g-g-g-g-g-g-g-g-grandma, was an amphibian the size of a Buick, with a coffee-table-sized head, and, unlike those little critters you had to work with in bio lab, these pups had hundreds of very sharp teeth. It hung out by water’s edge to capture anything straying too close. Mostly fish, but watch your ankles.

There is interesting material in here about what came before the dinosaurs, (dinosauromorphs, yes, really) and where the line is drawn (arbitrarily) between dino and pre-dino. You, here, you, over there. Like Middle East borders.

Brusatte walks us through the timeline of the dinos, from conditions being established at the end of the Permian, their arrival in the Triassic, to their sudden farewell at the end of the Cretaceous. Permian, Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous. Go ahead, repeat that a few times. It’s the sequence of periods Brusatte covers here. The first three come in at around 50 million years each, with the Cretaceous hanging on for about 80. The last three, taken together, comprise what is known as the Mesozoic Era, aka The Age of the Dinosaurs. (Which makes no sense to me. Shouldn’t it be The Era of the Dinosaurs? Or the Mesozoic Age? It’s so confusing.) He shows what changed geologically, and how the changes allowed this or that lifeform to arise. (often by wiping out the competition). He also takes us along with him to dig sites around the planet, Scotland, Portugal, Poland, The American Southwest, South America, China, and more, and introduces us to some of the foremost scientists in the field.

The characters in Brusatte’s tale are not all of the ancient sort. He populates each chapter with modern specimens notable for their diversity and sometimes colorful plumage. While they may all be brilliant scientists, many could easily be classified as Anates Impar. It would not be a huge stretch to imagine them populating a nerdish Cantina scene. Here are Brusatte’s description of three of them. There are many more.

You can spot Thomas Carr, now a professor at Wisconsin’s Carthage College, from a mile away. He has the fashion sense of a 1970s preacher and some of the mannerisms of Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. Thomas always wears black velvet suits, usually with a black or dark red shirt underneath. He has long bushy sideburns and a mop of light hair. A silver skull ring adorns his hand. He’s easily consumed by things and has a long-running obsession with absinthe and the Doors. That and tyrannosaurs.

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Thomas Carr – image from his Twitter page

Baron Franz Nopcsa von Felso-Szilvas…was literally an aristocrat who dug up dinosaur bones. He seems like the invention of a mad novelist, a character so outlandish, so ridiculous, that he must be a trick of fiction. But he was very real—a flamboyant dandy and a tragic genius, whose exploits hunting dinosaurs in Transylvania were brief respites from the insanity of the rest of his life…[he had] expertise in espionage, linguistics, cultural anthropology, paleontology, motorbiking, [geology, and god knows what else].

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The Baron – image from Albanianphotograpy.com

Jingmai [O’Connor] calls herself a Paleontologista—fitting given her fashionista style of leopard-print Lycra, piercings, and tattoos, all of which are at home in the club but stand out (in a good way) among the plaid-and-beard crowd that dominates academia…she’s also the world’s number-one expert on those first birds that broke the bounds of Earth to fly above their dinosaur ancestors.

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Jingmai O’Connor – image from her Twitter page

Brusatte also shamelessly namedrops every A-list paleontologist he has encountered. Of course, it sounds like those encounters were substantial, so I guess it’s ok, but… I was reminded a bit of Bill Clinton’s memoir, in which it seemed that every person he mentioned had either changed his life or was a close personal friend. In a way, the book constitutes a this-is-your-life look at Brusatte’s paleontology career (boy meets bone?), with appearances by many of the people he had learned from or worked with. (they are legion) In addition to the studies mentioned in the book, he is the author of a widely taught textbook, Dinosaur Paleobiology. He is the paleo expert in residence on Walking with Dinosaurs (so much better than the sequel, Fleeing from Dinosaurs) on the BBC.

One of the things that has allowed modern paleontologists to make and continue to make ground-breaking discoveries about Earth’s former tenants is the major advance in technology at their disposal. It’s a lot easier, for example, to see inside a fossilized skull to measure the size and shape of internal cavities with the help of a CT scanner than it was before they were available.

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A new dinosaur, feathered, winged Zhenyuanlong from China – image from The Conversation

You will learn some fascinating new information about dinos, some of it startling. This includes how sauropods managed those looooooong necks, why wild diversification happened when it did, why it took dinosaurs as long as it did to get large and take over. There is a fascinating bit on how some dinosaurs can pack an extra punch by getting air while they breathe in and out, surprising intel on how some of the critters you thought were dinosaurs aren’t, and directions on where you can look to see actual living dinosaurs today. He punctures some of the notions from the Jurassic Park movies. If trapped by a T-Rex, for instance, do not remain motionless. Rex has binocular vision and can see you perfectly well, whether you are sitting down in a port-o-san or hiding in or under a vehicle. Wave buh-bye.

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If you do not know what this is from you need to get out more

Speaking of un-fond farewells, Brusatte take us up to and through the biggest bang of them all, on Earth anyway, 66 mya. His description of the horror that marked the end of the dinosaurs is graphic, and disturbing.

It was the worst day in the history of our planet. A few hours of unimaginable violence that undid more than 150 million years of evolution and set life on a new course. T. rex was there to see it.

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Look, up in the sky. It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s…Oh, shit
Artwork by Donald E. Davis

Brusatte has written an eminently readable pop-science history of the dinosaurs, with accessible info on geology, biology, and the work of paleontologists, who are laboring tirelessly (and maybe obsessively) to find out the answers to questions that are as old as humanity’s awareness of the erstwhile inhabitants of our planet. This is one of those books that should be in every household. You do not need to be a scientist to get a lot out of it. The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, bubbling with the enthusiasm of its author, will be an enjoyable and enlightening read for homo sapiens of all ages from pre-teen through fossil. Learning more about Earth’s illustrious, impressive, sometimes terrifying, and sometimes adorable former tenants never gets old. Really, who doesn’t love dinosaurs?

Review posted – April 13, 2018

Publication date – April 24, 2018

December 2018 – Dinosaurs may no longer rule the earth, but The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs rules the 2018 Goodreads Choice Award for Science. Reached for comment, a spokesman for Mr. Brusatte offered the following response.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal and Twitter pages

Episode 37 of Palaeocast features Steve talking about Therapods and Birds – December 1, 2014 – 44:00

A presentation by Brusatte, who is a wonderful speaker, on Tyrannosaur Discoveries, at the U of Edinburgh – Watch this, really. Great stuff.

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In the above, Brusatte talks about feathered dinos, among other things. Meet Yutyrannus huali, (artist’s interpretation) a feathered tyrannosaur from China (but you can call him Fluffy) – image from The Conversation

A fun article from the BBC – Legendary dinosaurs that we all imagine completely wrong – By Josh Gabbatiss – 3/21/16

NY Times – April 4, 2018 – Brusatte is keeping busy, publishing, with his team, a new study about the presence of dinos in Scotland, specifically in the Isle of Skye. In Footprints on Scotland’s Isle of Skye, Signs of a Dinosaur Playground – by Nicholas St. Fleur

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This image of a sauropod print accompanied the above article – from the University of Edinburgh

An interesting lecture (33 minutes) on how paleontologists research dinosaurian social behavior and what they have found – Social Behaviour in Dinosaurs – with David Hone Hone’s delivery has a sing-song rhythm that can be a bit soporific, but the content is fascinating. Of particular interest is the basis for juvenile clustering.

May, 2018 – Smithsonian Magazine – So much is going on in China, paleontologically, not all of it wonderful, as wonderful new resources are found and explored – The Great Chinese Dinosaur Boom – by Richard Conniff

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This cluster of dinosaur egg fossils, on display at the Tianyu Museum, dates back 70 million years to the late Cretaceous era – shot by Stefen Chow – text and image from above article
It reminds me of that scene in the first Alien film when they discover the nesting site

—–May 29, 2018 – Check out Ira Flatow’s effervescent review in the NY Times – When the Dinosaurs Reigned

—–June 2, 2018 – National Geographic – Wonderful, informative interview with Brusatte by Simon Worrall – Why Today is the Golden Age for Dinosaur Discoveries

—–December 17, 2018 – Feathers and Fur Fly Over Pterosaur Fossil Finding – By Nicholas St. Fleurdescription
An artist’s rendering of a short-tailed pterosaur from above article – from Yuan Zhang/Nature Ecology & Evolution

—–February 21, 2019 – NY Times – Tiny Tyrannosaur Hints at How T. Rex Became King – by Nicholas St. Fleur
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A new species of dinosaur, a tiny relative of the Tyrannosaurus rex, called Moros intrepidus, lived 96 million years ago and its fossils were found in central Utah. – Credit Jorge Gonzalez – image and text from above article

—–March 4, 2019 – NY Times – Tyrannosaurus Rex: The Once and Future King – by James Gorman – a brief summary of upcoming shows, and latest developments on the T-Rex front

—–March 7, 2019 – NY Times – T. Rex Like You Haven’t Seen Him: With Feathers by Jason Farago – on an upcoming exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History

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[from above article] A model of a 1-year-old T. rex. Most T. rexes never made it past age 1, but those who did put on up to 140 pounds every month. – Credit George Etheredge for The New York Times

—–June 24, 2019 – Lithub On America’s Wild West of Dinosaur Fossil Hunting – by Lukas Rieppel – an excerpt from his new book

—-January 3, 2020 – NY Times – Beware Tyrannosaurus Rex Teenagers and Their Growth Spurts – by Cara Giaimo – A researcher identifies what was previously thought to have been a separate, smaller species as a younger version of that old favorite – maybe they can call these critters Teen Rex?

—-February 10, 2020 – National Geographic – ‘Reaper of Death’ tyrannosaur discovered in Canada – By Maya Wei-Haas and Michael Greshko – this little guy was only 26 feet long

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Image and ff text from NY Times article above – An artist’s impression of Thanatotheristes degrootorum. Some scientists take issue with giving the animal its own distinct genus.Credit…Julius Csotonyi

—–April 15, 2021 – NY Times – How Many Tyrannosaurus Rexes Ever Lived on Earth? Here’s a New Clue. by Kenneth Chang

—–Apr 19, 2021 – Deseret News – Was T. rex a lone wolf or social eater? New research at dig site offers surprising answer by Amy Joi O’Donoghue

—–August 2, 2021 – Smithsonian – Tyrannosaurs Dominated Their Cretaceous Ecosystems by Riley Black

==========================================STUFFING

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If you are one of those for whom the reference did not bang a gong, Marc Bolan was the leader of a band named T.Rex. He was one of the progenitors of what was called Glam Rock.

Anates Impar – really? You could not do a Google translate? It means Odd Ducks, ok. Sheesh. Really, don’t make me explain everything again, or I’ll have to take points off your final grade. And if you do not know what “the Cantina scene” is, look it up or don’t come back. Yes, now. Run!

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This flamboyantly feathered Rex image is from Deviant Art – Yeah, I doubt it looked like this too, but a fun image I wanted to share

Full disclosure: – Ok, I stole the final line of the review from my illustrious book goddess. I only steal from the best. Thank you, dearest.

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Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs by Lisa Randall

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Give yourself to the Dark Side. It is the only way you can save your friends. – D. Vader

Lisa Randall, a Harvard Science professor, member of the National Academy of Sciences, named one of the 100 Most Influential People by Time Magazine in 2007, and author of three previous books, likes to think big. She also likes to think small. Her areas of expertise are particle physics and cosmology, which certainly covers a range. The big look she offers here is a cosmological take on not only how it came to pass that a large incoming did in the dinosaurs 66 million years ago, but why such decimations of life on Earth arrive with some (on a cosmological scale) regularity. Her explanation has to do with dark matter. It makes for an interesting tale, and offers an excellent example of how the scientific method (how Daniel Day Louis might play Louis Pasteur?) approaches problem-solving. It is a fascinating read that is at times wondrously accessible and at others like trying to bat away a swarm of meteoroids.

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Dark Matter

As with most good communicators of science. Randall relies on metaphor, and some of hers are quite good. My favorite compared methods of detecting dark matter to detecting the presence of [insert name of your favorite A-list celebrity here]. You can tell that there is something going on, without actually having to see the celebrity, because you can see swarms, gaggles, pods and packs of paparazzi clumping around the object of their lenses as he/she/it walks/primps/flees down the street. Dark matter affects the things around it too, and it is by measuring those effects that we can tell it is there, even though it remains…you know…dark.

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Lisa Randall – from her Twitter pages

She addresses some cosmological questions and offers up the answers that the best current theories provide. One example is that the rotational velocity of stars should be sufficient to make them literally spin out of their galaxies, and yet they don’t. Something must be keeping them in place. Care to guess? There are more like this. They vary in Wow-Cool! levels. Randall takes us from a look at how we know dark matter is out there, and its characteristics, to an overview of our solar system. This is more interesting than a science class slide show of the 8 (or 9 if you are my age) planets circling around our sun. (Well, maybe I should say your sun, but I don’t really want to get into that) There is a lot of other material cruising around out there, and it is significant, as in Please, oh please, do not come crashing into our planet, pretty please.

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Path of the New Horizons spacecraft into the Kuiper Belt – from NASA

The Kuiper Belt, a group of clumped asteroids, not an award for the baddest Kuiper, and the Oort Cloud (not where Obchestvo Remeslenogo Truda keeps its data) for example, are parts of our solar system, and move through inter-stellar space along with the sun and planets.

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The Oort Cloud – From NASA

You might think of the sundry members of the Solar System as a family all stuffed into one very, very large car of the Wonder Wheel in Coney Island. Once everyone is in, the whole crew moves through space (or circle in this instance) as one. But what if there were another Wonder Wheel, one that was made, not of the dense ordinary matter, but of the much thinner dark sort. Let’s say that it is not vertical but does its spinning thing at an angle. And let’s say it intersected our Wonder Wheel at one point. And every so often, say every thirty some odd million years, the car our solar system is in intersects the material in that other Wonder Wheel. The result could be unpleasant. The big stuff would probably be ok, our sun, the planets, but some of the smaller bits, say rocks in the Oort cloud and Kuiper Belt, might get knocked out of their usual paths. And voila! Fireworks! Big incomings headed our way yet again.

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Well, that’s the scoop. I am not giving anything away by laying it out. The value of the book lies in showing how theories are examined, tested and accepted or discarded, the scientific method in action.

But I would not want to make you think the orbit you take while reading Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs is all clear sailing. There are incomings you have to contend with. It is always takes a bit more effort to absorb material when much of it is new to the reader, particularly when there are many new words, acronyms and concepts being thrown at you. I confess that there were points in reading this book when my eyes glazed over. It felt like I was reading a list in a foreign language. My mind went a bit dark in the chapter on how galaxies are born and in a couple of particle physics chapters near the end. On the other hand, enough of the early discussion of dark matter was utterly fascinating. When Randall writes of a second, post-Big-Bang expansion of the universe, it was news to me. I quite enjoyed the tour through our solar system, one that included parts we do not usually think of. And if you ever wondered about how three words are used, the answer is here. Meteors are what we see streaking across the sky. We call them meteoroids if they make it to the ground. (I hereby promise that no meteor will touch the Earth on my watch) In fact any alien object hitting Earth is a meteoroid. (Even Asgardians?) Meteorites are the detritus of meteoroid impact. There is a nifty piece on how we define what is and is not a planet, and some amazing intel on what unexpected materials asteroids and comets might have brought to the Earth over the history of our planet, and another piece on how craters are created. And did you know that there is a multi-national (as in countries not corporations) organization that was set up to watch the skies for the next big thing? These and more such nuggets make the journey with Randall worth the occasional eye-glaze.

And if you are worried about The Big One wiping us out, don’t. We will see to that ourselves long before a big rock does the job for us. The current rate of species extinction is comparable to the one that took place 250 million years ago, the Permian-Triassic extinction. In that one 90% of species were wiped out, including insects. There is always hope that we will, over a period of millions of years, figure out how to keep large floaters from making a mess of our earthly garden. With Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs Lisa Randall, by striving to gain greater understanding of how the universe works, is doing her bit to shine a light in the darkness.

Review posted – 10/30/15

Publication date – 10/27/15

=============================EXTRA STUFF
Links to the author’s Twitter and FB pages

NASA’s Site about the Kuiper Belt

In 2010, the National Academy of Sciences presented their results on asteroids and the threats they pose in a document entitled Defending Planet Earth: Near-Earth Object Surveys and Hazard Mitigation Strategies

A nice article in the June 2013 Smithsonian – Lisa Randall’s Guide to the Galaxy

An interesting set of videos with Randall on BIG thoughts

Although the interview is for a different book, Randall’s Daily Show interviewwith Jon Stewart is fun and informative re things scientific.

Ditto, as Randall is interviewed by Tavis Smiley

A nifty set of videos on the hazards presented by asteroids

The Dark Song from The Lego Movie – It’s Awesome

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