Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Showing posts with label Extinction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Extinction. Show all posts

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Last of Their Kinds: On and Off the Red List

Image Source: Sebastian Kennerknecht/PantheraCats/Twitter.

This year, the blog keeps returning to the Himalayas, and there must be something to that: see my earlier posts on the Himalayas here, here, and a 2015 post, here.

Today's post concerns the BBC report from 14 September 2017 that the snow leopard (Panthera uncia), the great cat of the Himalayas, has been removed from the endangered list, and is now classified as vulnerable. Scientists argue that the reclassification could place these cats at greater risk, but it is still good news that their population has improved.

As the snow leopard departs the endangered list, more than 150 species have been added to it. The ash trees of North America, a population of 9 billion trees, have been classified on the brink of extinction, due to an invasive Asian insect, the emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis). In the past few years, all the beautiful ash trees around my home in eastern Canada have died or started dying.

The Christmas Island pipistrelle bat was declared extinct this month. Image Source: Lindy Lumsden/Mongabay.

The Christmas Island Pipistrelle vesper bat of Australia (Pipistrellus murrayi) was declared extinct in September 2017. I have previously written on extinctions as less-recognized moments in history and as turning points in time. I have also discussed efforts to use genetic manipulation and cloning to bring back extinct species, as scientists work against the course of time and evolution; this is most noticeable when they plan to revive prehistoric species.

Image Source: BBC.

Image Source: BBC.

Image Source: Scott Olson/Getty Images/NPR.

Snow Leopard: First Intimate Images In The Wild - Planet Earth - BBC Earth (12 March 2017). Video Source: Youtube.

See all my posts on Extinction.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Space Farming: Little Green Tendrils of Chaos

You can take it with you: Nigella damascena, a type of buttercup, germinated in a lab on the International Space Station. Image Source: Wiki.

When we depart for the Final Frontier, we will have to become very good at farming in zero gravity and on other worlds. Anyone who has tried the most basic seed planting and coaxed a plant to maturity under ideal earthly conditions may start to appreciate what a daunting task that is. Even in today's era of Frankenfoods, plants don't care what humans think they should be or do. If you try to force plants or their environment to run counter to the laws they expect to follow, they simply die. If scientists are able to force plants in the short term via genetic modification to satisfy artificial human fads and demands, there will always be a correction in the environment, somewhere, that will decimate the plan. Period. For thousands of years, people have tried to play god with plants. Even when they achieve some success, that never become god. Biology will never be fully instrumentalized by humans, and it's a good thing too. It is that scary unknown factor in agriculture which brings a host of problems to space colonization.

On 12 March 2015, NASA confirmed via Hubble's observations that Jupiter's moon Ganymede has a huge water ocean under an ice crust, which could mean that it harbours life. Image Souce: Sci Tech Daily.

Experts claim that the only way for humanity to survive over the long term is that we clear that hurdle in the future. According to Stephen Hawking, whatever problems we may have down here on earth, a bigger one trumps them all. Our future lies in the stars, he argues, and humanity must eventually abandon this planet or face extinction. Does God play dice he asks, paraphrasing Einstein? Yes, He does, Hawking argues, asserting that there is an underlying range of chaotic variability, an unpredictability, to everything. Hawking contradicts Einstein's insistence that there had to be an underlying order in everything which we could not yet grasp. Despite Hawking's faith that the future cannot be predicted, he is certain humankind must go through a cataclysmic bottleneck, a test of survival, a possible extinction event. Over the next thousand years, space exploration must be our inevitable future. There is no wiggle room on this, he concludes, due to global warming, nuclear annihilation, or a genetically-engineered virus.

Cultural expectations of transcendent Singularity (which include a faith in space colonization) continue the very mechanistic mentality, a 19th century positivism, which quantum physicists criticize. Humans-as-machines is a very popular idea now, and culturally speaking, it is big, but not that deep. Humans are now addicted to, and obsessed by, their species' new computing power. Pause to observe the stunning fact that 40 per cent of the world's population got a new heroin habit over the past 20 years that was socially acceptable, economically profitable (if also economically tumultuous), politically unstable, and governmentally dubious. Then imagine that the most hard core tech addicts insist that we must lose ourselves in the addiction, becoming more and more like the technological objects of our adoration.

In fact, successful space exploration might be achieved only by an antithetical stance, a renewal of the organic, in a move that counters the seductive, semi-sexual love affair with computer gadgetry. In this post, I noted how popular ideas in the 1920s and 1930s shaped scientists' early conceptions of dark matter. In cultural terms, today's Singularity and quantum aficionados are 1920s' and 1930s' revivalists.

That is the kind of point that confirms that culture and science are not contending opposites; instead, they make an unexpected pair of yoked oxen. How scientists interpret and conceptualize their findings is heavily influenced by their cultural values, about which they are rarely objective or intensively schooled. This is why science fiction author Charlie Stross argued that space colonization is not a story about extending technology, despite all the technical trappings of the exercise. It is a story, as Frank Herbert knew well, about our relationship with the environment. And that relationship, given our psychology, almost always is expressed mystically and philosophically through the expansion and transformation of religion; Stross pondered some of this:
I'm going to take it as read that the idea of space colonization isn't unfamiliar; domed cities on Mars, orbiting cylindrical space habitats a la J. D. Bernal or Gerard K. O'Neill, that sort of thing. Generation ships that take hundreds of years to ferry colonists out to other star systems where — as we are now discovering — there are profusions of planets to explore. And I don't want to spend much time talking about the unspoken ideological underpinnings of the urge to space colonization, other than to point out that they're there, that the case for space colonization isn't usually presented as an economic enterprise so much as a quasi-religious one. "We can't afford to keep all our eggs in one basket" isn't so much a justification as an appeal to sentimentality.
A response to that post, quoted at the Daily Galaxy, dismissed these culturally-derived warnings because transhumanists believe we will meld with machines and morph into something non-human, or superhuman, or post-human:
[Stross doesn't take] into account the possibility of post-Singularity, Drexlerian, Kardashev Type II civilizations. Essentially, we're talking about post-scarcity civilizations with access to molecular assembling nanotechnology, radically advanced materials, artificial superintelligence, and access to most of the energy available in the solar system. "Stross also too easily dismisses how machine intelligences, uploaded entities and AGI will impact on how space could be colonized. He speculates about biological humans being sent from solar system to solar system, and complains of the psychological and social hardships that could be inflicted on an individual or crew. He even speculates about the presence of extraterrestrial pathogens that undoubtedly awaits our daring explorers. This is a highly unlikely scenario. Biological humans will have no role to play in space. Instead, this work will be done by robots and quite possibly cyborgs.
That is such a 2000s' thing to say. Super-this, nano-that.  In 2005, Ray Kurzweil maintained in The Singularity is Near that we could interface with our technology, the way computers interface with each other, and in so doing we could transcend our biology. It was a fashionable, and now dated, thing to assume. The post-Singularity hypothesis tells you more about 2005 than it does about 2500.

Part of that hypothesis suggests that our addiction to computers is reaching blind adoration, and extends to the assumption that they are, or will be, smarter than we are. We love them so, such that we will either join with them (a typical, unreflective psycho-sexual assumption), and/or they will out-survive us. This is exactly the kind of thing an addict would say about his or her drug: it's stronger than I am; it's destroying me in the long term; but I love it anyway in the short term because it enhances my capabilities. The Daily Galaxy:
In a futuristic mode similar to Hawking, both Steven Dick, chief NASA historian and Carnegie-Mellon robotics pundit, Hans Moravec, believe that human biological evolution is but a passing phase: the future of mankind will be as vastly evolved sentient machines capable of self-replicating and exploring the farthest reaches of the Universe programmed with instructions on how to recreate earth life and humans to target stars. Dick believes that if there is a flaw in the logic of the Fermi Paradox, and extraterrestrials are a natural outcome of cosmic evolution, then cultural evolution may have resulted in a post-biological universe in which machines are the predominant intelligence.
There is so much blind confidence in the secular window dressing around science and technology, that there is no warning that Millennial technological prophets employ the language of cult leaders. They speak the high-priestly language of a sacred mentality with religious fervour, and remain unaware of what they are actually doing, because they are scientists. They predict the future, while in the same breath admit that science tells them that the future cannot be predicted.

Eco horror from John Wyndham: alien trees might be triffid-like on planets in binary, two-sun systems. Image Source: Passenger Films.

Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction #1.

Image Source.
Will the techno-rapture break down over space farming, when the plants remind us about our bottom line dependence on the environment? That is the final cultural pre-condition. We breathe air. We drink water. And despite our love affair with our shiny tools, we need the other earthly organisms which have evolved alongside us. What will the galaxy gurus do when the plants refuse to grow, or start to die, or grow tendrils 12 feet long so that they can snag and eat the colonists?

What if, in the wilds of space, space colonies and spaceships, plants can survive better than we can, arise to occupy a superior evolutionary niche to do so, and eventually overthrow and destroy us? They are only tamed here on earth because terran conditions allow us to be dominant. Space colony die-hards forget that humans evolved to a dominant position out of, and within, this earthly ecosystem, and no other. Once humankind leaves this planet with other terran species, to interact in long-haul spacecraft and space colony ecosystems, there are no guarantees that humans will dominate those systems. Even with humans supported by the technology they developed, plants may not remain their silent slaves. And this is before animal husbandry comes into the mix.

In a related vein, Mars One - the plan to send colonists on a one way trip to Mars by 2027, aka the final apex of reality television - came under harsh criticism this week. Their candidate selection practices and media entertainment fund-raising took a bashing. Critics dismiss Mars One as a pyramid scheme, even though that is only symptomatic of a more pressing problem. The reason private companies are taking over space exploration is because of politics. For years in the United States, a bizarre scenario has unfolded in which global warming has been pitted politically against space explorationObama's government slashed NASA's budget and money for other Big Science projects, which meant that other countries are now challenging or outcompeting America in these fields. Under these conditions, private companies will merge commercial capitalism with space aspirations and exploration technology. This week, Mars One's technological feasibility critics came through the loudest because a 2014 MIT study declared that Mars One's colonists' first wheat crop would blow their life support systems.

An independent MIT study from October 2014 concluded that the maturation of Mars One colonists' wheat crops would blow their life support systems by creating an overabundance of oxygen. Image Source: Extreme Tech.

Agriculture adds an element of the universe's chaos into any plan for survival in space and space colonies. This is the chaos whose metrics physicists like Hawking constantly seek and which eludes them. This is the chaos which makes them admit that they cannot predict the future, right at the moment when technology dangles a future in front of them that they want to believe (rather than prove). This agricultural element of the unseen, of perceptual error, of the unknowable, confirms that space farming would constantly remind us of our essential humanity, right when space exploration threatened to dehumanize its technologists and engineers. It is organic chaos, culminating in our unpredictable relationship with the unwieldy environment and other organisms which may have the last laugh, which reminds us how fragile we are and that we must colonize the stars with humility. Luke, the hero of the original Star Wars trilogy, was raised as a farmer. It's no wonder why George Lucas did that. This is why, this week, the Mars One project came under fire around the question at the heart of all human civilizations: not media, not money, but agriculture.

An earlier post on HOTTC discussed the film, Silent Running (1972), in which the 1970s' back-to-the-land movement met the 1970s' space opera. You can hear Joan Baez's performance for the film's folksy soundtrack below the jump. Will the calls for space colonization overlap with the Millennial back-to-the land movement? So far, they haven't. Below the jump, see a selection of plants which have been planted on the International Space Station, and which plants are planned for future greenhouses on the moon and Mars. Several foods have been tested on the ISS, including the first bagels in space.

"Plant growth chambers, seeds and watering devices that made up part of an experiment flown to the space station during the STS-118 space shuttle mission [in 2007]. The seeds were later returned to Earth and grown within lunar growth chambers designed by students." Image Source: NASA via Phys.org.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Timeline of the Far Future

Click on the image to enlarge. Image Source: BBC.

The BBC has posted a timeline of the distant future, which includes the assumption that almost all buildings now standing will have collapsed by the year 3000. By that time, the BBC hypothesizes, all words from present-day languages will also be extinct, given the current rate of linguistic evolution.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Nuclear Leaks 32: Fukushima's Media Mirror

Critics of anti-nuclear critics take to the Web: Fukushima worries are being labeled as hoaxes. Image Source: Hoax-Slayer.

When the Fukushima disaster occurred in March 2011, one of the Russian scientists who participated in the clean up at Chernobyl warned that the immediate toxic effect would come not from radioactive fallout, but from governmental and nuclear industrial lies. This blog has covered the Japanese crisis since the moment it began. Throughout, I concur with that scientist, Natalia Manzurova, in the sense that the meta-reality of Fukushima's nuclear event is even worse than the event. From my first post on Fukushima:
On 12 March, physicist Ken Bergeron stated: "we're in uncharted territory, we're in a land where probability says we shouldn't be." As the crisis unfolded, the HuffPo announced that there was no word in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's glossary for 'meltdown.' In a way, that lack of vocabulary has characterized the whole story, which is a miasma of confused information.
How does one amend an absence of information from creditable sources, without discrediting oneself? In May 2011, Vivian Norris mused at HuffPo about the terrible consequences of media silence around Fukushima:
I received the following email a few days ago from a Russian nuclear physicist friend who is an expert on the kinds of gases being released at Fukushima. Here is what he wrote:
About Japan: the problem is that the reactor uses "dirty" fuel. It is a combination of plutonium and uranium (MOX). I suspect that the old fuel rods have bean spread out due to the explosion and the surrounding area is contaminated with plutonium which means you can never return to this place again. It is like a new Tchernobyl. Personally, I am not surprised that the authority has not informed people about this.
... Why is this not on the front page of every single newspaper in the world? Why are official agencies not measuring from many places around the world and reporting on what is going on in terms of contamination every single day since this disaster happened? Radioactivity has been being released now for almost two full months! Even small amounts when released continuously, and in fact especially continuous exposure to small amounts of radioactivity, can cause all kinds of increases in cancers.
Even at the very beginning of this disaster, Norris observed the Japanese government and TEPCO (which, in 2014, is soon to change its name and undergo corporate rebranding) released information to the international media indirectly and slowly:
While foreign media have scrambled to gather information about the Fukushima Reactor, they have been denied access to the direct information provided by the government and one consequence of this is that "rumor-rife news has been broadcast overseas."
In fact, access has been limited in two ways. First, while Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano Yukio holds twice daily press conferences for representatives of the big Japanese media, registered representatives of freelance and internet media are limited to a single press conference per week. Second, in contrast to Japanese media who are briefed regularly by Edano and periodically by Prime Miniser Kan, foreign media are briefed exclusively by administrative staff.
Uesugi also notes that at TEPCO press conferences, which are now being held at company headquarters, foreign correspondents and Japanese freelancers regularly ask probing questions while mainstream journalists simply record and report company statements reiterating that the situation is basically under control and there is nothing to worry about. One reason for this, Uesugi suggests, is that TEPCO, a giant media sponsor, has an annual 20 billion yen advertising budget.
Fukushima became a disastrous test of the Web's credibility as an unconventional media source when compared to the MSM. What Fukushima shows is that Japanese and nuclear authorities did not even need to lie in order to discredit their critics. All they needed to do was release little or no information, or release it too slowly. By creating an information vacuum, they opened the door to endless speculation, which is wonderfully self-defeating, because it can all be dismissed as speculation, as hoaxes, as ignorant fear-mongering.

When guesses and speculation about what has happened at Fukushima prove to be wrong - or are declared to be simply unproven - then a false argument is constructed, whereby any truths about the dangers of the Japanese nuclear disaster can also be tossed out. Genuinely serious concerns, like the employment of homeless people in the clean up, are drowned out or dismissed on the grounds that there is 'not enough information.' And to worry about things when there is 'not enough information' is to become a crank who makes things up. It is a locked circle of anti-logic.
Fukushima showed that the Web is not the bastion of free speech and unvarnished truth which its most idealistic supporters want and need it to be. Rather, the Internet is vulnerable to competing cultures of truth, in which data-driven arguments defend findings and counter-findings. Sub-cultures sprout up to defend different hierarchies of data-believability. But how can one get to the core, or corium, of truth in all of this?

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Last of Their Kind: Western Black Rhinoceros Now Extinct

Image Source: The Weather Network.

From The Weather Network:
A sub-species of the black rhino that roamed the earth for 8 million years has been declared extinct, according to a 2011 review by the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN). The animal hasn't been seen in the African wilderness since 2006 due, almost exclusively, to widespread poaching and a lack of conservation efforts. Sadly, the fate of this sub-species is not unique: Rhinoceros populations across Africa and Asia are said to be disappearing at an alarming rate. The animals are hunted for their horns, which are considered an aphrodisiac. This belief has spurred a lucrative black market that is pushing rhinoceros to the brink of extinction.

Friday, August 2, 2013

World Wildlife Federation Uses Drones to Protect Animals from Poachers

Confiscated rhino horns. Image Source: One More Generation.

The rising new middle classes in Asia are pumping up the demand for ivory and other endangered species' animal parts, which are used in medicines, charms and food. Slate interviewed a World Wildlife Federation spokesperson about how the WWF is using drones to safeguard animals in an increasingly high tech battle with poachers; the money for the drones came from search engine giant Google in 2012:
Ariel Bogle: In recent months, the WWF began trials of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones) where wildlife poaching is occurring. How did this come about?

Carter Roberts: In the early 2000s, we thought we had generally solved the wildlife trade. There were only 20 or so rhinos poached a year in South Africa. Then about five years ago, rhino poaching in that country jumped from 20 to 150 animals, to 350, to 450. This year, it’s expected to surpass 650, and last year we estimate that we lost 30,000 elephants.

Increasingly, we’re learning that this is not your father’s wildlife trade. It used to be for traditional uses, but now it’s the demands of a growing middle class in China, Thailand, Vietnam, and even here in the United States. Very sophisticated crime syndicates are involved, and there’s evidence that these groups are using the proceeds to finance their other activities. They have night-vision goggles, helicopters, and advanced weaponry.

We need to acquire better, real-time information. That’s what led us to experiment with using UAVS to track poachers. Poachers often operate at night, and UAVs do a great job at tracking because of their infrared capabilities. A guy in the middle of a big park stands out like a sore thumb when you’re using infrared imagery. The ability to get that information and connect it to people on the ground means you can begin to track the poachers.

Bogle: Where have you tested UAVS?

Carter: We’ve undertaken trials in Namibia and Nepal. We’re trying to find the sweet spot. UAVs are not going to work in the field if you require a Ph.D. and a military background to operate them. You need simple technology that can be repeated and repaired by people on the ground.

We wanted to experiment in places where we controlled more of the variables and then begin trials in areas where the conflict is hotter, where we’re losing the most animals. But we need to make sure we have the infrastructure ready.

Bogle: Is there concern about using this technology where the political situation may not be stable? Is there sufficient oversight?

Carter: We’re working on safeguards and filters to make sure that all the information we’re gathering on animals doesn’t fall into the wrong hands and become a guide for poachers. But you can’t use this technology without grounding it in the customs and the laws of the local country. It’s too sensitive. ...

Bogle: What other technologies are the WWF considering?
Carter: As part of our partnership with Google [the WWF is a recipient of its Global Impact Awards], we want look into how to use tagging and cellphone technology to track animals, employ UAVs to track poachers, and also find software that can put the data together in real time. A “brain” that would allow us to collate information on animals and poachers, so that we can deploy people quickly in the field.
The collar we currently put on a rhino costs about $10,000. Imagine being able to use animal tracking chips and UAVs to download that information regularly, and cheaply, without satellites. Being able to gather this information systematically and on a local basis is just common sense.
"A few endangered species owe Google a thank you note. The search engine just gave $5 million (UK£3.1 million, AUD$4.77 million) to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) for unmanned aircraft and other tech to help protect tigers, elephants and rhinos from poachers." The money will go toward high tech and drones like the one above, so that the WWF can locate animals before they are killed and protect them from poachers in Asia and Africa. Image Source: Tech Radar.

Image Source: The Epoch Times.

Elephant poaching. Image Source: Karl Ammann via the Center for Conservation Biology, University of Washington.

"The carcass of Khadija, a mature female elephant killed by poachers near Kenya's Samburu National Reserve." Image Source: Save the Elephants via National Geographic.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Times Outside of History 10: De-Extinctioning at Pleistocene Park

Omission: The Fossil Record (1991) © by Alexis Rockman.

The news was recently full of the discovery of the best-ever preserved woolly mammoth, which raised cloning hopes. CNN:
Researchers from the Northeast Federal University in Yakutsk found the 10,000-year-old female mammoth buried in ice on the Lyakhovsky Islands off the coast of northeast Russia.

Scientists say they poked the frozen creature with a pick and dark liquid blood flowed out.

"The fragments of muscle tissues, which we've found out of the body, have a natural red color of fresh meat. The reason for such preservation is that the lower part of the body was underlying in pure ice," said Semyon Grigoriev, the head of the expedition and of the university's Mammoth Museum, in a statement on the university's website. ...

Grigoriev told The Siberian Times newspaper it was the first time mammoth blood had been discovered and called it "the best preserved mammoth in the history of paleontology."

"We suppose that the mammoth fell into water or got bogged down in a swamp, could not free herself and died. Due to this fact the lower part of the body, including the lower jaw, and tongue tissue, was preserved very well," he said.

Grigoriev called the liquid blood "priceless material" for the university's joint project with South Korean scientists who are hoping to clone a woolly mammoth, which has been extinct for thousands of years.

The controversial Sooam Biotech Research Foundation is headed up by Hwang Woo-suk -- the disgraced former Seoul National University scientist who claimed in 2004 that he had successfully cloned human embryonic stem cells before admitting he had faked his findings.

Typically, researchers contemplating revival of an extinct species do not think about the species but about human motivations. We are 'atoning for past sins,' or 'proving what we can do' if the money is right.

Is seems less challenging, morally speaking, to resurrect relatively recently extinct species, such as the aurochs, the baiji dolphin, the Japanese sea lion, the Caribbean monk seal, the thylacine, the passenger pigeon, or the dodo bird. In 2000, the last Pyrenean ibex died. In 2009, a clone brought the species back from extinction for the seven minutes that it remained alive.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Return from Local Extinction

Images Source: Mother Nature Network.

Here are some cutie-pie Sand Cat kittens, a desert feline once extinct in Israel. The species Felis margarita has been locally revived through the breeding of captive individuals and their reintroduction to the habitat (Hat tip: Trans-D Digital Art). There are several sub-species and the entire species actually has a near threatened status worldwide. See this litter on Youtube here. The report is from August 2012, so these kittens likely now look like this.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Fallen Stars: Magic, Mysticism and Mayhem

Image Source: Peter Jenniskens (SETI Institute/NASA Ames) via Live Science.

Caption for the above photograph: "On Oct. 6, 2008, Richard Kowalski, at the Catalina Sky Survey, spotted a new asteroid, dubbed 2008 TC3, on a collision course with Earth. For the first time, astronomers around the world tracked the asteroid's approach for the day before it hit Earth. The asteroid exploded upon entering Earth's atmosphere, and as predicted, it fell in the Nubian Desert of Northern Sudan, where 35 pounds (15.9 kilograms) of meteorites were eventually found. Much of its mass is believed to have been vaporized or to have disintegrated when it hit Earth's atmosphere. It was renamed Almahata Sitta, Arabic for "station six," a railroad stop on the line to Khartoum near where the meteorites were found, according to the auction catalog description."

Well before the Space Age, meteorites brought a little piece of heaven - or hell - down to our world. On May 30, we narrowly avoided an extinction event. A 1.7 mile wide binary asteroid, 1998 QE2, which is so large that it has its own moon (see here and here), just passed earth by a whisker: "White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in a press briefing about the asteroid: 'scientists have concluded the asteroid 'poses no threat to planet Earth'. He then laughed and said: 'Never really thought I'd be standing up here saying that, but I guess I am.'" 1998 QE2 is considered to be about the same size as the space rock that landed on earth and likely wiped out the dinosaurs.

Meteorites were not officially linked with their celestial origins until 1803. But people have invested these objects with mystical and divine qualities for millennia, evidently because they knew them to have fallen from the skies. Even today, space rocks have that tangible yet unearthly quality that fascinates. In late 2012, the Heritage Auction house attracted attention when they put up 125 space rocks and meteorites for sale, "offering ... rocks from Mars and the moon, silver meteorite slices studded with peridot gems, a slice of the meteorite that killed a cow in Venezuela, the rear tail-light bulb and title to a car punctured by a meteorite, meteorite jewelry." Immediately below, see some of the items which were auctioned (all Heritage Auctions images and cited text are from this page).

Caption for the above Heritage Auctions photograph: "Meteorites are pieces of asteroids, the moon and Mars that travel to Earth after being ejected from these heavenly bodies. Exotic origins aside, meteorites can be beautiful, mimicking abstract sculpture for example, and many bring interesting stories when they collide with Earth. On Oct. 14, 2012, more than 125 meteorite specimens and related material go up for auction. Here's a look at few of them. Above, the naturally formed holes on this iron Gibeon meteorite found in Namibia give it an animal-like appearance."

Caption for the above Heritage Auctions photograph: "This meteorite, found in China's Gobi Desert, is a pallasite, a class of stony-iron meteorites that contain the mineral olivine. Gem quality olivine, as appears in this meteorite, is called peridot, the August birthstone."

Caption for the above Heritage Auctions photograph: "In 1492, this stone fell from the sky outside the walled city of Ensisheim, located in the Alsatian region France. The stone's descent was seen as a sign from God; the extraterrestrial origin of meteorites would not be accepted for another 300 years. The Ensisheim meteorite was brought into the city and chained up in church to keep it Earth-bound."

Caption for the above Heritage Auctions photograph: "The majority of meteorites break off from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter; rarer specimens come from the moon or Mars. This one, found in the Sahara Desert, is a lunar meteorite."

Caption for the above Heritage Auctions photograph: "In 1803, the L'Aigle meteorite landed in Normandy, France, convincing French scientists that rocks did indeed fall from the sky, and so ushering in widespread acceptance of the extraterrestrial origin of meteorites. This L'Aigle specimen bears an antique parchment label."

Caption for the above Heritage Auctions photograph: "This partial slice comes from the Valera meteorite, which killed a cow when it landed in Venezuela in 1972. The cow was subsequently slaughtered and eaten, and the meteorite was used as a doorstop. This is the only meteorite known to have been responsible for a fatality."

Below the jump, see some of the world's most famous and mystical meteorites, objects which unite human celestial fascination of the ancient world with that of the future. The most interesting is perhaps a mysterious meteorite carved into a Buddhist figure in the Middle Ages, which the Nazis stole from Tibet during World War II.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Last of Their Kind: Scottish Wildcats

Image Source: Peter Cairns via Scottish Wildcat Association.

The Independent reports that an effort is afoot in the Scottish Highlands to save the Scottish Wildcat (Felis silvestris grampia) from extinction:
"2013 will decide whether the wildcat lives or dies,” said Steve Piper of the Scottish Wildcat Association (SWA). “It really is a deciding year. At present the consensus is that true wildcats still survive in Scotland, and that, with a significant and unified effort, they can still be saved and gradually brought back to a healthy population.”

A national action plan to protect the species will be launched in the new year by a broad spectrum of Government agencies, charities, gamekeepers and national park authorities – the first time that a truly national effort has been made to save the wildcat.

Experts from Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), the Forestry Commission Scotland and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland are already involved in field surveys to determine the precise size of the remaining population. The best estimates place it at around 400 true wildcats, but the species’ nocturnal and shy nature, and its similarities to domestic and hybrid cats mean that no one knows exactly how many there are.
The wildcat's similarity to a large feral domestic tabbycat belies its importance as Britain's last indigenous wild feline, which once roamed all over the British Isles (Hat tip: Graham Hancock).

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Countdown to Hallowe'en 19: Return of the Dead

Image Source: Byte Size Biology.

For this month's Countdown to Hallowe'en blogathon, I am writing horror posts which relate to themes on this blog. However, some Millennial Bad Ideas I cover are so horrific in their own right that they are a horror story or film waiting to happen. No one has fictionalized them yet.

Some archaeologists and Prehistory theorists imagine that the history of advanced humans runs back tens of thousands of years earlier than thought, with environmental disasters such as Ice Ages and Atlantean flood events periodically wiping humankind's collective memory of what came before. (See my regular posts on Prehistory here.)

Others, however, look to a future in which the secrets of the deep past may simply be brought back to life and studied. I09 recently dismissed the cloning of Woolly Mammoths, but with new specimens turning up in Russian permafrost, that possibility persists. The horrific Millennial reality for today is the debate on the DNA research on, and potential cloning of, the Neanderthal. Apparently, the feat could be accomplished for about $30 million. By contrast, sending astronauts to Mars would cost somewhere between $40 and $80 billion.

This is a Millennial take on already popular zombies and immortality of the resurrected: a separate human species became extinct, but could be revived by modern science. While there is nothing wrong with the work to decode the Neanderthal genome, the misapplication of that knowledge would be another matter.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Ending and Extinction. For Now? Forever?

Lonesome George. Image Source: Reuters via Guardian.

The giant Pinta (Abingdon) Island tortoise (Geochelone nigra abingdoni), Lonesome George, died at the Tortoise Centre on Santa Cruz island in the Galapagos on 24 June 2012 at over 100 years of age. He was the last known member of a subspecies of the Galapagos giant tortoise.

The subspecies are mainly named for the locations where they evolved, or the zoologists who identified them. The Galapagos islands gained fame for their unique wildlife when Charles Darwin (1809-1882) visited them in 1835. His observations there formed the bases for his 1859 work on evolutionary biology, On the Origin of Species, which you can read here or here. A glance at the Galapagos tortoise subspecies list tells how incredibly varied the creatures on these islands are. These are closely related animals, but they cannot necessarily interbreed successfully; several of the subspecies are extinct or endangered:
  1. the Pinta (Abingdon) island tortoise
  2. the Wolf volcano tortoise
  3. the Cristóbal (Chatham) island tortoise
  4. Charles Darwin's James island tortoise
  5. the Pinzón (Duncan) island tortoise
  6. Albert Günther's Sierra Negra volcano tortoise
  7. the Española (Hood) island tortoise
  8. the smaller Volcano Darwin tortoise
  9. the Charles island black tortoise
  10. the Santa Cruz (Indefatigable) island tortoise
  11. John Van Denburgh's Volcano Alcedo tortoise
  12. the Iguana Cove tortoise
  13. Fantastica Fernandina (Narborough) island tortoise (disputed)
  14. Santa Fe island tortoise (disputed)
  15. Rábida island tortoise (disputed)  
In 1971, Lonesome George was spotted on Pinta island by malacologist József Vágvölgyi; he was then tracked down and captured in 1972 and moved to the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz. His keeper, Fausto Llerena, was part of that 1972 expedition and cared for George until the reptile's death yesterday. Having spent so much time with Lonesome George, Llerena reflected on the animal's personality:
I like to take care of George because he is friendlier than the other tortoises. He is always attentive at my arrival and approaches me and lifts his head to greet me. We understand each other very well, although we do not use any words. ... [He is f]riendly and attentive with me, he is jealous of his space and food though, with the other tortoises that share the corral! Every time we carry out some work in the corral, he is always next to me.
Lonesome George was known as an 'ending' - the last of his kind. Once an ending dies, the species becomes extinct.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

From Aurochs to Ūruz to U

A cave painting of an Auroch, dating to 17,300 years ago, Lascaux, France. Image Source: Heraclitian Fire.

The core of civilization hinges on the domestication of animals, above all, the cow. According to geneticists, the source of all domestic cattle boils down to one prehistoric herd of 80 head of cattle in what is now Iran. In March 2012, DNA research from scientists from the CNRS and National Museum of Natural History in France, the University of Mainz in Germany, and UCL in the UK traced the domestication of this herd back to a period 10,500 years ago (Hat tip: i09). That herd engendered the total number of cows in the world today, approximately 1.3 billion, or roughly one bovine for every seven humans on earth.

Cave paintings of Aurochs, dating to 17,300 years ago, Lascaux, France. Image Source: Prof saxx via Wiki.

These cows were not the cows we know, but an ancestor of modern cows (Bos taurus and Bos indicus - the Zebu), called the Auroch (Bos primigenius, also known as "urus" and "wisent"). Evolving some 2 million years ago in India, they were much bigger, more aggressive and generally tougher animals than our modern cows; we would find their stature similar to that of the American Bison. There are some die hard nostalgics who believe that Aurochs still survive, tucked away in secluded Eastern European valleys (a Romanian video purportedly of modern Aurochs, also known as the Zimbru, here, admittedly shows massive animals on dainty legs, which look an awful lot like the cave paintings). The author of that video refers to yet another Millennial popular study which peculiarly brings prehistory right into the 21st century and states:
You’ll find a lot of things very different than what you’ve been taught. Two animals of the bovine family are claimed to be in existence in Romania; one is called BOUR and the other is ZIMBRU (alias AUROCH). The BOUR is the ancestor of cattle, not the AUROCH. The bour is a smaller animal, but has big horns and that’s where the confusion is. Etymologically, the word BOUR fits with BOS—meaning oxen in Greek and Latin. In addition, AUROCH does fit with TAURUS (meaning bull in Greek and Latin) but that word came about because bour (wild cattle) bulls were much bigger than the cow. Hence, TAUROS. The literal translation from Latin is “like a TAURO”, TAURO being the name of the Auroch. The confusion comes from the fact that Western scientists talk about only one animal, when in fact there are two.
Despite these popular musings, researchers insist that Aurochs are extinct. They claim that the last Auroch, a cow, died in Poland in 1627. These animals lived especially in northern climes, but generally covered Europe, Russia, North Africa, the Near and Middle East, Central Asia, India and Asia.

A cave painting of an Auroch, dating to 17,300 years ago, Lascaux, France. Image Source: Heraclitian Fire.

Palaeontologists view cave paintings as contemporary Stone Age historical records of Aurochs and hence know how they appeared. The DNA sequence of the Auroch was determined in 2010. Perhaps the current boom in genetic research explains why Ice Age creatures have lately enjoyed a vogue in Millennial culture.

Given the tremendous importance of the Auroch, it is not surprising that early writing systems incorporated bovinely-inspired letters and pictograms. In northern Europe's Proto-Germanic and Old Norse languages, the rune which depicted an Auroch was Ūruz or Ur. In Old English, it was indicated by Ur or Yr. This letter became a predecessor of U or Y. The rune also means 'water' or 'rain.'

Friday, May 4, 2012

Curios: Pre-History for Sale

Curios is my blog series on strange things that pop up at auction houses, in this case, fossils. On May 20, the Natural History Signature auction will take place at Center 548 at 548 West 22nd Street, between 10th Avenue and West 22nd Street, in New York City. The star of the auction is a Tyrannosaurus bataar (above), a smaller Asian counterpart to North America's Tyrannosaurus Rex. This Tarbosaurus is expected to fetch over $1 million. More fossils on the block below the jump. Descriptions and images are taken from the linked pages at the Heritage Auctions site. There are some much more recent pre-historic artifacts as well, such as Paleolithic and Neolithic axes for sale. And one lot of Wooly Mammoth wool (below).

Friday, March 9, 2012

Secrets of the Flood Myth

Noah's Ark. Image Source: City of Kik.

High tech and Millennial biosciences, especially genetics, are unlocking more secrets of the deep past, of Antediluvian cultures. Almost all societies have as one of their central epics the 'before' and 'after' of what may have been late Ice Age worldwide floods around 9,000 years ago. New studies confirm that some plant species survived happily in ice-free pockets during the Ice Age. And The New Scientist reports on research from George Ferentinos of the University of Patras in Greece that Neanderthals were ancient mariners, who crossed the oceans perhaps 100,000 years ago (and maybe even earlier, since they appeared around 600,000 years ago)  (Hat tip: Lee Hamilton). Neanderthal Atlantis has become quite a popular idea lately; see here and here; other popular speculations whirl around Cro-Magnon Atlantis: here and here.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Debate on Human Male Extinction

"Human cells carry 23 pairs of chromosomes, including one pair which determine gender." Image Source: SPL via BBC.

Geneticists are debating whether the human male will become extinct between 125,000 years (5,000 generations) and 5 million years from now. 

Friday, February 24, 2012

Cloning Our Way Back to the Deep Past

Image Source: Wiki via I09.

Woolly Mammoths have been extinct for at least four millennia (most Mammoth populations died 10,000 years ago, but a small pocket survived on an island in the Arctic Ocean until about 1,700 BCE). Several specimens of these great Ice Age elephant cousins are so well preserved in Arctic ice that there is a lot of speculation that they could be successfully cloned within five years.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Malaria Studied in 20 Million Year Old Fly

Image Source: Parasites and Vectors.

From Twitter: "Whoa! 20 million year old fly in amber was carrying malaria, and sucking bat blood" (Hat tip: Bug Girl).  This fly, encased in amber, lived in the mid-Tertiary period, a violent time running from the extinction of the dinosaurs, to the beginning of mammals, to the onset of the beginning of the most recent Ice Age. This period featured one of the largest volcanic eruptions ever to occur on the planet (it took place in Colorado).  The Tertiary period was initially classified in the 18th century by Italian geologist Giovanni Arduino as the period of the Biblical Flood.  The tweet refers to an article at Parasites and Vectors, concerning research into the form of malaria carried by this fly.