Monthly Archives: June 2007

“A Fasinating History” (Part III): Laika

Like most dogs, Laika never knew her mother. She had no memory of being born in a backalley in Moscow in 1954. All Laika knew was that this was the life she was given, and the only one she would ever have; the life of a stray dog.

The winters were cold in Russia, and Laika sometimes had a hard time keeping up. She wandered the city at night skulking for scraps, and generally staying out of sight.  It never occured to Laika to look up at the stars. In fact, her constant sniffing for food kept her looking down, and Laika had little reason to be familiar with whatever might be above.

One day, Laika was captured. A few men put her in a truck and drove her somewhere. Then, they put her in a cage with a few other dogs, and gave her food. The next evening, a few more men came, put her into a different truck, drove her somewhere else, and put her into yet another cage. It was all very confusing, and difficult to keep track of.

In the days, weeks and months that followed, Laika’s cage kept getting smaller and smaller. The men kept moving her from one cage to the next, and each time they did, her cage had a little bit less space. Her food was different too. Instead of scraps of discarded food, Laika’s diet now consisted of some kind of jelly.

Then, one day (November 3rd, 1957), Laika was put into a different cage. In this one, she couldn’t move at all. She was strapped down and connected to a bunch of wires and tubes. She wasn’t very comfortable, and she was confused as to why this cage was different from the last few cages.

Suddenly, there was a very loud noise. It was so loud, in fact, that Laika could not hear anything except for a ringing in her own sensitive ears. She suddenly felt very heavy, as if her whole body was being pushed down really hard. And it didn’t stop. It kept pushing harder and harder.

After a few minutes, she felt an even stranger sensation; she was floating. She couldn’t even tell what way she was facing. It felt like she was upside down, but she didn’t feel like she was falling. It was very hot, and she found it very difficult to breathe.

For several hours, Laika looked out the window of her cage. She could see an enormous blue object that was unlike anything she had ever seen before. It was as if she was looking at a blue sky, except this time she was looking from the other side of the clouds.

In the moments before her death, Laika reflected on her life. She had no reason to think that she was different than any other dog. As far as she could tell, this was just the way that life went. You live to the best of your ability, even if it’s tough, and you never really know what’s going on. Then, right before you die, you get shot up into the sky – even beyond the sky – and you get to look down on the world for yourself. All she could do was accept her fate, inconsequential and pointless though it may have seemed.

Laika never knew that she, and she alone, had the incredible honour of being the first living creature to leave planet Earth. Laika could never understand the implications of her life, and the incredible unlikelihood of her experience. According to Laika, she lived an ordinary, unimportant life. And that is the most incredible part of all.

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Laika

1954 – 1957

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Wonders Of Nature (Part II): Geothermal Ecosystems

This video is about tiny ecosystems that develop in the deep ocean. Rather than relying on sunlight for energy, these ecosystems get their energy from geohydrothermal vents. Scientists only recently discovered that certain specialized species’ of bacteria are adapted to the incredible thermal conditions. I think this is a good example of how many different kinds of ecosystems there are on this planet, and how fragile they can be.

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Muir On Climate Change: Smoking Guns, Shooting Blanks

Logic. It’s a beautiful thing. Logic tells us that if you add one apple to another apple, you must therefore end up with two apples. Logic tells us that if A is bigger than B, then B must be smaller than A. Logic is absolute; utterly undeniable. Technically speaking, if you refute logical assertions, then you are necessarily wrong. Logic is thus the most effective tool for human decision making.  

However, it is clear that many people do not make decisions based on logic, rationality or reason. In fact, society on the whole tends towards irrationality, even when it comes to issues that demand reasoned consideration. Allow me to elaborate through example:

 

The Climate Change Debate

No one would argue with the assertion that our planet’s climate is extremely complex. In other words, we can all agree that the Earth is characterized by a very large number of interconnected physical forces which are codependent and mutually susceptible. In other words, clouds are connected to oceans; trees are connected to rain; temperature is connected to CO2, the atmosphere is connected to the sun, the sun is connected to the trees, the oceans are connected to the wind, wind is connected to the atmosphere, air-density is connected to volcanic activity, the sun is subject to mild variations, etc. Each force is contingent upon all the others in an enormous system that we call “global climate.” Logically, we can all agree with this.

Moreover, we can agree that the Earth is also characterized by particular patterns that determine certain dynamics of global climate. For example, because of the Earth’s axial tilt, the global climate is subject to an annual cycle of seasonal weather. Furthermore, because the Earth does a full rotation every 24 hours, there is a cyclical relationship between night and day, and between heating and cooling. It is this very consistency that gives the Earth it’s familiar patterns. Jet streams, oceanic currents, oceanic expansion/contraction, glaciation, etc; they are all indirect consequences of the patterns of relative placement between Earth and sun, as well as the basic motions of the planet itself. Logically, nobody would dispute this.

Because this enormous system is characterized by a large number of codependent variables, then it must also be true that a change in any one feature of the climate will ultimately effect the others (the famous “Butterfly Effect.”) Even though the Earth has several consistent patterns which determine its dynamics, it is still subject to random and unstable variances (either from the sun, volcanic activity or from mankind).  Thus, the global climate is an inherently “chaotic system:” characterized by non-linear fluctuations that, by virtue of being contingent upon unpredictable forces, are themselves fundamentally unpredictable.

Despite what, to me, seems like a well reasoned argument, many scientists persistently claim to have “proven” a necessary causal relationship between man’s industrial emissions and changes and the global climate. In other words, they claim to have a formula which predicts the future of the Earth’s climate within a reasonable level of significance. However, according to the basic pillars of climatalogical science, any model that claims to have accurate predictions for 20 years into the future must be essentially speculative. Logically, the only possible way that any scientist could make significant conjectures regarding the Earth’s future climate would be to design a scientific model that accurately takes into consideration: oceanic/atmospheric current, glacial/oceanic reflectivity, oceanic contraction/expansion, CO2 emission (natural and anthropogenic), solar cycles and volcanic activity, to name a few. This would be extremely difficult to achieve today, considering the overwhelming logistical challenges of accurately and consistently measuring and inter-operationalizing these variables.

So what can be deduced from this line of reasoning? Only one thing: that we cannot be certain that man is responsible for global warming. We could very well be the cause, because according to the above logic, mankind is involved in the global climate system. The only thing that I’m refuting here is the supposed “certainty” surrounding the global warming discussion. Using a bit of logic, and a basic understanding of science, one can see quite clearly the unlikelihood of developing the kind of conclusive models for climate change that the IPCC claims to have produced. Where your environmental policy takes you from here is up to you.

Muir out.

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Wonders Of Nature (Part II): Cordyceps Fungus

I’m going to try to make a point of posting videos about nature. I’ve become a big fan of the BBC’s Sir David Attenborough and his long list of fascinating nature programs. I’ve spent hours checking out these videos, and they always renew my interest in the natural world. I’ll try to include a little blurb with each video explaining why I think it’s significant.

The first one is from the “Life in the Undergrowth” series. It shows how each insect in the jungle has a particular species of fungus that keeps it’s population in check. From what I understand, fungus is interesting because it’s distinct from plant or animal; it’s a category of life on it’s own, and it has bizarre symbiotic relationships with the living things in it’s environment. This video has a very eerie quality to it, and like most footage of the undergrowth, seems entirely alien! Enjoy.

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News Flash: Dinosaurs Are Not Extinct!

Human arrogance. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I think that we, even as individuals, grow with a number of assumptions about the world that are simply false. In particular, it seems to me like we all share an over-simplistic view of our planet and the natural world. I suppose that we must try our best to organize our world if we are going to make sense of it, but I always try to keep in mind that our labels and concepts are entirely artificial, and in all likelihood, totally inconsistent with reality.

To demonstrate what I mean, I want to discuss the animal kingdom. Consider that mankind was faced with a daunting task: he beheld the world and all the millions of creatures that dwelt upon it, and he assumed the responsibility of naming and categorizing all of them. It is an incredibly complicated task. In fact, today we are still trying. We call it “taxonomy,” and it is the science of classification.

Categories, by their very nature, are static and unmoving. Categories cannot be bent or twisted. They are utterly discreet, like conceptual brick walls. For example, we have invented one such classification called “mammal,” which includes any animal on Earth that is warm-blooded and produces milk.

However, looking at mammals, we see that they are all very different. Since humans are warm blooded, and because we produce milk, we are considered to be mammals. Whales do the same thing, so they are called mammals too, even though our first inclination would be to think of them as “big fish.”  Clearly, some categories include a very large diversity of creatures.

Because life on Earth is an interconnected web of related species, we inevitably end up organizing animals by relationship. Scientists call this a “cladogram.” Here is an example of what it looks like:

  

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This “tree” is connected into a bigger tree, which is connected to an even bigger tree, and so on, until you eventually get an enormous matrix of biological relationships; a grand map of life on Earth, and how it is all genetically related. All of the names, levels of classification and labels we are familiar with (bacteria, arachnids, plants, reptiles, avians, primates, marsupials, etc) are all derived from this huge system of classification. In other words, the very fact that we accept these names at all means that we all recognize that all life on Earth must part of a grand system.

The problem with trying to categorize life on Earth is that it is, by it’s very nature, highly dynamic and ever changing. For example, every year microorganisms such as viruses adapt and mutate into bizarre new strains. Even domestic animals such as dogs are interbred creating new undefined lineages of canines. They’ve even succeeded in cross-breeding a lion and a tiger (the famous Ligers and Tigons.) And so our systems of classification are always in need of revision, updating and correction.

Unfortunately, certain orthodoxies develop over time with regards to how animals ought to be grouped. People tend to “get stuck in their ways,” and rarely accept drastic revision of their long-held beliefs. People have always been naturally reluctant to accept scientific updates (the roundness of the Earth, the centrality of the Sun, to name a few obvious examples) but even within the world of science, it is difficult to accept new theories, especially if they contradict long-established or widely accepted pillars of scientific theory.

So why do I bring this up? Earlier this afternoon I was sitting in my backyard watching a bunch of birds. They’re very interesting creatures: they have very few natural predators, incredibly advanced vocal chords, complex patterns of social behavior, and of course, they have the unique ability to fly. But that’s not why I find them so fascinating.

I think they are fascinating because of their clear relationships to the dinosaurs. The concept of a “dinosaur” is tricky. Science has revealed (relatively recently) that there are very few biological dinstinctions between dinosaurs and modern birds. On the contrary: there is an overwhelming number of uncanny similarities. For me, the most thrilling piece of evidence has only been discovered by paleontologists a few years ago: mud imprints of remains showing, with near certainty, that many dinosaurs were feathered:

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One might wonder: “If mammals are characterized by producing milk and warm-bloodedness, then how are dinosaurs characterized?” Well, it should come as no surprise that scientists have great difficulty reaching a consensus on this point. What exactly makes a dinosaur a dinosaur? Well… nobody really knows. They’re all so different from each other, in much the same way animals living on Earth today are different from each other.

Dinosauria is clearly a subgroup, but it’s an enormous subgroup. It spans hundreds of millions of years, and encompasses an astonishing range of living creatures. This is where human arrogance comes into play; because we tend to assume that we’ve got it “all figured out.” In fact, I’d bet that the everyday person actually believes that they could realistically describe a dinosaur based on the myth that we’ve written for them:

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I hope that people realize how restricting this kind of attitude can be. Science, after all, has only begun to guess what these creatures were actually like. What do you think are the odds that our initial guesses were actually right? My common sense tells me that those chances are slim, and I imagine that most people would agree. Thus, we really have no clue what the dinosaurs were like, and their relationship with animals living today is even more obscure. More and more scientists are telling us that the Cretaceous-Tertiary “extinction” was technically NOT a full extinction; that small dinosaurs were adapted to the apparently drastic changes in the Earth’s environment.

Personally, I think it’s more fun to imagine for myself. Look at a bird’s feet, then look at a dinosaurs feet, and ask yourself: “Considering how life is all connected on Earth, what are the odds that this relationship is just a huge coincidence?” I think one of the coolest scientific realizations, in my lifetime, has been the realization that the birds in my backyard are, in a way, just little dinosaurs. It makes me want to learn more.

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The Never-Ending Race: “Coolness” In Post-Secondary Life

I’ve always thought that you can explain a lot about a person’s character if you knew who they were in high-school. As the years roll by, I become increasingly aware of how the high-school system has effectively defined, sorted and consolidated people’s social roles.

Of course, I’m not talking about academics. I’m talking about the hallways. I’m talking about our percieved “places” in the world; our situations relative to each other and the unwritten laws of social order. For those who dwelt in the gloom of the stairwells shall forever remember the familiar feelings of abjection and contempt, while those who basked in the high-density traffic zones and glorious hallway interchanges of the high-school will forever be absored by their own sublime existences, and transfixed by the reflection of their own beautiful smiles. It is our nature as social animals to accept inexorably our given places in a community at a young age, and to be doomed to project those roles far into our adult lives, be those roles percieved as positive or negative.

Of course, social systems are not static. On the contrary: they are dynamic. Thus, one remembers high-school as a fairly chaotic melee of self-advancement and backstabbery. Even on the lowest rungs of the high-school social ladder, friends often betrayed friends at the mere prospect of developing their status and advancing beyond their peers. Indeed, without less popular friends to leave in one’s wake, what point is there in advancing at all?

So when the convacation procession reaches its end, and the highest-thrown mortarboard hits the cold ice-rink floor, each and every one of us inherits a particular social agenda; a well-established system of rules and principles for determining one’s place relative to the people in their social community. Depending on one’s level of percieved popularity, some may identify themselves as outcasts, some may identify themselves as being somehow destined for fame and admiration, but all will have some kind of deep-seated pre-dispositions pre-programmed into their social habits; motivations and impulses so inborn that they probably escape conscious awareness. And no, the struggle for coolness does not end after final exams.

One thing does change: the badges for coolness. After all, we can’t use hallways hang-outs as a guage of popularity anymore. We can’t talk about who hangs out by the mini-gym and who’s still stuck in the drafting hallway. We need new thoroughfares and geographies to map our social status, like who hangs out on Commercial Drive, and who’s stuck in the suburbs. And just as we did in high-school, we will treat the other with such scorn and contempt as to perpetuate the very same negative cycles that have resulted in so many abandoned friendships, and so many broken communities. And for what? So someone can finally say that they hang with the cool kids?

Personally, I’ve always had the same attitude towards this line of thinking: it is utterly pointless. If you need other people to make you feel like you are cool, then you are simply not cool. If you still, after all those years out of high-school, feel like there is some magical ladder you can climb that will lead you to success, happiness, social fulfillment or true friendship, then you are still being deluded by the lingering proselytizing effects of high-school’s social indoctrination. It doesn’t help that our media, through cell-phone ads, “Friends” and melodramatic HBO soap-operas, reaffirms the trendy young independent urbanite myth and seduces people into believing that growing up means wearing trendy hats and scarves, and playing with a laptop while sipping latte in some metropolitan jungle. It’s the new cool; Wall-Street’s latest simulacrum of your desired lifestyle, and it’s just as contrived as any other cultural myth. If anything, it’s just another reinterpretation of the middle-class fantasy to be upper-class: the dream of living within the deepest urban core, masterfully commanding state-of-the-art technology while indulging in teas from the Orient.

But no… you’re mindfully aware of all those terrible things, because your half-assed university degree has bestowed you with enough intellectual authority to convince yourself that you’re destined for success.  You’re destined to be a white middle-class Canadian making it in the big-city, and living the dream. You’re in touch with new music and the fashion trends du jour. You’re the latest impressionable member of some transient and elitist subculture! How cool!

The city strikes me as a place that is full of snappy dressers. In other words, it is a place full of people who want to be noticed. Specifically, they want to be noticed for how they look. To me, these people are not “cool.” My definition of cool is “individuality.” Dressing like an individual does not make you individual. On the contrary: it lumps you in with the enormous majority of confused young people who believe that clothes and appearances somehow betoken character. In many ways, the “cool” or “individual” people who promenade the so-called “cultural centers” of the city are no different than the “cool” kids who congregated in the “cultural centers” of the high-school; perpetuating the same patterns, and seeking the same kind of approval.

As most of you know, I am a naturalist. I believe that man is a product/part of nature, and one can achieve many kinds of satisfaction in life by simply applying the guiding principles of nature in everyday life. When it comes to defining our social nature, it can get a bit confusing. However, I do believe one thing holds true as an essential component of human society, and that is community.

I believe that many of the most common social ailments we face in society can be directly linked to certain unnatural social arrangements that have emerged from the industrial society, and indeed, urbanization in general. Today we live in a world where we’re in close proximity to hundreds of thousands of strangers. This is clearly unnatural. As humans, we struggle to develop our own micro-communities, because this is clearly a more natural way for people to co-exist. Personally, I consider these micro-communities (friend circles, church groups, families, clubs, etc) to be of absolute importance, whereas the larger communities and cultures have relatively little to do with the human experience. Thus, trying to define one’s place in the world relative to the strangers on the streets, the themes in the media and the geography of one’s living situation is entirely pointless. Working hard to maintain close relationships to friends and family, that is what truly matters.

At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is your own little community of people, and it’s own little culture. If you stray too far from that, you will end up lost, because it’s impossible for a person to truly make sense of their place in mass culture. In other words, the quest to be popular is never-ending, and if you follow it through to it’s logical conclusion, you end up lost and devoid of meaningful relationships with people. Personally, I recommend that if you ever feel isolated, insecure, confused or unpopular, it’s because you’ve lost touch with your friends, and thus lost touch with yourself.

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