On the Wheel of Life

you are here on life's treeI love this diagram – the old “tree” design doesn’t hold all of life in a handy format, so this wheel is becoming popular. Some people find the wheel disturbing or even offensive – they think it says humanity is insignificant. Not so. Among all those species, we are unique. Among billions of humans, you are unique. What could be more amazing or more significant than that? As one of my favorite poems says, “You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

One little spoke on an immense wheel, and we’re a species that can change the world, made of individuals who can seek and strive in ways that reach across the globe and beyond the planet. That’s significant.

One Step Closer to a Wooly Mammoth

mammoth cartoonResearchers at Harvard extracted DNA from a wooly mammoth preserved in Arctic permafrost, copied fourteen genes related to its adaptation to cold, and inserted them into Asian elephant skin cells. Hurray – the cells continued to function normally – in a petri dish.

I’ve thought that bringing back the mammoth would be a stunt – immensely cool, but a stunt nonetheless. Elephants, the mammoth’s surviving relative, are intelligent animals with a complex social life. They care for one another and teach their offspring. Perhaps a mammoth infant could be adopted by a herd of elephants, and I’d definitely take a trip to see such a baby, but would it really be a mammoth in the full sense of body and behavior?

It turns out there’s a practical intermediate step possible with this research. Mammoths have a number of adaptations to cold, including hairiness, ear size, subcutaneous fat and differences in their hemoglobin. Scientists hope, eventually, to “raise hybrid elephants that could be genetically wired to thrive in colder climes — hopefully expanding their range to live at a greater remove from humans.” So resurrected mammoth DNA may help save their endangered modern cousins.

But no one can resist the thought of herds of mammoths roaming the Earth again. “The team might even try to bring back the woolly mammoth itself.”

Not everyone favors de-extinction for the wooly mammoth, in part for fear that modern elephants would be harmed in the research process or for fear of monstrous creations.

Current efforts at rewilding, recreating the lost ecosystem of the Pleistocene, meet with similar concerns – isn’t it a big enough challenge to protect the animals alive today without trying to reconstruct the past? Rewilding advocates call for existing species to be reintroduced where their ancestors once roamed – we’re trying to save grizzly bears and condors already, and horses returned to America with European conquest long ago. Rewilding would repopulate the American high plains and mountain west with cheetahs, lions, llamas, tortoises, related plant species, and – yes – elephants. With global warming underway, I doubt the Pleistocene can be recreated in the United States – maybe Canada or Siberia? Or maybe it’s a romantic dream.

Some say any available funds should go to preserving existing threatened species, but I think lack of political will is a bigger obstacle than lack of money. Perhaps retrieving animals from extinction would create public interest and dedication to save other species. I certainly want to see any research conducted ethically, but given that… wooly mammoths. It’s hard to resist the idea. What a thrill that would be.

Many outlets covered the Harvard work; for example: discovery.com is quoted above, or try Popular Science

Kate Rauner, Hanover, New Mexico, USA

Kate is a chemical and environmental engineer, and Cold War Warrior (honestly, that’s what Congress called us), who worked in America’s nuclear weapons complex. Now retired on the edge of the southwest’s Gila National Forest with her husband, cats, llamas, and dog, she fights fire as a volunteer and writes science fiction novels and science inspired poetry. She also shares science news that strikes her fancy (and finds it odd to write about herself in the third person.)

Rival to Mermaids’ Song – a poem by Kate Rauner



Earth’s larger strings of ocean ridges.

Earth pulsates with her endless song,
Notes drawn out and much prolonged.
A seismic tune beyond our ears,
Yet never does it disappear.
Vibrations roll in gentle swells
To ring the Earth, a massive bell.
Wavelengths too long to feel,
Beyond our senses chime and peal.
Deep ocean waves rake and strum
Where strings of seafloor ridges run.
Bow to Earth’s violin,
Meditative hum within.
We humans live no more aware
Of Earth’s deep song than of the air.

“A new study… explains Earth’s mysterious, never-ending hum,” which is too faint and low for us to hear. Some animals, for example elephants, hear or feel well below the human range, so perhaps the Earth sings them lullabies.



Warm Pacific Blob – a poem by Kate Rauner


The PDO may explain why global warming occurs in a stair-step pattern.

Is one of Earth’s great dances,
On downswing curb’s the water’s warmth,
On upswing it enhances.
A subtle giant warms or cools
The vast Pacific surface,
Moves ocean fish and salmon runs
With deep water’s reemergence.
It stirs the clouds and shifts the winds
Wide across the globe,
A pattern in the monthly flux that
Centuries of tree rings hold.
There’s something odd a-happening
Off America’s western coast,
Earth’s wobble spanning decades
Has swallowed warming’s dose.
But what goes cool must then reverse,
The escalator rise.
Droughts will damage farmland
And coral reefs will die.
Salt water will flood coastal zones,
Extinction rates will climb.
These are the precious coins with which
We’ve bought our modern lives.

The Pacific Decadal Oscillation is one of many natural cycles on Earth which interplay with climate. It’s a recent discovery made while studying salmon runs in the North American west: “Over the past century, the amplitude of this climate pattern has varied irregularly at interannual-to-interdecadal time scales… This climate pattern also affects coastal sea and continental surface air temperatures.” Surface temperatures often receive the attention in global warming discussions, though the whole-Earth temperature may be more important.
A “warm blob” is forming in the northeast Pacific Ocean that may represent a change in the PDO, “with one NOAA researcher saying, ‘when you see something like this that’s totally new you have opportunities to learn things you were never expecting.’”
There are many sources for information on global warming, the resulting climate change, and the PDO. Here are a few:

We’ll Find We’re Not Alone – a poem by Kate Rauner



Hydrothermal vents are able to support extremophile bacteria on Earth and may also support life in other parts of the cosmos.

We will find we’re not alone,
The proof is at our finger tips.
We have the means, robotic craft
Extend our touch on epic trips.
We know where round the Sun to look,
Know how to search for traces.
Moons and planets wait for us,
Within our reach are many places.
No wormholes, warping space required,
No need for hyperdrives.
Technology is here today
To find unearthly lives.
With chemistries like ours – or strange,
Not likely grays or bug-eyed men,
Expected small, but bodies huge
Are not beyond imagining.
Mars only lost his oceans
A million years ago.
Solar winds stripped air away,
And with it, oceans go.
But liquid water blankets
Some moons of Jupiter.
Beneath their crusts of ice,
Hordes of life may stir.
To feed on broth by magma brewed
May be an easy strategy.
Get energy not from the Sun,
But twisted tides of gravity.
And Callisto,
Or methane lakes on Titan,
Life free from H2O.
Geysers may toss microbes high,
Bouquets to passing hands,
Till we can pierce a mile of ice
To meet them in their lands.
To find that life is commonplace
Will not diminish me,
But will expand my mind and soul
And all that I can be.

“I believe we are going to have strong indications of life beyond Earth in the next decade and definitive evidence in the next 10 to 20 years,” Ellen Stofan, chief scientist for NASA, said at a public panel Tuesday in Washington. “We know where to look, we know how to look, and in most cases we have the technology.” latimes.com

That would be amazing, astounding, awesome… and that’s just the “a” words I can think of. Extraterrestrial life is discussed in many places, for example, solarsystem.nasa.gov , jpl.nasa.gov , or wikipedia extraterrestrial life

For me, even a real microbe will be better than all the movies put together – reality always trumps fantasy.

Happy Tax Day

donkey_with_heavy_load.svg.medIf you’re an American, you pay your federal income tax next week, or at least apply for an extension. (You did remember, didn’t you?)

Some Americans pay a high tax rate – we call it a heavy tax. But it’s not as heavy as a real estate tax in ancient Egypt. “A recently translated ancient Egyptian tax receipt [date corresponds to July 22, 98 B.C.] shows a bill that is (literally) heavier than any American taxpayer will pay this year — more than 220 lbs. (100 kilograms) of coins… ‘It’s an incredibly large sum of money,’ said Brice Jones… who translated the text. ‘These Egyptians were most likely very wealthy.'” Their tax bill was about thirty times a contemporary laborer’s annual salary.

The tax bill included an extra charge levied because the payment was made in bronze rather than silver coins, so the number and weight of coins was heavier. The pharaoh’s tax collectors had to “absorb the cost of transport and handling. In cases where [they] had to bring in a big load, it was packed in baskets and carried by donkeys.”

I wonder if some ancient Egyptian millionaire paid in bronze to show anger at the tax. In today’s world, some people pay in pennies to encourage thrift or protest the bill, but businesses are not required to accept pennies.

I hope your tax bill doesn’t break the bank or your donkey’s your back.

Hellas a Crater – a poem by Kate Rauner

The largest impact crater seen,
The largest that we’ve found,
Could not exist on gaseous worlds,
It’s gouged in rocky ground
The Hellas Basin’s found on Mars,
From crater rim to dusty floor,
Nine thousand meters is its depth,
The height that airplanes soar.
The basin sits at antipode
To enormous shield volcanoes
That rise upon the Tharsis Bulge,
Punched right through the globe.
Dust emerges from its depths,
Storm after storm a’ chasing,
Enveloping and planet wide,
It should be called Hell’s Basin.

I’m working on a novel about colonizing Mars, and dust will be a huge problem. The Hellas Basin is known for its dust storms.