We’re Not Alone!

The Secret, Trillion Lives
Crawling In & On Your Body

The late Carl Sagan may have said, we’re all made of starstuff. But deep down, what we really are is a multitude of microorganisms, 100 trillion of them, some part of our natural physiology, but most totally foreign. We wouldn’t have lasted this long on Earth without them.
While cells are the bricks that form our bodies, even before birth, an ever growing, self-renewing, array of microscopic creatures call us their home and, gasp, may also call the shots about everything we think we are, from how healthy or moody, to when we’ll finally expire.
So much for freewill. This invisible trillionaire community, living of our so well washed and fed bodies, shelters charitable organisms, which allow us to survive what would’ve killed us in the past, and downright lethal pathogens, for which there’s no defense. And yet others are content to just control whether we’ll follow that new Twitter trend.
To learn about these entities, simple but formidable enough to erase a city’s population, is to find multiple new questions to every doubt we may clarify. It’s also to wonder how come a brainless, single-cell being can play such a complex role in the evolutionary ladder.
Notice that we haven’t mentioned viruses, so much in the headlines lately with the Ebola outbreak. But if bacteria can be foreign to us, viruses are totally aliens, as they have no cell or internal structure. All killing’s done with the thinnest protein layer and a string of nucleic acid. We’d let those dogs lie for now, if we could.
Bacteria, however, can actually be our allies, and our guts hold enough of them to actually defeat an alien invasion, as H.G. Wells‘ illustrated so well in War of the Worlds. Not for long, though, as we overuse antibiotics, which kill both good and bad ones, and give rise to a new breed of superbugs. Watch out.

MAFIA BUGS & ZOMBIE SPIDERS
Speaking of evolution, a step above, more complex and considerably larger, are parasites, which are tiny insects, still invisible to our poor eye sights, but very capable all the same. Nature is full of them, and now we’re also learning that some can be pretty clever, controlling bigger creatures. Including us.
There’s one, for instance, that once inside a bumblebee, can force it to become food for its larvae, not before digging its own grave, though. They called it a Mafia Bug, but you haven’t heard it from us. Curiously, such approach to domination is emulated by other, larger creatures, such as some kind of wasps.
The Pompiliadae, a.k.a. Spider Wasp, is so called for a reason: it poisons and paralyzes without killing a spider, drags it to its burrow, bury it, and lay eggs on top of it, so it will be eaten still alive by its larvae. Pretty horrific. Another wasp does something similar: it turns the spider into a zombie construction worker.
Well, you may say, at least it teaches it a marketable skill. Except that it also paralyzes the spider and lays its eggs, etc. Not a fate one would think dignified enough for anyone, but, Continue reading

Dr. Who?

Wanted: Mom for Neanderthal &
The Lecture That Shook the World

You may be convinced that science can’t pack heat, but it does and how. In part because new discoveries are inherently frightening, and often such fears are well founded. Also, it may sound stereotypical, but scientists are not really the most socially skillful people around.
Cases in point: a geneticist has announced that a woman could, potentially, give birth to a Neanderthal, a species that evolution selected out thousands of years ago. And you wouldn’t believe how a physiologist demonstrated publicly his erectile dysfunction therapy.
There’s no need for alarm, though. We’re not about to pile on the work of these incredibly gifted individuals, just because they wouldn’t know who the Kardashian are. Many members of the not-so-bright but sociable cognizant crowd like us spend a great deal of time trying to forget them too.
Still, in a profession where trial and error is essential for success, even if it takes decades if not centuries, some blatant examples of vexing lack of social awareness have already had their day in the sun. Thus at least theoretically, they wouldn’t need to be repeated ad nauseum as they do.
What those two examples above demonstrate, however, is that many of the very shining examples of human intellect can’t, well, pay attention for too long. Or that when Desperate Housewives is on, they’re simply peeping through some microscope, finding out how our world will change in the next millennium.

THE ITALIAN SCAPEGOATS
To underline this point, and add yet another layer of caution to the proceedings, take the L’Aquila earthquake, that struck Italy’s region of Abruzzo, in 2009. The country’s deadliest quake since 1980 killed 297 people and left hundreds of injured, besides causing the usual misery and widespread material destruction.
So, what did the Italian government under flamboyant billionaire Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi do? Persecuted seven seismologists at the Commission for Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, of course. Continue reading

Try This At Home

Three Cases to Delay the World’s
Slow Slide Towards the Dark Side

A retiring owner decides to give away his business to employees. A cab driver returns a wad of cash left in his car. A mayor who’ll spend a week on Food Stamps. These sound like cliche plots for yet another boring season of television sitcoms. Except that they’re not.
Joe Lueken is really giving his 46-year-old grocery chain away to his 400-plus employees. Las Vegas cabbie Adam Woldemarin did return over $200 grand to a twice-lucky gambler. And Newark Mayor Cory Booker is indeed set to try living on a meager stipend.
Before going any further, though, let’s get some debris out of the way. We don’t know any of these people, never shopped at Village Foods in Bemidji, haven’t ridden a cab in Vegas, or even cast a vote in Jersey. In fact, readers of this blog know we’re no cheerleaders for anyone or anything.
But, let’s face it, this sort of stories are in terribly short supply these days, and heaven knows they’re so few and far between, we wonder whether someone is not pulling our leg this time too. If they are, you probably know the drill better than we, that shame-on-them, shame-on-us business.
We’re sure that for much less, many have been called heroes, and may even have believed for a moment that they were indeed special, just for doing the right thing. Because in an ideal word, there shouldn’t be Continue reading

Are We There Yet?

Billionaires’ Paradise Among Space
Debris & a Punch Heard on the Moon

For space aficionados, the good news is, here comes another age of orbital traveling. For science buffs, the bad news is that it’ll be geared towards tourism, not research. For star gazers, we’re about to resume our interrupted space adventure. For crazy wingers, that dream will cost more than an arm and a leg.
Up to now, space exploration has been the charge of rocket scientists. But what comes next is the luxury vacation extravaganza the majority will never be able to afford. It’s the trade-off of the times: either we had this less than perfect vision restored, of a future flying through galaxies, or postpone it all for generations.
If it doesn’t seem like a fair choice, and that the distance between an astronaut and a commercial pilot may be wider than the one between Earth and the moon, well, that’s just the way the world goes round.
On the other brighter and slightly radiation-exposed side, we may find that flying above the atmosphere and back, even if represents such a diminished glance of a once grand view, it still is a high-risk proposition not to be taken lightly.
And who knows? Perhaps boys and girls around the world will still dream of one day fly so high that their clock will slow down, and their hearts will race faster, and that this planet’s troubles will seem way smaller, even if for a moment.
In the meantime, commercial companies are already jockeying for Continue reading

Aussie Antihero

Time for Ned Kelly to 
Have His Third Burial

When Australian outlaw Ned Kelly was living his brief and tormented life, 158 or 157 years ago, depending on who you ask, there was probably little doubt about how it all would end. His death by hanging, on three counts of murder, would have been the final act in such a short life of a hapless character.
Not for Kelly, though. His body went through quite a few adventures of its own, as it turns out. First, his bones were moved in 1929, and then exhumed 80 years later, when his DNA was identified. But his skull has been always missing until recently. Now, a self-described witch claims to have it.
By now, much of what we believe we know about this contemporary of American Jesse James, also young and outlawed, is subjected to skepticism for lack of consistent records. In fact, we may never know how much of it is even based on fact, such as the Robin Hood bit, or just pure myth.
But it makes for good copy. News about Kelly have been as hot now as they were during the 1960s, when the potential of iconic antiheroes for selling T-shirts built a few small fortunes. It helped it too that a 1970 movie based on his life, starring Mick Jagger, was a minor hit of the era.
THE IRISH BUSHRANGER
As any middle-schooler can tell you, when the British Empire was deciding what to do with the vast extension of the land ‘down under,’ its most ‘brilliant’ idea was to send to the continental-sized new country a band of convicted criminals. Let loose in the inhospitable territory, those who didn’t die, thrived.
Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly was the son of a first generation Irish con sent by the British to rot way down below the equator, an ‘award’ offered to him and his comrades, as an alternative to death in the northern Continue reading

Big Spill

While BP’s All But Done With It,
Wildlife in the Gulf’s Still Reeling

Two years ago today, the Deepwater Horizon, an oil rig operated by subcontractors working for BP Inc. in the Gulf of Mexico, exploded, caught fire and killed eleven people, in what became the U.S.’s biggest environmental disaster. It took 87 days for the giant British concern to cap the well, after an estimated five million barrels of oil had already spilled into once pristine gulf waters.
BP was forced to set aside a $20 billion fund to cover the cleanup efforts, which were undertaken along with U.S.’s environmental agencies and local organizations, and pay for reparations. Such amount’s still to be fully spent and legal battles still rage over who should pay what and to whom.
It may take years before we know for sure the true extent of the damage to wildlife, fisheries and the ecosystem the spill has caused. But disturbing reports about deformed shrimp and lung-damaged dolphins are no comfort for those who’ve been fighting for years against the use of fossil fuels, exactly to prevent what seems now statistically inevitable: another ecological disaster.
It won’t be easy. And it’s not just because BP, despite settling billions of dollars of claims from the spill, has again asked a U.S. judge for yet another delay to resolve remaining disputes. But energy policies in the U.S. and pretty much every other big western economy are still in large part controlled by the oil and gas industry.
Particularly in the U.S., such fight to end our oil dependency has been disheartening, and the Obama administration’s done less than expected supporting research of alternative energy sources. On the contrary, Continue reading