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 off 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 whoever we follow on Twitter.
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 hadn’t mentioned viruses till now; we figure too few would that eager to hear about them once more. 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, gasp again, it may be already happening. And your favorite pet may have something to do with some of your dark thoughts.

IT COMES FROM INSIDE YOUR CAT
Research is not new, but it goes along with the same M.O. displayed by the parasites we’ve mentioned, except that this time, the joke, er, the zombies may be us. The Toxoplasma gondii infects domestic cats via their food, and can manipulate certain cells to gain access to the central nervous system of a human.
Since the protozoan can live in many environments but survives only in the guts of cats, evolution may have given it a surprising edge. It’s been proven, for instance, that once it’s present (more)

___________
Read Also:
* Play Dough
* Outing the Innies
* Navel Lint

in the brains of rats, it makes it to lose its ingrained fear of felines. The result is predictable: they get eaten, and fast.
From cats to humans, it’s just a leap. A Sweden’s Centre for Infectious Diseases study showed that, when the parasite gets in contact with white blood cells of the immune system, it makes them secrete a chemical neurotransmitter that violates the natural barrier protecting our brain. Once inside, like a Trojan horse, it unleashes its deeds.
It gets worse. Toxoplasma infection has been linked to depression, guilt, and insecurity, in humans, not cats, that is. And another study found that infected Danish women were 54% more likely to attempt suicide – and twice as likely to succeed – with the risk positively increasing at par with levels of infection.

WHO’S IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT?
You may never look at your furry friend the same way again but have in mind that he’s a carrier, not a doer. At the same time, many more studies have proven that rates of depression and suicidal thoughts are actually lower for people who have pets, including cats, compared to those who do not. So don’t kick her out of bed just yet.
Yet, a new study on germs published on the journal BioEssays, jumps at just this exact possibility, that some bacteria do makes us crave some foods out of their own selfish evolutionary drive. And if they manipulate us through food, what else can they make us do, wear socks with sandals?
Again, back to the natural world, researchers have already noted that some fungi – whether one pronounces the word correctly or not – are instigators of certain behaviors in ants, through infiltrating and changing the chemical makeup of their brains, even though it’s still unknown how they do that.
And it’s long known that dopamine and serotonin, chemicals that our neurons use to communicate with one another, can be produced by bacteria living in our gut. They can, ultimately, alter the biochemistry of our brain, and from then on, we’re toast, and as good as mice, and do exactly as we’re told (by the bacteria).

BELLY BUTTON DIVERSITY
There’s no need to gross out anybody but it’s nearly impossible when one talks about well, the body. Take the belly button, for instance (trust us on this one): every mammal has one, and it’s the most visible reminder that you too once had a mother, whether you still call her on Sundays or not.
The navel is also one of the most recognizable places where all sorts of microorganisms collect, even if you judiciously clean it often, which many don’t but, as we said, we’re not getting into that here. The point is, there are many people very interested in your belly button, in a completely non-fetish or sexual way.
Consider entomologists, who wouldn’t be the first choice to study the human body by almost anyone. But even though they study insects, their interest is piqued by the extreme, and highly diverse, habitat of anyone’s navel, home in certain cases to thousands of different organisms, which also varies from one person to another.
The team of biologists at the North Carolina State University and the state’s Museum of Natural Sciences, that launched the Belly Button Biodiversity Project in 2011, found out that unwashed belly buttons had the most species living in there. No wonder. Similar results were also uncovered by the team’s other pet project, the Armpit-Pa-Looza, a study of you know what.

STARDUST? MORE LIKELY STAR BUGS
It all sounds almost as scary as sci-fi had warned us that the brave new world would be. Or there must be some kind of lesson in here, somewhere, about the small controlling the big picture, the same way as the planet’s biggest creature, the whale, is fed by one of its tiniest, the krill. Or something to that effect.
We’re not about to end this with a flowery metaphor about the grandiosity of it all, our infinite ignorance, and all that. It’s actually a wonder that we even know a bit about the world around us, being in such a hurry to destroy it as we are.
But there is one big, fat, blatant fact about the microbiome that envelops us from before birth to way after death: we can never say that we walk this Earth alone.

(*) Originally published on Aug. 20, 2014.

Having Guts

Down the Chute, Where
the Slimming Bacteria Live

The mouth. While some may call it a temple for words and tastes, where great thought is breath out, and divine flavors often pay visits, it has also another, far more reductionist and not so noble, role: it’s only the first of two ends of a very long tube.
Albeit we won’t get it to that other side, not now anyway, our survival as humans still depends on what travels down into our fat lips, crosses the battleground of our guts, and gets out through a drain hole. Not all is a storm in there, though. So come, let’s meet the locals.
For despite the many realms our thoughts have conquered, and the reasons why we orbit around the universe of the table, and always come back for more, we go out of our way to dissociate such fulfilling parts of life from what they ultimately imply, body-wise.
We make love and food with our months, and often recite with eloquence what they mean to us, and coyly, how we could never ever live without them. However, any mention to what goes on below the belt, and our appetite goes into a receding mode, embarrassed that we’d even thought about it.
And yet, deep down, you know you think about it, all the time. It’s just not something that, thankfully, most people would like to share on Twitter. But from a medical point of view, we really are what we eat, even though no parallel connection has been established yet between thought and personality.
That’s why Gulp, Mary Roach‘s book on the human digestive system in all its warts and, well, more warts, is so illuminating. And also, why there’s reason to some cautiously feel good about research that points to a bacteria that may have been making people fat all along.

FANTASTIC VOYAGES
In the 1966 movie, a loose adaptation of a series written in the 19th century by Jules Verne, former Bond girl Rachel Welch leads a team of miniaturized scientists who are injected into a man’s carotid artery to destroy a blood clot in his brain. Of course, if they’d fail, the entire world would end.
It was one of the first cinematic incursions into what was known then about the insides of the body, but mercifully, they stayed clear from digging too deep or going down under. Also, because Isaac Asimov wrote a novelization of the movie’s screenplay, published right (more)
__________
Read Also:
* We’re Not Alone
* Lies & Weight
* The Long Good Friday

Continue reading

Rock On

Immigrants to the Solar System
& a Stone That Predates Humans

No one knows how many of them are out there. They travel light, fast, and come from lifetimes of distance. Surveillance may catch a few, but this is too vast a place to easily spot them. Some fear them like the end of times. Others call them refugees, or vagrants, or immigrants.
They’re asteroids, meteorites, shooting stars. They may come to visit: one zipped by Earth’s orbit last year, on its way out of the Milk Way. But long ago, Jupiter captured another; it’s now a permanent resident. Like those that come crashing to die among us, they’ll keep on coming.
The fear, of course, is that they do have the potential to end our civilization. Just like that, and there’s damn little, or pretty much nothing, we can do about it. Geological data, i.e., extracted from rocks, plus statistical probability, prove that such a literally earthshaking possibility does exist.
Twice in the past an incoming high-speed ball wiped nearly all life on the planet, changing evolutionary history in the process. So we try to keep track of them, but even if we could see them all at a safe distance, we’ll probably would’t have time for anything but to go mad, and then die.
Not Oumuamua, though, the object that crossed incognito our zenith last September. When it reached the sun, we knew that it couldn’t possibly be from within our system, like all the others, race-ending or not. When it left it, it’d become the very first interstellar little world to came and say hi. Or rather, a Hello, Goodbye. I must be going.

THE THIRD ROCK FROM THE SUN
Of course, Shakespeare was right. So was Carmichael, and so was Sagan. After being given such a noble provenance, linking us straight to the most distant heavenly body we will never get to see, who wants to have anything to do with an errant piece of rock? But it’s been said, they’re inevitable.
In fact, without denying we’re shinning stars and all that, life may have been brought down to this Pale Blue Dot, which once thought of itself as the center of the universe, by a lowly slice of outwordly dust, teeming with what would blow air through our nostrils. Hey, cheer up. We’re all rock stars.
Or whatever. The hominids who act as if they own the place they know nothing about, and are just about to put it on fire, couldn’t bear thinking that they don’t count. But in reality, they don’t. (more)
__________
Read Also:
* The Undreamed World
* World Snatchers
* It’s Fly By Us

Continue reading

The Undreamed World

Forget Exoplanets. Here’s
the Ninth, the X & the Quirky

When things get rough on the ground, we can always look up. Seven and half billion currently trudging along on this big rock can take solace that the universe is vast and beautiful and always available. It’s also uncaring and violent, but we won’t get into that today.
Part of this soothing feeling is because we don’t know what’s up there. Astronomers wonder if there’s an undiscovered giant orbiting the sun. And another Earth-sized one. And a quirky object too. Or none of the above. We learn a lot by simply not knowing much.
But it’s fun to wonder. Or is it? The cosmos is so disproportionally big that no single mind can wrap itself around it. Large but short of infinity, it baffles and ignores us, while we dream on. Or have nightmares about it. It doesn’t care, but to us, it’s the stuff of, well, you know.
Heard about Nemesis, the sun’s evil twin? Or the identical Earth hidden behind the sun? Both are reasonable guesses, but their currency can only be exchanged at an imaginary box office at the end of the galaxy. One of them is actually a sci-fi movie plot. We may find out some day, but math will probably get there first.
The breakthrough era of exoplanet discoveries and look-alike solar systems has nothing on such suspicions. They date back to the 1800s, when hot-as-the-sun disputes drove many an even-tempered scientist to near madness. Math always gets there first. But even after a century, we’re still way too far behind.

THE SECRET TRANS-NEPTUNIAN COLOSSUS
Planet 9 has been orbiting the slumber of astrophysicists since they first studied the solar system. Something massive has been disturbing Earth’s siblings practically from the universe’s inception and wild youth, back in 2016 minus 4.6 billion years ago. Maybe we’ll find out what.
Mankind owes Percival Lowell the hunt for this ninth planet. His calculations missed the giant but led to the discovery of Pluto, 15 years after his death, a century ago last year. But Pluto can’t explain the orbital disturbances, and that likely doomed it too.
In 2006, the International Astronomical Union downgraded it to dwarf planet, giving grief to many. That left the spot #9 empty, and astronomers have a hunch that its next occupant resides in the area beyond Neptune, a kind of suburbs of the solar system, if you’d insist.
But we may be still years away from direct detection. After all, those outskirts lay at least 300 times farther from the sun than the Blue Planet, and whatever lurks there it’s simply too hard to spot from our backyard. But we might. Just hold off the welcome B-B-Q for now.

A POSSIBLE BRAND NEW TWIN OF EARTH
Taking about burbs, the Kuiper Belt, an area fraught with debris possibly left over from a planetary explosion, and from where most comets come out shooting, may be the neighborhood of yet another unknown object. But this time, it’s of a cozy, Earth-sized scale.
Astronomers suspect that it’s the source of disturbance of the Belt’s 600 objects they’ve been monitoring. Considerably closer to us, and much smaller than Planet 9, it’s been nicknamed Planet 10, but not everyone wants to be quoted on that or even is on board about it.
The scientific community has a healthy skeptical attitude about new claims, specially something they may missed for so long. Humans love a thrill, however, and the spectacular discovery of a new planet (more)
_______
Read Also:
* Gatekeeper of Outerspace
* Heed My Leaps
* Worlds Away

Continue reading

Spacing Out

It Could’ve Been Worst,
But Keep Your Eyes Open

Done complaining? you’re actually very lucky. While you were asleep the other night, Earth almost got hit by an asteroid nobody knew about; you were closed to turn into confetti. See, things are not that bad. In fact, as you whine, a lot keeps happening right above you.
For instance, an old satellite just woke up from its slumber and began beeping, just like that. And you should also count your graces for not being a soon-to-meet-its-maker astronaut: they could accuse your deceased body of spreading microbes to outer worlds.
All this proves is that life, a train The Famous Pale Blue Dot Photo of Earth, Taken by the Voyager 1, on Feb. 14, 1990always ready to take off, keeps on tracking, and you’d better stand clear of its closing doors. Don’t want to be dragged down to a dark and narrow tunnel, watching riders go about their business inside, while you’re handed your papers outside it.
Speaking of tunnels, you may live in one and may not know about this, but since Tuesday, Nov. 8, a heavy fog came down, and a lot of people seem stunned, walking like zombies and foaming at their mouth. Something to do with some bad new – the 11/9, the say -, but don’t quote us on that.
The point is, you may think that it’s all unacceptable, unfair, and you won’t put up with it one little bit. Well, good luck with that; the next few years will be very depressing, indeed. You’ll find plenty of reasons to wallow in pools of disappointment and drown in wells of sorrow.
Or, after mourning the missing opportunities for a sec, you could lift up your chin up and catch a glimpse of the sky; it’s amazing how things are busy up there. For a change, that sobering realization that you are, after all, small and barely count, does put things in perspective.

THE MOUNTAIN THAT MISSED EARTH
Even your jubilant Uncle Bob, who can’t wait to corner you at Thanksgiving to tell you, ‘I told you so,’ knows that, among the infinitude of worlds out there, there’s a rock with our address and a clear mission: wipe out zealots and bigots and racists and misogynists with one swapping gulp.
That you don’t consider yourself ‘them’ makes not an iota of difference; you know you’ll be gone too. So, asteroids and meteorites usually top anyone’s list of civilization killers. On Nov. 1, a previously unknown one ‘almost’ became it. 2016 VA zapped within 0.2 times the moon’s distance from us.
It does seem far, but the thing is, either way, we didn’t know about it until it was too late to do anything. Now, put that ‘sobering realization’ in the context of your troubles, and you may catch a whiff of our drift here. Happens all the time. So, as the Brits say, chin up old chap.

THE GHOST SATELLITE THAT WOKE UP
Truth to be told, we track a lot of space rocks, but it’s impossible to track them all. As if we weren’t busy enough with that, we also track over 500 thousand man-made debris, all traveling at top speed, that we sent aloft and now are menaces to our survival out there.
Among them, are some of the Lincoln Experimental Satellite series, like the LES1 that almost immediately after launch, in 1965, malfunctioned and went dormant for 46 years, at the wrong (more)
_______
Read Also:
* Space Droppings
* It’s Fly By Us
* War Lord

Continue reading

Space Droppings

The High-Speed Junk Our
Dreams Left Above Earth

Look at that sky above you. See how the stars are bright tonight. Think about the immensity of the universe, quasars and nebulae, waiting to awe you, just beyond the reach of your fingers. And be careful with the falling debris of thousands of objects man placed on Earth’s orbit.
That’s right. We can’t seem to live without producing many times as much as we’re capable of consuming. And just like the oceans, all that floating garbage is choking us. Or, in the case of space, either falling often over our heads or racing around the planet at top speed.
So, hail poets and philosophers and astronomers and dreamers. But also, hail the new class of space cleaners that will have to be trained and sent to do what janitors have been doing since time immemorial, besides taking the blame for their bosses’ crimes: cleaning after us.
The U.S., and as a distant second, Russia (as in former Soviet Union), are by far the biggest producers of space junk around. But neophyte China‘s also doing its part, as it launched this week a monitoring center to protect its over 130 space objects in orbit.
Other countries are concerned too. A month ago, Japan announced that it’s studying the possibility of laser-blasting, Star Wars-style, all that junk out of existence, probably from the International Space Station itself. Just imagine George Lucas losing his sleep over this.
But theirs is only a slightly more sophisticated idea that’s been tried before, with disastrous results. We’ve covered that a few years ago. Then as now, there were few reasons Continue reading

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

Space Out

Carl Sagan, Cosmos
Fan & Joint Tripper

‘The illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serendipity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world.’ These words are attributed to Carl Sagan, who’d be 78 years old today. Happy birthday, Mr. Cosmos.
The quote appeared on Lester Grinspoon’s 1977 book, Marihuana Reconsidered, and it’s here apropos last Tuesday’s vote legalizing weed in Washington and Colorado states, the first of its kind in the U.S., and a potential crack in the expensive, tragic, and ultimately ineffective ‘war on drugs.’ Well done, fellow Americans, others will soon join you.
The astrophysicist known for his 1970s TV series Cosmos was also a user himself, according to Keay Davison, who wrote his biography in 1996, three years after Sagan died of myelodysplasia-related pneumonia. Wikipedia reports that not long after, his widow Ann Druyan presided over the board of directors of NORML, a foundation dedicated to reforming laws concerning pot.
Even though much of the turbulent 1960s and 1970s were marked by both widespread experiments with mind-altering drugs, and with the wonders of the space race, Sagan’s importance for boosting popular interest in science and astrophysics can not be overstated. Besides his Continue reading

Falty Science

Cave Paintings, Betty & Barney,
and an Old Titan Lost to Fiction

Among several pseudo-scientific arguments Ridley Scott used to anchor his latest sci-fi flick, Prometheus, were ancient cave paintings and distant binary-star systems. Thus the event that triggers the action itself is the discovery of such hidden paintings, which according to the main characters, could not have been done by humans, and their depiction of a faraway planetary system.
Of many very old cave paintings found throughout Earth, there’s one that does seem to have been done by a non-human species. But by Neanderthals, not aliens, though. And the depiction of a star alignment on a wall may have been based on the Zeta Reticuli incident, when the binary system located 39-light years away, became part of the controversial first reported case of humans abducted by aliens, in 1961.
Apart from these two near misses, the movie got pretty much everything else wrong, which is disappointing in so many levels to not being worth discussing here. Then again, it’s just a movie. To cut the British director some slack, even if he never makes another film, he’s still Continue reading

Infinity & Beyond

Voyagers Leave Solar
System, Promise to Call

Talking about the little, multi-million dollar, engine that could. The Voyagers twin spacecraft, launched 35 years ago next August and September, are about to reach a place full of cliches but still vastly unknown: the interstellar space, the area beyond the imaginary trajectory of even the farthest member of the Solar System. Literally, it’s about to get to where no one has gone before.
The small crafts don’t even register on the world’s most powerful telescope screens and NASA scientists track them both by complicated astronomical calculations. But their math indicates that, yup, Voyager 1 is almost at the Heliosphere, and #2 is coming up soon after. Bye bye cruel world that mostly forgot about us, then. Except that we haven’t.
Sorry, there won’t be any cake waiting for you guys, to mark the occasion, and even our messages will get to you ever more apart from each other. They now take almost 17 hours to get to you, but fear not; Continue reading