Tag Archives: Speculation

The Mole Rat Prophecies

The naked mole rat, Heterocephalus glaber, is fleshy, furless, buck-toothed and brazenly ugly. Yet what these small East African rodents lack in terms of good looks, they make up with an impressive array of biological quirks. These misnamed mammals are neither moles nor rats, and in terms of their social behaviour are actually closer to bees, wasps, ants, and termites than to other backboned animals.

They live in underground cooperative colonies of up to 300 individuals with a dominant breeding “queen” and celibate soldier and worker castes. Biologists have identified only one other vertebrate—the closely related Damaraland mole rat—that uses this rigid reproductive and social structure. Until the late 1970s scientists believed that this trait, known as eusociality, was confined to insects.

Naked mole rats deploy several impressive feats of physiology, including an apparent imperviousness to pain, a casual disregard for low-oxygen environments, and resistance to cancer. Indeed, these unsightly creatures both baffle and buttress Darwin’s Theory of Evolution in multiple remarkable and apparently self-contradictory ways.

The Isle of Doctor Seaborg

Glenn T Seaborg c. 1964
Glenn T Seaborg c. 1964

It was the summer of 1936 when Ernest Lawrence, the inventor of the atom-smashing cyclotron, received a visit from Emilio Segrè, a scientific colleague from Italy. Segrè explained that he had come all the way to America to ask a very small favor: He wondered whether Lawrence would part with a few strips of thin metal from an old cyclotron unit. Dr Lawrence was happy to oblige; as far as he was concerned the stuff Segrè sought was mere radioactive trash. He sealed some scraps of the foil in an envelope and mailed it to Segrè’s lab in Sicily. Unbeknownst to Lawrence, Segrè was on a surreptitious scientific errand.

At that time the majority of chemical elements had been isolated and added to the periodic table, yet there was an unsightly hole where an element with 43 protons ought to be. Elements with 42 and 44 protons—42molybdenum and 44ruthenium respectively—had been isolated decades earlier, but element 43 was yet to be seen. Considerable accolades awaited whichever scientist could isolate the elusive element, so chemists worldwide were scanning through tons of ores with their spectroscopes, watching for the anticipated pattern.

Upon receiving Dr Lawrence’s radioactive mail back in Italy, Segrè and his colleague Carlo Perrier subjected the strips of molybdenum foil to a carefully choreographed succession of bunsen burners, salts, chemicals, and acids. The resulting precipitate confirmed their hypothesis: element 42 was the answer. The radiation in Lawrence’s cyclotron had converted a few 42molybdenum atoms into element 43, and one ten-billionth of a gram of the stuff now sat in the bottom of their beaker. They dubbed their plundered discovery “technetium” for the Greek word technetos, meaning “artificial.” It was considered to be the first element made by man rather than nature, and its “short” half-life—anywhere from a few nanoseconds to a few million years depending on the isotope—was the reason there’s negligible naturally-occurring technetium left on modern Earth.

In the years since this discovery scientists have employed increasingly sophisticated apparatuses to bang particles together to create and isolate increasingly heavy never-before-seen elements, an effort which continues even today. Most of the obese nuclei beyond 92uranium are too unstable to stay assembled for more than a moment, to the extent that it makes one wonder why researchers expend such time, effort, and expense to fabricate these fickle fragments of matter. But according to our current understanding of quantum mechanics, if we can pack enough protons and neutrons into these husky nuclei we may encounter something astonishing.

Too Close for Comfort

Edvard Westermarck
Edvard Westermarck

One of the most common taboos across human societies of the past and present has been incest. Virtually every known culture has considered it repulsive, especially when involving siblings or a parent and child. The leading behavioural theory that has been proposed to account for the ubiquity of this aversion is known as the Westermarck effect, after Finnish scholar Edvard Westermarck, who proposed it in his 1891 book The History of Human Marriage. The idea of the Westermarck effect is that young children will become sexually/romantically desensitised to anyone they live in close contact with over the course of the first few years of their lives. That is, they will reach adulthood with no compulsion to consider a relationship with anyone they shared a home with in their early childhood. Note that crucially, the connection does not have to be biological; according to the theory, it applies just as readily to children adopted at a young age as to those raised by their birth parents. But since children are likely to be raised by at least one of their biological parents – about 97.5% of children in the U.S., according to the 2000 census – the effect is thought to have arisen through evolution because it reduces the chances of inbreeding, which can tie the gene-pool up in ugly knots of emergent recessive traits. It functions well in this respect. However, when a child is separated from biological family at an early age, there is no chance for the Westermarck effect to take hold; reunions between biological relatives who were separated much earlier sometimes lead into unforeseen emotional territory.

Mediterranean be Dammed

In the 1920’s the people of Europe feared the future as a dark, despairing place. Despite the loss of over five million Europeans in the Great War, the region was still plagued with the social maladies which had led to the conflict. The humans were maladjusted to the Industrial Age and the changes in labor which it spawned. To make matters worse, both scholars and soothsayers of the day postulated that world’s fluxing economies would congeal into two economic blobs: the Americas would unify into a wealthy super-state in the west, while the east colluded to become an enormous pan-Asian power. Europe would be left economically isolated, with a limited range of climates for farming and fewer resources at hand. Nowhere was the gloom thicker than in Germany where the terms of the Treaty of Versailles led to poverty and hunger for much of the population. It was in the midst of that dark time that an architect named Herman Sörgel devised a plan to preserve Europe through this daunting new worldscape.

Sörgel spent years promoting his scheme to save Europe: the construction of vast hydroelectric dams spanning the Mediterranean. The massive turbines would furnish a surplus of power, and the re-engineered sea would turn the life-hostile Sahara desert into a fertile wetland. In an era when it seemed technology could do no wrong, a considerable segment of the population supported Sörgel’s ambitious plan.

Life Without the Moon

Life is a tenuous thing. Earth is just within Sol’s habitable zone, and constantly pelted with solar radiation and cosmic rays. Rocky scraps of cosmic afterbirth constantly cross Earth’s orbit, threatening to eradicate all terrestrial life. In point of fact, it is almost certain that countless Extinction-Level Events would have sterilized the surface of our plucky planet had it not been for our constant companion and benefactor; a body which unwittingly wards away many of the ills that could befall us: the moon.

Luna is unique among the observed celestial bodies; there is no other satellite closer in size and composition to its mother-planet (if one discounts the dwarf-planet Pluto), and the Earth/moon system is the only tidally locked pair. Furthermore, it also happens to be the only moon in the solar system which is circling an intelligent civilization— a factor which may not be a mere coincidence.

Transforming the Earth

Humanity’s home is far from factory-fresh these days. Frankly, the Earth has received its share of scratches and dents, including large asteroid impacts, megavolcanoes, earthquakes, ice ages, and heat waves. It’s to be expected. There are over four billion years on the clock, after all.

Though it has long been clear that Earth 1.0 is in need of an upgrade, it was not until a few years ago that someone began to take the notion seriously. In 2004, at a respected international design exhibition called the Venice Architecture Biennale, a young artist and architect named Christian Waldvogel displayed his plans for total global annihilation and the creation of Earth 2.0.

Coley’s Cancer-Killing Concoction

A macrophage (purple) attacks a cancer cell (yellow)
A macrophage (purple) attacks a cancer cell (yellow)

On October 1st 1890, William B. Coley, a young bone surgeon barely two years out of medical school, saw one of his first patients in private practice at the New York Memorial Hospital. Although he’d only finished his residency earlier the same year, he’d already gained a good reputation and many considered him a rising star of the New York surgical scene.

The seventeen year old patient had a painful, rapidly growing lump on the back of her right hand. She had pinched the unlucky appendage between two railway carriage seats on a transcontinental trip to Alaska some months before, and when the bruise failed to heal she assumed the injury had become infected. However the bruise turned into a bulge, the pain steadily worsened, and her baffled doctors were eventually compelled to call for Dr. Coley. As a surgical man, Coley would never have guessed that this innocuous referral would take his career in a totally new direction— into an unusual branch of medicine now known as cancer immunotherapy.