Category Archives: biology

Books about biology.

Review 188: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta Lacks has probably saved your life. If not yours, then almost certainly that of someone you know.

And you don’t even know who she is.

Or, rather, who she was. The original Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who lived near Baltimore, grew up in poverty, worked hard, and died in 1951, overcome by a cancer that started in her cervix and spread out to take over her whole body. She left behind five children, a husband, and a legacy that would forever change our understanding of biology and medicine.

This picture is required to be inserted into any discussion of Henrietta Lacks, for good reason.

When she first went to Johns Hopkins Medical Center and was diagnosed with cancer, her doctor took a small sample of cells from the tumor and sent it to his colleague, George Gey. Gey had long been in the pursuit of what seemed like an impossible dream: to culture human cells and keep them alive in the lab. By doing so, he hoped to create new ways to test medicine and study human biology without all those pesky patients getting in the way. Unfortunately, his work had thus far been a failure. Human cells, no matter how hard he tried, simply would not survive outside the body for very long. Gey tried all kinds of media and methods, inventing some machines that have become invaluable to cell culture research, but he simply watched culture after culture die in the lab.

All of that changed when he got HeLa.

The cells from Henrietta Lacks, which were known as “HeLa,” not only didn’t die – they thrived. They were so robust that Gey and his staff soon had more HeLa cells than they could keep, much less use, so they started sending them off to any researcher who asked. With HeLa, researchers around the world began to make discoveries that would save lives and change the world.

But with this ever-growing cell line – which was baked, boiled, frozen, irradiated, cloned, cut up, and sent into space – it was very easy to forget that there was once a woman named Henrietta Lacks, with a family and a legacy of her own.

Plenty has been written about HeLa in the last fifty years, and any researcher who works with cells is probably well aware of its existence and importance. But very few people know about Henrietta, and it was this oversight that Rebecca Skloot is trying to correct in this book.

Henrietta finally gets a gravestone

She began her quest with a simple question: “Who was Henrietta Lacks?” The fact that she got the right name was surprising enough, actually. HeLa had previously been identified as Henrietta Lakes, Helen Lane, and Helen Larson in various publications. Skloot believed that there was more to the story than just a bunch of immortal cells, and was determined to find Henrietta’s surviving relatives and learn more about this woman who had somehow become so important to the world.

Skloot wouldn’t be the first, however. A writer for Rolling Stone, a con man, and the BBC had all attempted to look into the life of Henrietta before, and found that the surviving Lackses were not only unaware of what their mother had become, but largely unaware of why it was important.

The children and grandchildren of Henrietta Lacks had grown up in the Baltimore area, mired in the poverty of being black in the end of the twentieth century. Drug abuse, alcoholism, and a lack of education meant that their lives were full of hardship and struggle, and not likely to get any better. When they found out that Henrietta’s cells were not only unique to science but being sold all around the world, this was news that they weren’t all prepared to cope with. Some saw it as a religious visitation, others as a massive conspiracy, and still others as just a way to make money off some poor black folk from the city.

Deborah Lacks

The center of Skloot’s narrative is Deborah, Henrietta’s youngest daughter and the one Lacks who seemed most determined to find out what had happened. Deborah wanted so hard to find out what had happened to her mother that it almost killed her. The stress of not knowing – or, even worse, knowing but not understanding – took a heavy toll on her physical and mental health, and she was reluctant to talk to anyone at all about her mother. But it was Deborah that Rebecca had to convince if she was going to write this book, and in order to do that, she had to promise that the book would be about the woman Henrietta was, not just the cells she was famous for.

That’s probably what makes this book as readable and engaging as it is. While the science is handled well and smoothly, it’s not nearly as fascinating or emotionally gripping as the stories that she tells about the Lacks family. She shows us a family that is held together by the strength of their faith in their God and each other, and who are desperately trying to understand their place in the world and how Henrietta came to be what she was.

HeLa cells, as seen stained under a microscope

When the original cells were taken from Henrietta, it was done without her consent. She also had no say in what happened to those cells and how they were used, nor did any of her family find out the truth until years later. In an era long before the phrase “informed consent” was even coined, the medical establishment made massive scientific and financial gains, and in the meantime the Lacks were mired in poverty. As several of her children note, Henrietta has changed medicine forever, but her children can’t go see a doctor.

The struggle to understand must have been enormous. One of the moments that was most surprising and illuminating to me was when Henrietta’s son Zakariyya asked Rebecca, “What’s a cell?”

Just like Rebecca, I had to take a moment to absorb that question, and it put into sharp perspective the vast assumptions that I had made, coming from a well-educated white background. I thought that everyone at least knew what a cell was, but that assumption couldn’t have been further from the truth. Deborah and her family are people of minimal formal education who are trying to understand a topic that people study for their entire lives. Their dedication to this quest is so strong, and the struggle is so great that their attempt is nothing less than heroic, to my way of seeing things.

The Lacks Family

The story is still unfinished. HeLa is still out there, making news and causing trouble. The Lacks family is still living in poverty, although the new generation has been able to go to school and are aiming at a brighter future for themselves. And while patients’ rights to control what is done with their bodies and their tissues is improving, the law is still on the side of the doctors and hospitals. Medical ethics is a lot better than it was, but the fight is fierce, especially when there’s money involved.

This book is not just the story of cells or of science. It’s the story of a woman and her family, and how sometimes people get lost in the inexorable movement of scientific progress. Some parts are infuriating, some are heartbreaking, but the book is an illumination into what is sometimes sacrificed in pursuit of a better world.

—–
“When I saw those toenails, I nearly fainted. I thought, Oh jeez, she’s a real person. I started imagining her sitting in her bathroom painting those toenails, and it hit me for the first time that those cells we’d been working with all this time and sending all over the world, they came from a live woman. I’d never thought of it that way.”
– Mary Kubicek, assistant to George Gey

Rebecca Skloot on Wikipedia
Henrietta Lacks on Wikipedia
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on Wikipedia
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on Amazon.com
The Henrietta Lacks Foundation website
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Filed under biology, disease, family, nonfiction, quest, Rebecca Skloot, science

Review 176: Adventures Among Ants

Adventures Among Ants by Mark W. Moffett

Moffett knew from a young age that he wanted to be a field biologist – traveling the world in search of the most interesting animals he could find. And ever since his childhood, he’s had an abiding interest in ants.

And who could blame him? There are thousands of species of ants, found all around the world, and once you get down and really look at them, they display some amazing behaviors. They communicate through a series of smells, functioning almost as a group organism to take care of the nest, forage for food, and move from place to place. Some species of ants live their whole lives without touching the ground, while others ravage the ground they walk on, devouring everything in their paths. Ants are nature’s workhorses, utterly communistic in their behavior and presenting a model of order that humans should envy.

WHERE IS YOUR GOD NOW?!

We follow Moffett as he travels around the world to find the most interesting representatives of ant-dom. In India, he found the marauder ant, a vicious species of ant that goes on raids to find food near its nest. Connected by a complex system of trails, the marauder sends out every able-bodied ant it can muster, from the tiny workers to the (comparatively) giant soldier ants. They find, subdue, and dismember their prey with frightening efficiency, and carry it back to the nest, all without a leader to give them instructions or make sure they’re going the right way. Each ant just knows what her job is, and just does it. In that way, the ant super-organism takes care of itself.

In Africa, he hunts the famous African army ant, a species that is famous for its terrifying raids and voracious appetites. They swarm out around their nest, devouring anything in their path, sometimes raiding other nests for food and larvae. When army ants come, the lucky prey gets out of the way.

Ants are not confined to the ground, of course. The weaver ant is a tree-borne species that has mastered its domain with harshness and efficiency. The Amazon ant kidnaps pupae from neighboring nests and raises the young ants as their slaves. The leafcutter ant invented agriculture fifty million years before humanity even walked the earth, and the Argentine ant lives in supercolonies that cover hundreds of square kilometers and engage in violent, no-quarters war with each other.

Hey. So. How’s that picnic?

The sheer variety of ants on this planet is astounding, and Moffett shows an unstoppable enthusiasm for the little critters. What’s more, he’s an outstanding photographer, who has developed his technique and equipment to be able to get some remarkable shots of these tiny, tiny creatures in action. The hardcover edition that I have is printed on nice, glossy paper, pretty much in order to showcase Moffett’s photographic work, which he has regularly done for National Geographic Magazine.

What’s more, he continually seeks to find connections between ants and humans, who have more similarities than one might expect. We both live in large, complex societies, where individuals take on specific roles that often last that individual’s lifetimes. We engage in wars, slavery, and varied communal activities that benefit both the individual and the society at the same time. Like us, the ants build highways and infrastructure, communicate over distances, tend gardens, hold territory, plan for the future and learn from the past. And they started doing all this thousands of millennia before we even thought about standing upright. We are not the same as ants, of course – ants are unmoved by things such as status, greed, or ambition, but their instinctual dedication to the greater good of their colony is probably something that we could use a good dose of.

For all that, however, I don’t think this was the right ant book for me. Written by a person who truly loves ants, I think that would be the best kind of person to read it. I don’t have a particular fondness for the little buggers, and there were a lot of times where I had to stop and start over, or where I found myself looking for anything else to do rather than continue reading, which is never a good sign. It isn’t Moffett’s fault, I think. He put a lot of work and detail into this book, assuming that the reader would find ants just as fascinating as he does.

I mean I do, I DO! I’m so sorry don’t kill me!! (photo from Myrmecos.net)

And I don’t.

Oh sure – I find them fascinating in abstract, but not quite fascinating enough to get into the down-and-dirty details about how they construct trunk trails out of their nests, or the exact division of labor that exists between one class of ant and another. I’m not sure what I thought the book would be when I saw Moffett on The Colbert Report, but it wasn’t quite enough for me to sit down and devour the way I hoped it would be.

If you like ants – or you know someone who does – this is a great book, and it gives an excellent insight into what it means to be a field biologist (lots of staying in one place, apparently). For anyone who really loves insects in general, and ants in particular, this book will be a welcome addition to their bookshelf.

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“Is [an ant] intelligent? To my way of thinking, yes. We know a worker can evaluate the living space, ceiling height, entry dimensions, cleanliness, and illumination of a potential new home for her colony – a masterly feat, considering that she’s a roving speck with no pen, paper, or calculator.”
– Mark Moffett, Adventures Among Ants

Mark Moffett on Wikipedia
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Review 175: The Last Continent

The Last Continent by Terry Pratchett

Quick – what do you know about Australia?

I reckon if you live in Australia, you probably know quite a lot. If you’ve known someone from Australia or perhaps have visited there, you might know a few things. If your experience is limited to a few “Crocodile Dundee” movies and the Crocodile Hunter, then you could probably stand to know a little more. No matter what your level of Australiana is, though, you probably know at least enough to get a lot of enjoyment out of this book, Terry Pratchett’s homage to the strangest continent on Earth.

Now keep in mind, Pratchett does state quite clearly that this is not a book about Australia. “It’s about somewhere entirely different which happens to be, here and there, a bit… Australian.” So that’s okay then.

This adorable little thing? IT WILL END YOU.

Really, this is Pratchett’s homage to Australia, a country that he clearly likes a lot. In reality, Australia is a pretty strange place. It’s a giant island, most of which is barren desert. It’s been disconnected from the other continents for so long that evolution has given us species unlike any others on Earth. Pretty much anything that you come across, from the lowliest spider to the cutest jellyfish to the weirdest platypus, is deadly. The country is a tribute to Nature, both in its beauty and its danger, and really deserves more attention than it gets.

In one memorable scene, Death asks his Library for a complete list of dangerous animals on the continent known as XXXX, aka Fourecks. He is immediately buried under books, including Dangerous Mammals, Reptiles, Amphibians, Birds, Fish, Jellyfish, Insects, Spiders, Crustaceans, Grasses, Trees, Mosses and Lichens of Terror Incognita, volume 29c, part three. A slight exaggeration? Perhaps. He then asks for a complete list of species that are not deadly, and gets a small leaflet on which is written, “Some of the sheep.”

This book isn’t about Death, though, as much fun as that may be. This is about the worst wizard on the Disc. The classic inadvertent hero, who had seen so much of the world but only as a blur while he ran from danger. The hero who truly just wants to be left alone, perhaps with a potato – Rincewind.

What you most need to know about Rincewind is that he absolutely does not want to be a hero. He craves a boring life, one in which the most he has to worry about is whether to have his potatoes baked, mashed, or deep fried. He does not want to be chased by mad highwaymen, put in prison for sheep theft, or required to completely change the climate of an entire continent. He doesn’t want to time travel, be guided by strange, otherworldly kangaroos or fall in with a troupe of suspiciously masculine female performers. He just wants peace and quiet.

This? This is an Australian rain forest.

The universe, of course, has other ideas. And so it is up to Rincewind to once again save the day. The continent of Fourecks has never seen rain – in fact, they think the very idea of water that falls from the sky is ludicrous. But there are legends of what they call The Wet – the day when water will be found on the surface of the ground, rather than hundreds of feet below it. And while they don’t know how it will happen exactly, they do know it will happen. Lucky for Rincewind, the universe has chosen him to make sure that it does.

I really can’t list all of the Australia references because there are just too many. From drop bears to Vegemite, Mad Max to Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, they’re pretty much all there.

This book is, like so many other Discworld, books, a lot of fun to read. One of the more interesting sections in the book is one that’s not strictly necessary. Exploring a strange window in the University which, for some reason, leads to a beach, the Wizards of the Unseen University find themselves marooned thousands of miles away and thousands of years back in time. On this weird little island, they meet one of the most unusual gods on the Disc – the god of evolution.

And sometimes even gods get bored.

This god isn’t interested in the normal godly things – lolling about and being worshiped, occasionally smiting a few followers here and there. As Pratchett puts it, “It is a general test of the omnipotence of a god that they can see the fall of a tiny bird. But only one god makes notes, and a few adjustments, so that next time it can fall further and faster.” This god of evolution is devoted to making life forms better, often one at a time, and lives on a strange little island where there’s only one of everything, but everything yearns to be useful. With him, the wizards are able to explore evolution and natural selection and figure out why sex is just so darn useful.

I say that this section isn’t strictly necessary because it just isn’t. It’s certainly interesting, and I suppose the god’s island is a nice echo of the real Australia, where evolution has had a long time to tinker and come up with some really weird stuff, but in terms of the story, it’s not all that important a plot point. In fact, the wizards in general don’t contribute much to the story other than to make it longer and funnier. Their exploration of evolution and Rincewind’s unwilling quest to bring rain to the barren land of Fourecks are almost wholly unrelated to each other, up until the very end.

I can’t see how a group like this would ever cause trouble.

This isn’t to say that they’re unwelcome – I love watching the wizards explore the world. The combination of personalities whenever all the wizards get together is one that offers endless hours of reading fun, and I think that without them, the book would have been less enjoyable. They’re just not essential to the plot, is all, and if that kind of thing is important to you, then you might not enjoy this book so much.

Me, I love science and I love Discworld. While the actual Science of Discworld series was kind of dry and boring in the end, I love it when Pratchett explores real-world science through the eyes of his Discworld characters. By looking at science from another perspective, he is able to make it perhaps a little more understandable to people who otherwise might write science off as “too hard.”

This book is a trip through time and space and Australia. It’s a long, strange trip, to be sure, but an entertaining one.

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“It’s not many times in your life you get the chance to die of hunger on some bleak continent some thousands of years before you’re born. We should make the most of it.”
– The Dean
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Terry Pratchett on Wikipedia
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Filed under Discworld, evolution, fantasy, gods, humor, science, Terry Pratchett, wizardry

Review 166: Sex at Dawn

Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha

Hey! Hey, baby, baby, waitwaitwaitwait. Wait. Wait! Baby, don’t… don’t freak out

Okay, okay, I know what this looks like, but I can explain! Quiet, Chad, let me handle this. I can explain! I’m just – please, stop crying and listen – I’m just fulfilling my evolutionary heritage and helping to cement social bonds with… um… the pizza boy, but that’snotthepoint!! That’s not the point! Look, before you do anything, y’know, drastic, you just need to read this book….

Image from wearscience.com - buy their stuff.

Humans are really good at figuring things out. As far as we go, we have a real knack for taking things apart and figuring out how they work. Though determined curiosity and perseverance, we know what’s happening at the center of the sun, we know how the continents slide across the surface of the earth, how plants turn sunlight into potatoes. We can smash atoms and cure disease and peer back to the moment of creation itself. There is almost nothing that humans cannot comprehend if we put our minds to it.

Except ourselves.

Don’t get me wrong – we have made great strides in philosophy and psychology, and come very far in understanding human origins and our spread across the planet. But there is a fundamental problem that we have when we study ourselves, and that is that we cannot do so objectively. Try as we might, it is impossible to completely put aside our own biases, judgments and backgrounds when we study how humans behave and try to understand why they do what they do. They are still there, if you look for them, and nowhere are they more evident than in the search for the origins or foundations of human sexuality.

The standard model, as it’s often called, goes something like this: ancient men and women established a pattern of monogamy based on mutual self-interest. The man would keep to one mate in order to be absolutely sure that he was dedicating his efforts towards raising his own kids and not someone else’s. If a man had multiple partners, he wouldn’t be able to provide for them all, and his genetic investment would die out. So, in terms of efficiency, it is much better for the man to keep himself to one woman, focusing all his attention on the children he knows he has fathered and making sure they live to have children of their own.

Not all women need the protection of a man, however.

As far as women are concerned, they require the resources that the men bring. When pregnant, a woman’s physical capacities are reduced and she is in a vulnerable state, so by staying monogamous, she is essentially purchasing security and resources that would otherwise be unavailable to her in a world that brought quick and merciless death. If she slept around, the man wouldn’t be sure that the child she bore was his, and would therefore have less interest in taking care of the both of them. Thus, monogamy is the best bet to assure the survival of herself and her child.

This is the story that’s been told for a long time, and it’s considered by most to be the truth. Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, however, disagree. Not only do they think the standard model is wrong, but they think it is nothing more than a relic of our own modern biases and hang-ups. The process, they say, can be referred to as “Flintstonization.”

As you know, the characters in “The Flintstones” were more or less just like us. They went to work, they had houses and appliances and domestic disputes. They had the same issues and amusements as we did, because we overlaid our own society onto a prehistoric setting. Now in cartoons, that’s good entertainment, and in the right hands it can be used as powerful satire and commentary. In science, though, it’s just no good.

Ladies...

Starting with Darwin, people have imagined prehistoric humans to have the same sexual values that we have: a demure, reluctant female who is very choosy in deciding which male she will mate with. A bond forms, and they are faithful to each other until the end of their days. Later researchers, looking at our ape cousins, have plenty of observational research to support the idea that very early humans were monogamous. They look at chimps and gorillas and baboons and confirm what they had always suspected – that our natural sexual state is one of monogamy.

The logical conclusion, then, is that our modern attitude towards sexuality, with the rising rates of divorce and teen sexuality, represents a deviation from the way things “should” be, and must therefore be fixed. A loveless marriage, a man’s roving eye, a woman who cuckolds her husband, serial monogamists, all of these, according to the standard model, result from our attempts to go against our nature.

Or is it the other way around?

Ryan and Jetha have put together a very compelling argument that the standard model of pre-agricultural human sexuality is not only wrong, but dangerously so. By looking at modern foraging tribes and the way they live, as well as doing a comparative analysis of humans against our nearest ape cousins, they have come to this conclusion: our “natural” sexual state is one of promiscuity. Back in the day, communities were small and tightly bonded, and sex was one of the things that held those bonds tight. Rather than one man and one woman struggling to protect their own genetic line, their entire community made sure that children were cared for and raised well. Everyone was everyone else’s responsibility, and in a world of plenty there was no reason to try and enforce any kind of sexual exclusivity.

MINE!

It was only with the rise of agriculture that it became important to know what was yours, as opposed to someone else’s, and that quickly extended from fields and livestock to wives and children. Now that people were keeping their own food and making sure to divide their lands from their neighbor’s lands, sharing went out of style. With so much work put into growing crops, that’s where the standard model of economic monogamy settled in, and it’s been with us ever since. The advent of agriculture changed everything, and not everything for the better.

In addition, the very biology of humans, from the way sperm behaves to the shape of the penis, to the anatomy of the clitoris to the noises women make in the throes of orgasm – all of these point to an evolutionary history of sexual promiscuity. The evidence of our bodies tell us that being locked into a lifetime monogamous pair-bond is not what we evolved to do.

Ryan and Jetha know that their view of the fundamental nature of human sexuality will not be popular, mainly because it completely undermines our vision of who we are. So much law, tradition, education, entertainment and just plain common sense relies on humans being naturally monogamous. It’s something that seems so obvious to us that we cannot imagine a society built any other way. Unfortunately, if Ryan and Jetha are right, society is the problem. We have established a cultural norm that goes completely against our biological and evolutionary nature, and which makes people miserable on a daily basis.

I bought this book mainly to stop Dan Savage from nagging me about it. If you listen to Savage’s podcast – and you should – you will soon realize that monogamy is something that a lot of people aren’t good at. We look at other people with lust in our hearts, we cheat, we stay in relationships where we’re sexually miserable just because that’s what we “should” do. For most people, our sexual urges are to be fought against, with everything from self-restraint to social shame to law itself. It seems like staying monogamous is one of the hardest things for many people to do.

This, of course, raises the question: if it were natural, would it really be so hard?

My mother is a SAINT!!

It is a fascinating read, which covers a lot of ground and makes some very compelling arguments. It’s also quite funny in places, which was quite welcome. In discussing the standard model the authors note that this is, fundamentally, prostitution, wherein the woman uses sex for material resources. This sexual barter system has been assumed to be true for years, leading the authors to write, “Darwin says your mother’s a whore. Simple as that.” They also put in some special notes for adventurous grad students in the field of sexual research (especially genital to genital rubbing, something popular in bonobo apes, but which is rarely studied in humans) and re-titling the extremely popular song “When A Man Loves a Woman” as “When a Man Becomes Pathologically Obsessed and Sacrifices All Self-Respect and Dignity by Making a Complete Ass of Himself (and Losing the Woman Anyway Because Really, Who Wants a Boyfriend Who Sleeps Out in the Rain Because Someone Told Him To?)”

I don’t really know what can be made of the serious information proposed in this book. No matter how it may seem, the authors are not proposing a dissolution of marriage or compulsory orgies or anything like that, nor is this book a “Get Out of Cheating Free” card. We’ve spent thousands of years putting these restraints on human sexuality, and they’re not going to come off anytime soon. The best we can do right now is to be aware of where our ideas about relationships come from, and stop to think about the difference between what is true and what we wish were true. This understanding might help to save relationships that would otherwise fail. People cheat not because they’re scum or whores, but because they’re human. Being monogamous is really hard not because we’re weak or flawed, but because it’s not what our bodies want for us.

The search for a better understanding of human nature should lead us to being better humans, and nothing should be left out. Not even our most sacred beliefs. Not even sex.

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“Asking whether our species is naturally peaceful or warlike, generous or possessive, free-loving or jealous, is like asking whether H2O is naturally a solid, liquid or gas. The only meaningful answer to such a question is: It depends.”
– Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, Sex at Dawn
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Okay? Okay, baby? So you see, I wasn’t really cheating – okay, I was, but you can see why, right? I was just acting in accordance with my fundamental humanity, following the biological impulses as determined by millions of years of evolution when we… Hey, where are you going? Where are you? Oh, hell, he’s going for the shotgun. Run, Chad, leave your pants, you don’t have time, run!

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Filed under anthropology, biology, Cacilda Jetha, Christopher Ryan, evolution, history, nonfiction, science, sexuality, society

Review 132: Cosmos

Cosmos by Carl Sagan

If you’ve known me for more than a little while, you know that one of my great loves in this world is science. Even though I tend to get stymied by the math, and I probably couldn’t call up all the right data from my head at the right time, it is the idea of science and the stories of science that truly interest me. Just the fact that we live in a universe where it is possible to know how things work, where we can devise a way to look at the whole of creation, from things so large that they defy imagination to things so small that they can barely be said to exist at all. Science is imagination put into practice against the universe, and as much fun as stories and myths are, as hope and prayers may be, science is the best, most reliable way for us to come to grips with the Cosmos.

It is to Carl Sagan that I owe this love of what humans have done with ourselves.

Go ahead. Stare at this for a while.

When I was a kid, my father had a copy of Cosmos, and, since I was but a child, I never really read it. I tended more to flip through it for the interesting pictures – the speculative Jovian life forms on pages 42 and 43, the Viking photos of Mars in chapter 5, the gorgeous paintings of the views from other worlds around other stars, the photos of nebulae and galaxies, all of these things fascinated me, and if I had been a bit more patient I would have found out about them. But I was a kid, so that can be excused. What the book did for me was to open my mind to a universe of possibilities that were all within our reach, or at least would be someday.

As I got older, I saw the TV miniseries of the same name on PBS. Now the pictures that I had lingered over in the book were right before me, accompanied by Sagan’s soothing baritone. His ship of the imagination somehow managed to take us unfathomable distances from our home and bring us back again. He talked to his viewers like we were intelligent adults, fully capable of understanding and appreciating the vast scope of scientific discovery rather than a bunch of attention-deficit teenagers who couldn’t be trusted to keep watching without a jump-cut every ten seconds. Carl Sagan believed, despite the occasional evidence to the contrary, that human beings were capable of overcoming our barbaric pasts and forging a bright new future together in the stars.

The purpose of Cosmos, both the book and the TV show, was to educate. It was, as Sagan put it, “to engage the heart as well as the mind,” perhaps to help shed the image of science as a cold and passionless pursuit. He wanted to show how science became what is is, from the ancient scientist/philosophers in Ionia and Alexandria all the way up to the engineers and astronauts working at NASA. It’s all part of a long chain of knowledge that ties human history together and which engages one of our deepest desires: to know how the universe works.

Go ahead, do this one yourself. We'll wait.

Each chapter focuses on a different theme of knowledge – from the way the planets form and what they’re like to the nature of the furthest reaches of space. He starts with how Eratosthenes measured the world with just a shadow and some math, and how the ancient thinkers of Alexandria were asking the same questions about the nature of the Earth that we ask today. He follows the tortured path of Johannes Kepler in his quest to understand how the planets move, the arrogant brilliance of Newton as he completely redefined the clockwork of the cosmos, and the casual miracle that Einstein pulled off when he told us that not only are we not the center of the universe but that there is no center. Each great mind led to another.

Unfortunately, each setback cost us what may be valuable time. For all his wonderment, Sagan understood how petty and ignorant human beings could be. From the beginning, and at various points in the book, he reminds us of the millennium we lost with the destruction and corruption of the ancient thinkers of the Mediterranean. As far as we can tell, the men and women who made their home in Alexandria were investigating questions and scientific problems that would have changed the way we understand the world. If the library hadn’t been burned down, if religious terror hadn’t murdered scientific insight, who knows where we would be today? It’s impossible to know, but it’s tempting to think that we might have been well on our way to the stars by now.

My brother gave me this poster. He knows me so well...

The latter chapters underscore that theme pretty heavily, reminding us over and over again that we have one world, and only one world. Not only does Sagan fear that we could obliterate ourselves with the nuclear weapons we love and fear so much, but he also fears that self-annihilation may be a natural outcome to any intelligent civilization. Our search for intelligent life on other worlds may be fruitless, because they might be just as self-destructive as we are.

But we don’t know. We can’t know, at least not yet. Our understanding of the universe is still not clear enough, our technology is still not good enough, and perhaps it never will be. But for all our stumbles and failures, Sagan wants us to remember and understand just how much humanity is capable of, and how good we could be if we really put our minds to it. And in that sense, there is a lot of value to reading it now, thirty years after it was published.

A glorious dawn indeed....

While we have not eliminated nuclear weapons, we have made great strides towards controlling them and reducing their numbers. The hopes that Sagan had for future space exploration – Mars rovers, a probe to Titan, contact with comets – have all been made real, and with outstanding results. We know that the dinosaurs were wiped out by a meteor impact – something that Sagan is clearly unsure of at the time of writing. We have mapped the human genome and developed personal computers that have revolutionized the way we explore space. With the internet, any person on earth can catalog galaxies or explore the moon, there have been advances in nanotechnology and materials and bioengineering and evolution that would have made even Sagan’s eyes pop.

Despite all our flaws, we continue to advance. We continue to build knowledge upon knowledge and to further our understanding of how the universe works. Maybe we will one day leave this planet ourselves, perhaps just for a visit or perhaps to start a new world. Maybe if we persist in our quest to comprehend the world we live in, to shut out the howling and screaming of the voices of unreason, we can make the world a better place for generations to come.

Maybe we should all just have some pie. How much time do you have? (photo by Nicole)

In the great argument that is raging these days between the rationalists and the believers, the faithful and the atheists, it has become fashionable to try and shout the other side down. To adopt a position that excludes compromise and promises only defeat for one side or another. Sagan never would have wanted that, and I think he hit upon a solution that needs to be revisited.

Rather than try to turn people to science through cold logic or heated words, through derision and coercion and fear, do as Sagan did: win them over with wonder. The cosmos is too big, and there is too much to know to waste our time with petty arguments and pointless feuds. If you want people to appreciate science, turn to people like Sagan, or Neil deGrasse Tyson, Phil Plait, Mary Roach, Michio Kaku, Ann Druyan, Bill Nye, Adam Savage, or Dava Sobel – people whose enthusiasm and love of science will instill people with wonder, one person at a time. And it is in that way that we will go furthest towards ensuring humanity’s place among the stars.

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“Every one of us is precious in the cosmic perspective. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.”
– Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Carl Sagan on Wikipedia
Cosmos on Wikipedia
The Carl Sagan Portal (music plays when you open it, just FYI….)
Cosmos on Amazon.com

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Filed under astronomy, astrophysics, Carl Sagan, evolution, made into movies, nonfiction, science

Review 90: The World Without Us


The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

Death is a bummer.

I mean, here’s the thing – we all know we’re going to die. It’s part of the human condition, knowing that sooner or later the only existence that we’ve ever known is going to come to an end. And that’ll be it – no more us. It’s a creepy thought, to be honest, which is why most of us do our everlovin’ best to ignore it. We all know that we’re going to die, but we don’t want to know it, so we ignore it. We eat our Super-Double-CheezyFries, go BASE jumping, vote Republican, willfully ignoring the inevitable truth that these things are going to end up killing us.

Even when we are confronted with our mortality, we still find ways to console ourselves. We look around at our families and our friends and say things like, “No one truly dies so long as they’re remembered.” And we accept that even if we aren’t there, other people are. The things we’ve done in our lives, no matter how tiny, will echo around humanity as long as it lasts. If we are truly lucky, we will have contributed greatly to our species as a whole and gained a very special place in history.

But then we remember that even history is impermanent. The average species only gets to live about four million years, and we’ve already eaten up about a quarter of that. What’s more, we seem to be doing our level best to come in below average. Science tells us one inescapable fact: nothing lasts forever. One day, maybe sooner, maybe later, the last of the humans will die. Perhaps we’ll be replaced by another intelligence, one that can continue our work. Or perhaps we’ll just leave everything behind. All that will be left will be artifacts, objects that tell the story of humanity.

And that cheers you up a bit. We’re good at leaving marks, after all. We built a wall that’s so big it’s practically landscape. We split two continents apart in the name of commerce. We have girded our land masses in iron and asphalt, erected great cities of glass, concrete and steel. We have lowered mountains and raised seas, extracted the blood of the earth and bent the rivers to our will. Even if the human race vanished tomorrow, some far-future alien archaeologist would still be able to come here and know that a brilliant and puissant species once walked this world.

Yeah. About that….

This book was inspired by a very simple question: what would happen if all the humans just… disappeared? How it happened doesn’t really matter. Maybe aliens, maybe Jesus, perhaps some strange, species-specific quantum Critical Existence Failure. Whatever the cause, the sun rises in the morning and humans just aren’t there anymore. How would the world handle our disappearance? Would it even notice? What has humanity wrought that would last?

It’s a simple question with an incredibly complex answer. In order to even begin to know what would happen upon our disappearance, we need to know how the world works. We need to look at the forces that drive evolution and species propagation. What is it that allows life to spread and to flourish, to adapt to changing circumstances and make the best of a hard situation? What do we know from our studies of the unimaginably distant past that will help us foretell the future?

In addition, we need to know what effect humans have already had on the world. We’ve all heard the horror stories about the species driven to extinction by carelessness or ignorance – the passenger pigeon, the moa, the dodo – but our effect has been so much greater. Weisman is willing to categorize humanity as a force of nature thanks to the effect that we’ve had. Our relentless conquest of the Earth has, in small ways and large, unavoidably set evolution on a path that would have been very different had we never arisen in the first place. In a way, our influence can never be truly erased, and will likely survive for as long as biology does.

Finally, we need to know about the things we’re leaving behind. What is our world made of, and how well would it survive the rigors of time? The oceans of concrete that we’ve poured will freeze and thaw over and over again, and, aided by the surprising power of flowers and grass, will split, crack and crumble in time. Our massive steel skyscrapers will be undone by water and creeping vegetation. Our stonework will be worn down by wind and water, our satellites will fall, dams will burst and the wilderness will relentlessly take over the sacred places of the world. In the end, the only testament to our existence will be a handful of bronze statues and gold ornaments, and the impassive visages of the faces on Mt. Rushmore.

And even they will one day fall.

If you’re one of those people who worries about the impact that humanity has had on the earth, this will be a heartening book. As the geologic record shows, there’s pretty much nothing the universe can throw at this planet that can kill it. At least not so far. And the impact that humans are having isn’t anywhere near the great extinctions of the past, in which great swaths of death cut through the biosphere in a matter of decades. Understand this: there is nothing that we can do to the earth that the earth cannot undo, given time.

And that is a comforting thought. We do sometimes get wrapped up in our own awesomeness and assume that our actions have infinite consequences when, in fact, they don’t. We beat our breasts about the ozone hole and the Amazon, the Northwest African Cheetah and the Sharp Snouted Day Frog. We read about garbage gyres in the sea, and irradiated wastes on the land and despair over what we have done to this world.

The truth is that the world will move on after humans, and the future will hardly know that we were here.

That’s where the book got depressing for me, though. You see, I can take or leave individuals. I think The People are, in general, dumber than a Texas schoolbook. But all in all, I like Humanity. In the two hundred thousand years or so that Homo sapiens has been wandering this world, we’ve done some really neat things. We’ve built globe-spanning civilizations, produced unparalleled art, music and architecture, and invented worlds of brilliant fiction. We’ve examined the universe at its largest and peered back in time to the moment it began. We have gazed into the heart of the atom to know how reality works at its smallest levels. We’ve danced and sang and lived. And even with the terrible things that we’ve done, both to each other and to our world, I still think we’re a species worth knowing. We’re a species that deserves better than oblivion.

But the universe doesn’t care about what we deserve.

So if you take anything away from the book, let it be this – our existence here as a species is temporary. There’s no reward for our goodness, nor punishment for our sins. But here and now, we are alive, and capable of amazing things. It is up to us to decide what those things will be, and how to spend the time remaining to us.

Let’s make it wondrous.

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“Below the surface, the oxidizing metal parts of chemical alley will provide a place for Galveston oysters to attach. Silt and oyster shells will slowly bury them, and will then be buried themselves. Within a few million years, enough layers will amass to compress shells into limestone, which will bear an odd, intermittent rusty streak with sparkling traces of nickel, molybdenum, niobium, and chromium. Millions of years after that, someone or something might have the knowledge and tools to recognize the signal of stainless steel. Nothing, however, will remain to suggest that its original form once stood tall over a place called Texas, and breathed fire into the sky.”
– Alan Weisman, The World Without Us
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Alan Weisman on Wikipedia
The World Without Us on Wikipedia
The World Without Us on Amazon.com
The World Without Us homepage

And if the sure and certain knowledge of your own eventual cessation has got you low, watch this. It might cheer you up a bit….

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Filed under Alan Weisman, biology, evolution, finitude, geology, science