Boston has unveiled an… interesting new tribute to MLK Jr.

Many years ago, a big tree was cut down to make way for a playground in a town near where I lived. I think the tree might have already been dead, but that doesn’t matter a whole lot for this story. A decision was made to turn the wood from this tree into a sculpture, and an artist was chosen. Now, art is subjective, and there are plenty of people who see beauty where others do not. I also have a lot of respect for anyone who is making a living as an artist in a world that doesn’t exactly encourage that. That said, the resulting sculpture was… odd. It sort of looked like two or three large wooden balls, with an almost melted-looking blob-like slab of wood draped over them. From some angles it was like an abstract turtle, from others, it was just… abstract and globular. If memory serves, it came with a poem, on a nearby plaque, about uplifting angels or something.

The town for whom it was intended considered it, and decided to give it to my grade school instead. The principal at the time absolutely saw the beauty in the sculpture and put it out in front of the school, plaque and all. In time, he left, and not long after the sculpture was rehomed to the far bank of the school’s fire pond, almost in the woods. To my knowledge, it’s still there, having gracefully grown into its role as a mossy abstract turtle thing.

On a related note another artist, whose taste I do not share, was apparently commissioned to make a sculpture for Boston Common, honoring Martin Luther King Jr., and Coretta Scott King. The resulting work was just unveiled, and, well, in the interest of fairness, I’ll show you the best angle first:

The sculpture, called “The Embrace”, is of the arms of MLK Jr. and Coretta Scott King, hugging each other, as seen in a famous photo I’ll post and describe below. The sculpture is just the arms and hands. You can see MLK’s hands in the foreground complete with jacket and shirt cuffs on the wrists, both wrapped around Coretta’s shoulder, with her arm extending down and away from the camera, elbow on the ground. One of MLK’s elbows is also on the ground, and you can see a third piece of the sculpture, presumably Coretta’s other elbow, touching the ground further back, giving the sculpture stability. The whole thing is big enough that an adult can comfortably stand under it.

So, again, I don’t like it. I respect the skill and creativity that went into it but, well, it keeps reminding me of the blob-turtle from this post’s introduction. So first off, there’s the photo that inspired this work of art. It’s a black and white photo of MLK and Coretta Scott King hugging each other. MLK’s arms are around Coretta’s shoulders, and her left arm is on the side of his chest. Her right arm, not visible in the photo, is presumably either on his shoulder, or lower on his torso. He’s wearing a white dress shirt under a jacket with three buttons on the cuff, as shown in the sculpture.


I feel like the artist maybe didn’t fully consider the visual impact of the piece from all angles, because:

Ok, I can do this. The image shows Coretta Scott King’s forearms and hands, elbows on the ground, holding MLK’s arm and shoulder. You can see a beaded bracelet on her wrist, and a wedding band on her finger. Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley is standing in front of, and underneath where MLK’s shoulder would be, if this sculpture was of a whole person. Pressley, who’s a good sort as politicians go (I voted for her) is a bald Black woman wearing a long black dress under a long tan coat, with black leather boots that appear to have white soles/heels. In the foreground are two reporters with shoulder-satchels. The one closer to her is wearing a black coat, the one closer to the camera is wearing a beige coat. The problem is that MLK’s shoulder doesn’t LOOK like MLK’s shoulder from this angle. It looks like… well, a giant, curved eggplant. It’s a little lumpy, and because it’s so glossy, the reflections give it a degree of… apparent vascularity. Further back, where the torsos should be, you can see Coretta’s arms fusing together, along with MLK’s arms, into a sort of Cronenberg-inspired starfish kinda thing.

As long as we’re going to have heroes, Martin Luther King Jr. fits the bill pretty well. I don’t know if his talk of socialism and  wealth redistribution are, as is often said, why he was assassinated, but that would certainly fit the U.S. government position on those subjects. Personally, however, I don’t feel that this sculpture is the best way to honor him and what he stood for. Obviously, that’s not up to me, nor should it be. This is just my opinion, but it seems that this art is thrusting in the wrong direction.

As Tegan said to me, it could have been worse. There’s a history of bronze sculptures turning out to be disturbing monstrosities, like the efforts to sculpt Portuguese footballer Cristiano Ronaldo. The one thing I will say is that I’ll take a hundred more sculptures by whoever made this thing over any one of the remaining statues of slavers that are spread across the U.S. like a bronze-cast pox. I’d rather give that support to someone with a less… unique vision, maybe, but again, these things are rightfully not up to me.

Thank you for reading! If you found this post enjoyable or interesting, please share it around! Due to my immigration status, my writing is my only source of income right now, which is why I like to “pass around the hat” now and then for people’s spare change. Supporting me on Patreon can cost as little as three or four cents per day, and when enough people join in, even those $1/month pledges add up. There’s not currently much in the way of patron-only content, but my $5 patrons do have the option to name a character in the fantasy novel I’m currently working on, so if you like my fiction and want to immortalize yourself, or someone you know, then giving me money may just be your best option!

Video: Fungal photography and facts

A longer post I’m working on isn’t done, so instead, you get this video. It’s got all sorts of fascinating facts, but what I really enjoy is the fungal photography. They’re odd organisms and have their own particular kind of beauty that really comes out in photography and film.

If you want something to do this weekend, Atlanta forest defenders are asking for solidarity

I meant to write about this a couple days ago, but I just completely forgot about it until I sat down to go through my open tabs today. Still, better late than never, I guess? Last month I wrote about Atlanta forest defenders being arrested and charged with “domestic terrorism”, for the heinous act of sitting in trees that the cops wanted to cut down. The people working to stop the destruction of the Atlanta Forest for a massive, militarized police training facility are calling for demonstrations of solidarity around the country:

It’s Going Down has the following list of events being planned for this weekend, as of a day or two ago:

Roundup Of Solidarity Events

January 14th, Savannah, GA

Solidarity rally to defend the Atlanta Forest & Stop Cop City! Saturday, Jan 14 – 2pm – Wright Square. Atlanta is known to many as the “City in the Forest” for its extensive tree cover, which protects the city’s residents from flooding and extreme heat. Despite calls from residents to defund, demilitarize, and even abolish the police following the 2020 police killing of Rayshard Brooks, the Atlanta Police Foundation, Deklab County officials, and Blackhall (Shadowbox) Studios are attempting to bulldoze the city’s largest urban forest to build a militarized police training facility and Hollywood soundstage in a predominantly Black neighborhood. Brasfield & Gorrie LLC, the progect’s general contractor, has a construction site near Wright Square right here in Savannah. Amidst growing concerns of police violence and climate catastrophe, thousands of Atlanta residents have organized to protect the forest and stall construction of the facility for over a year! An injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere. Let’s show our solidarity with ATL forest defenders and demand that Brasfield and Gorrie drop the contract! Savannah DSA

January 14th, Brooklyn, NYC

January 15th, New Haven, CT

January 15th, Atlanta, GA

January 16th, Decatur, GA

January 28th, NYC

As you’ll note, some of these things are not happening this weekend. While having a lot of actions happening on the same day is a tactic to get more attention on the issue, demonstrations and other events happening spontaneously over time and across the country can also serve that purpose. This is a long-term fight, not just because the backers of Cop City are still intending to build it, but also because even if we do win this fight, there will be new ones for as long as we’re dealing with a system like the one we’re fighting to change. If we ever want to have real democracy and freedom, it will require this kind of sustained effort both to create, and to maintain the world we want.

On that note, I also think you should check out this interview that the Youtuber F.D. Signifier did with commentator and activist Kamau Franklin about the issue:

As Franklin describes, “Cop City” is intended to have, among other facilities, 11 firing ranges, and a mock city for police to train in crowd control. As he says, this seems far more about general control of the populace and of any movements for change, than it is about any concern for public safety. It sure seems as though the police and ruling class looked at the BLM movement, and decided that they had to be able to just outright crush anything like that. It wouldn’t shock me to learn, down the road, that some of this is about the increasing popularity of left-wing thought and political tactics in the U.S.. Bolstering this interpretation is the fact that U.S. police often train with the enforcers of Israeli apartheid, working to develop tactics for controlling the population through force. With worsening inequality, rising fascism, and a warming climate, this should worry you, as should the ever-increasing U.S. military budget.

The movement towards authoritarianism is not unique to the Republican Party. The Democrats have been on board every step of the way, from pouring cash into the Pentagon, to developing the humanitarian nightmare that is the U.S. carceral system. It is Democratic mayor Eric Adams that wants to declare houseless people insane and lock them up. I don’t think the Dems are full-on fascist like the current GOP, but they do very clearly value capitalism more than democracy or freedom. They have been on board through the bloody history of U.S. interference with left-wing governments and movements around the globe. They have been on board with supporting the genocide being waged in Yemen, and the ethnic cleansing in Palestine. This is why we need organizing that’s separate from political parties and the electoral system. This is why we need direct action like the work of land and water defenders – because both parties in power serve the ruling class, and actively work to suppress working class power. It’s evident in Democratic policy over the years, in the people from whom they seek advice, and in the many corporations supporting the development of this facility, to the tune of $60 million of the $90 million budget.

And white supremacy is absolutely a part of that, both within the United States, and in its actions around the world.

I’ve probably mentioned it before, but the communities in which this monstrosity is being built are majority black, and have not been consulted on this project that will destroy a forest for the sake of building what amounts to a military training facility for the same cops who have been brutalizing and murdering black people in Atlanta and around the country. Kamau Franklin and F.D. Signifier have a much better discussion of the racial issues here than I’m able to summarize, so I recommend you watch the video. It provides a good overview of the problem from a systemic perspective. If you want to help out, Franklin pointed people to the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, Community Movement Builders, and Stop Cop City, and even if you can’t do anything this weekend (sorry again for dropping the ball on this!), it still helps to get “stop cop city” in front of people, be it signs, bumper stickers, or you could even organize your own demonstrations just to get attention.

Hate-Blinded Bigots Legislating Language

As you may or may not remember, right-wing guru Jordan Peterson rose to fame by pretending, loudly and angrily, that Canada’s bill C-16 amounted to government-compelled speech. He told anyone in earshot about how bravely he would stand up to this oppression, and would hold his breath until it stopped. The bill, to be clear, just added trans people to the list of protected groups, meaning you can’t just harass them. None of the arrests Peterson predicted came, and it was always pretty obvious that they wouldn’t. Unfortunately, it may be that conservative projection is the most reliable weathervane in politics, and so as part of this national trans panic, Republican state legislatures have been trying to mandate speech, in addition to their efforts to ban trans healthcare. The most ridiculous and invasive version of this to date comes from North Dakota, where Republicans have decided they want businesses to be forced, by law, to use pronouns based on a person’s DNA. I have to say, I’m not sure I’d be willing to work for a place that required me to submit a DNA sample, or equivalent information. I’m assuming that this is based on the XX/XY binary that they pretend exists, but this feels like another one of those situations where they’re so eager to hurt people that they hate, that they’re just sort of flailing around and making life worse for everyone. Intentionally or not, there’s no way this will be functional legislation.

 The fact that the drafters of this bill include “determination established by deoxyribonucleic acid” shows that they have a fundamental misunderstanding of both biological sex and pronouns. We do not have “he” and “she” encoded into our DNA, and human biological sex is not binary. One would wonder how a bill like this would treat intersex people with nonstandard DNA profiles. Would people be forced to submit to mandatory DNA tests in order to determine what pronouns we should use for them? The implications of this bill are absurd.

The idea of “biological pronouns” is something that comes up sometimes in anti-trans spaces, and every time it does, transgender people point out that there is no such thing as a “biological pronoun.” Pronouns are human inventions and cultures have a variety of pronouns that are not necessarily attached to gender. This does not stop many states from trying to establish that such a thing exists. A Utah rep this year sent a letter to all Utah schools saying they should follow a school resource guide from Transgender Trend that mandates the use of “biological pronouns.” A federal judge in a free speech case cited “biological pronouns” in their decision-making. A Fox News story recently reported on a Tennessee bill that they state would allow teachers to use “biological pronouns.”

I’m reminded by a quote from the fourth Doctor, played by Tom Baker:

You know, the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don’t alter their views to fit the facts. They alter the facts to fit the views. Which can be uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering.

That’s literally what we’re seeing unfold here. It’s an effort to erase trans people, all because the bigots apparently can’t cope with their existence. Some of it is through the campaign of stochastic terrorism, as I’ve discussed before, some is through laws making it illegal to get trans healthcare, and some of it comes through literally legislating speech to fit their simplistic and inaccurate understanding of the world.

Bills like this would write discrimination into the law of North Dakota and would compel North Dakotans to harm their trans peers or risk facing fines of $1,500. There is no compelling state interest to force employers and government agents to misgender trans people. It is clear that freedom of speech is not what the far right desires in its treatment of transgender people – elimination of all legal recognition is the end goal and they are willing to go as far as to force it on transgender allies. This bill must be stopped – despite its blatant unconstitionality, the damage it can do should it pass would severe. The bill has three sponsors in the senate and three in the house: Senators ClemensVedaa, and Weston and Representatives K. AndersonSchauer, and Tveit.

As Dan from Three Arrows pointed out, this hate campaign isn’t actually popular in the United States. It’s not a “winning issue”, but they’re pushing ahead with it anyway, because they actively want trans people to stop existing, and as part of that, they want every aspect of society to be as hostile towards them as possible, including massacres like the Club Q shooting. Cis people standing in solidarity with trans people is an important part of fighting back, because the ones who are pushing this hate are depending on most people just not caring enough to stop them. That means keeping informed on the issue, not just to know what’s going on, but also to be able to confidently call out transphobia when we encounter it. Be on the lookout for ways to help, and groups local to you that are organizing for community defense.

Video: Positive Leftist News from December (and late November), 2022

Obviously I’m a bit behind in posting this, but better late than never. The December edition of Positive Leftist News covers “massive” turnout for late November’s National Day of Mourning in Plymouth, MA to honor the Native people whose genocide was whitewashed by the Thanksgiving myth. On the other side of the continent, a similar demonstration drew 400 people to call for the protection of California’s shell mounds, burial sites from a number of Indigenous nations that are threatened by capitalist developers.

In labor news, PLN highlights the international organization and solidarity shown by the “Make Amazon Pay” demonstrations that took place on November 25th in over 30 countries across five continents. I very much hope to see this kind of international action more in the future. A few days  before, a new cross-sector service union was formed in the United States, called the Union of Southern Service Workers (USSW), and they are demanding, of course, better pay and working conditions. There had been a niggling worry in my mind about how well people would be able to organize in the atomized modern workplace, but it seems like the answer to that is “pretty well”. This union represents people in retail, gas station, fast food, and care work across the Southern U.S., and frankly I find it uplifting to see all of these people finding solidarity in their fight for their rights.

In South Korea, truckers defied their government’s order to end their strike. In Zimbabwe food industry workers are fighting for better treatment as well. Specifically, it’s brewery and sugar workers. It seems that among other things, they’re dealing with wage theft like workers in the U.S. Small-scale farmers in the socialist republic of Tanzania have been working together for decades to fight back against the economic forces that have been pushing them down, and the plans they put together this year focus on acroecology, food sovereignty, fighting against evictions by developers – sometimes whole villages have been evicted – and economic justice. Apparently they’ve been working to build up something that sounds like credit unions. It’s encouraging to see that work continue, and I fully support their work for not just Pan-African solidarity, but a recognition of the need for global solidarity.

In Montreal, London, and Dublin, demonstrators marched for tenants rights and housing for all. I’m ashamed to admit that I did hear about the Dublin demonstration, but couldn’t muster the energy to go. I intend to be more active in that regard in 2023.

Greece saw great turnout for their annual demonstrations to honor the 1973 Athens Polytechnic uprising against a U.S.-backed military junta.

Columbia announced the release of prisoners from its 2021 national strike, and Columbia’s new president declared them to be “guardians of peace”.

Elon Musk’s incompetent flailing at Twitter led to a bunch of big corporations, including Lockheed Martin and Eli Lilly, collectively losing billions on the stock market. I doubt it did them any real harm, because consequences are only for the peasantry, but it was fun to watch them freak out a little because an impersonator pretended they could be anything other than evil.

A Dutch court ordered compensation for victims of an illegal Dutch military airstrike in Afghanistan. Don’t hold your breath for the U.S. to follow that example.

Barbados seems to be having a winning streak. They ditched the British Monarchy, demanded reparations from British aristocrats involved in colonialism, and now their courts have struck down two laws that discriminated against LGBTQ+ people.

France seems to be on track to make abortion a constitutional right.

The governor of Oregon, US, commuted the sentences of all 17 death row inmates in that state, calling the death penalty immoral.

The students of the University of Stirling, in Scotland, have voted to make the university’s menu 100% plant-based, as part of their commitment to reduce carbon emissions, calling out all the universities that produce research pointing to emissions from animal agriculture, while doing little to nothing in response to that research.

  And last but very much not least, a new museum and clinic is to be opened in Montgomery, Alabama, to honor the “Mothers of Gynecology – enslaved women whose torture at the hands of white doctors built the foundations of modern gynecology. I’m not a fan of the way the article describes this as “sacrifice”, which seems to minimize the horror of what happened, but I think that this museum, clinic, and training facility seem like a good way to honor their memories, provide for people in need of care, and help work to prevent such atrocities from being committed in the future. Amidst everything that’s been happening in the U.S., I find it uplifting to see this kind of work continuing.

The video and linked articles have quite a few more details, but I figured I’d try to give a summary for those who won’t be watching the video for whatever reason.

As ever, all we have is us, and it’s when we work together for the good of all, that we are at our strongest.

When the sulfur in the air just isn’t cutting it anymore…

Back in 2020, I wrote a post about why we should expect a short-term temperature increase as a direct result of phasing out fossil fuel use. The TL:DR is that it would reduce air pollution that currently makes our atmosphere more reflective. The long-term effect will be cooling, but that’s about a gradual decrease in insulation, vs a sudden decrease in shade. Well, it turns out there’s been another “downside” to the successes in reducing air pollution over the last few decades, this time in the field of agriculture. I have to say, would not have guessed this, but seeing it all laid out makes sense: farmers had to increase their use of sulfur fertilizer as air quality improved.

Sulfur, an essential nutrient for plants, was as free as air back in the 1980s, drifting down onto farmer’s fields from the polluted sky. The nutrient also caused acid rain, however, and it triggered chemistry that meant more mercury in fish. Regulations led to less sulfur in the air, but in the Midwest, where sulfur-hungry corn and soybean fields were proliferating, crops still needed the nutrient.

“We find a clear increase in sulfur fertilizer use commensurate with a decline in atmospheric deposition,” said Eve-Lyn Hinckley, a CIRES Fellow, CU Boulder ecologist, and lead author of a new assessment of sulfur fertilizer use. “We have compiled the first time-series of sulfur fertilizer data spanning decades, from 1985-2015.”

As sulfur stopped dropping from the sky, farmers began applying it directly, Hinckley and her colleague,  Charles Driscoll from Syracuse University, reported in late December in the journal Communications Earth & Environment. Moreover, sulfur fertilization accelerated quickly, they found, far outpacing the growth in use of other nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus.

I’m a big advocate of moving our farming indoors, but most of that is also pretty fertilizer-dependent. I don’t know a lot about the mechanics of hydroponic and aeroponic agriculture, but I believe they’re generally more dependent on fertilizers, because they don’t have the support of a soil ecosystem. For that farming which remains outdoors, for for efforts to do soil-based indoor farming, it seems as though this is yet another reason for us to move away from the current monoculture model. Our farms do still get a lot of benefits from the ecosystems around them, but in a lot of ways they’re sort of like ecosystem parasites, giving little in return beyond pollution and vulnerability to disease.

This is not how it has to be. Biodynamic farming, for example, puts soil health front and center, and while I certainly have my philosophical disagreements with Rudolph Steiner, it seems to be a much more sustainable approach to food production. I was lucky enough to be part of a biodynamic CSA in New Hampshire growing up, and while the farmers put a lot of work in, they got reliable results, and we had in-season vegetables, fresh milk and eggs, and a number of other food items year round. It’s doubly impressive when you consider how rocky and uneven the land is in NH. I think one of the changes we may need to make is to go back to farming based on what the land can reliably support, rather than depending on the endless importing of additives, at least where we’re not shifting to more of a managed/edible ecosystem model. See, sulfur has some unfortunate downstream effects:

[…] sulfur’s impacts can be serious: the chemical can essentially make heavy metals, including toxic mercury, more “mobile” and more likely to make their way into fish, for example.

Hinckley said it’s not yet clear how extensively sulfur fertilization impacts the mercury cycle. “It’s the same form of sulfur as was going on with acid rain. However, that was diffuse, widespread atmospheric deposition, and this is intense, targeted applications in much larger amounts.” She and her colleagues are already digging into the connection, “looking at the potential interaction between agricultural sulfur runoff and stimulation of methylmercury formation downstream.”

  I feel like every time there’s news like this, there’s a part of me that just has to note that this is a description of the world as it exists. There are ways in which it has improved – I think reducing air pollution was an unquestionable good, but we’ve still got a very long way to go. That’s part of why, as much as I harp on about systemic change, I’m glad that there are people looking at how things could be improved without that. See, these folks aren’t the only ones looking at sulfur in agriculture, and a team at the University of Colorado, Boulder, has been working on ways to differentiate and track agricultural vs. atmospheric sulfur:

To pull apart the atmospheric and human-applied sulfur, the researchers worked like forensic detectives. All over the Napa Valley, throughout its beautiful hills and valleys, they took samples to measure the concentrations of sulfur from its path through soil to surface water. As they went, they analyzed the chemistry of the sulfur and found a unique chemical signature of the agricultural sulfur, identifiable at the atomic level.

Even as the agricultural sulfur undergoes several chemical transformations, from interactions with microbes and other chemicals in the environment, a unique signature stays with the applied sulfur that allows it to be traced, said Hinckley.

“It’s very different from the signature that we see in atmospheric deposition or geologic weathering, which are the other background sources of sulfur,” said Hinckley.

Yet the objective of her work is not to shut down the use of sulfur in agriculture—which has been used since the time of the Egyptians—but to strategically fine-tune its use and application to both sustain the wine industry and minimize unintended environmental impacts.

“This work could help inform the development of technologies that help farmers to choose when and how much they apply, rather than just applying the same amount preventatively all the time,” said Hinckley.

That team’s focus was on sulfur used as an antifungal treatment for grape vines, so maybe there’s some way in which this approach wouldn’t work for sulfur spread as a fertilizer, but to my layman’s eyes it seems like progress is already being made on tracking the stuff. Heck, given that both of the articles I’ve quoted today come from UC Boulder, and the lead author of the first paper also worked on the second, I’m honestly expecting more on this topic from this particular group of authors before too long.

This is not one of those things that demands immediate action. I think it demands action, and it’s certainly a part of the larger problem of chemical pollution, but as the second article points out, we’ve been using sulfur in farming for literally thousands of years. I suppose it might be possible that changes to farming practices would eliminate the need for stuff like sulfur, but that seems unlikely to me, and far less important than the numerous other reasons for plotting a new course. I find this interesting mainly because I hadn’t thought of air pollution as a fertilizer before, and because coupled with the tracking project, it seems like we might be on the verge of a much more detailed understanding of how our use of sulfur affects the world around us.

Thank you for reading! If you found this post enjoyable or interesting, please share it around! Due to my immigration status, my writing is my only source of income right now, which is why I like to “pass around the hat” now and then for people’s spare change. Supporting me on Patreon can cost as little as three or four cents per day, and when enough people join in, even those $1/month pledges add up. There’s not currently much in the way of patron-only content, but my $5 patrons do have the option to name a character in the fantasy novel I’m currently working on, so if you like my fiction and want to immortalize yourself, or someone you know, then giving me money may just be your best option!

Movement within Mars

I feel like I probably had a childhood astronomy phase, but if I did, all I really remember was the feeling of existential dread upon learning that the sun was expanding and would eventually consume the entire Earth. When it comes to Mars, my primary interest was that time Calvin and Hobbes went there in their cardboard box. Later, my father spent a brief time as a consultant biologist on some part of NASA’s search for signs of life, but my understanding of the place, following the science, was that it was not only dead in terms of life, but also in terms of geological activity. The main evidence for that that I knew of was that Mars doesn’t have a magnetosphere. Earth does have one, and our current understanding is that it’s generated by activity in our planet’s molten core. It provides a great deal of protection from solar radiation, which is part of why we’re able to have such low radiation levels and such a nice atmosphere. Mars, or so the thinking goes, lost all of its heat, because it’s such a small planet. It cooled off, lost its core activity, and so lost its magnetosphere along with the capacity to shelter life.

Well, it turns out there’s a bit more going on down there than we thought. Those of you who follow science news will probably have heard about this in recent days, but there’s evidence of new movement deep within the red planet:

In a study published in Nature Astronomy, scientists from the University of Arizona challenge current views of Martian geodynamic evolution with a report on the discovery of an active mantle plume pushing the surface upward and causing earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The finding suggests that the planet’s deceptively quiet surface may hide a more tumultuous interior than previously thought.

“Our study presents multiple lines of evidence that reveal the presence of a giant active mantle plume on present-day Mars,” said Adrien Broquet, a postdoctoral research associate in the UArizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and co-author of the study with Jeff Andrews-Hanna, an associate professor of planetary science at the LPL.

Mantle plumes are large blobs of warm and buoyant rock that rise from deep inside a planet and push through its intermediate layer – the mantle – to reach the base of its crust, causing earthquakes, faulting and volcanic eruptions. The island chain of Hawaii, for example, formed as the Pacific plate slowly drifted over a mantle plume.

“We have strong evidence for mantle plumes being active on Earth and Venus, but this isn’t expected on a small and supposedly cold world like Mars,” Andrews-Hanna said. “Mars was most active 3 to 4 billion years ago, and the prevailing view is that the planet is essentially dead today.”

“A tremendous amount of volcanic activity early in the planet’s history built the tallest volcanoes in the solar system and blanketed most of the northern hemisphere in volcanic deposits,” Broquet said. “What little activity has occurred in recent history is typically attributed to passive processes on a cooling planet.”

The researchers were drawn to a surprising amount of activity in an otherwise nondescript region of Mars called Elysium Planitia, a plain within Mars’ northern lowlands close to the equator. Unlike other volcanic regions on Mars, which haven’t seen major activity for billions of years, Elysium Planitia experienced large eruptions over the past 200 million years.

“Previous work by our group found evidence in Elysium Planitia for the youngest volcanic eruption known on Mars,” Andrews-Hanna said. “It created a small explosion of volcanic ash around 53,000 years ago, which in geologic time is essentially yesterday.”

Ok, so I was already off before this plume showed up – that’s much more recent activity than I would have guessed. Still, it seems like my surprise at an active mantle plume is shared by scientists. From what I can tell, this doesn’t affect our lives in any way – it’s not going to re-start the Martian magnetosphere, so Elon Musk’s supposed plans for colonization still have to account for the radiation problem. From the perspective of people studying Mars, however, this is a major discovery.

Mantle plumes, which can be viewed as analogous to hot blobs of wax rising in lava lamps. give away their presence on Earth through a classical sequence of events. Warm plume material pushes against the surface, uplifting and stretching the crust. Molten rock from the plume then erupts as flood basalts that create vast volcanic plains.

When the team studied the features of Elysium Planitia, they found evidence of the same sequence of events on Mars. The surface has been uplifted by more than a mile, making it one of the highest regions in Mars’ vast northern lowlands. Analyses of subtle variations in the gravity field indicated that this uplift is supported from deep within the planet, consistent with the presence of a mantle plume.

Other measurements showed that the floor of impact craters is tilted in the direction of the plume, further supporting the idea that something pushed the surface up after the craters formed. Finally, when researchers applied a tectonic model to the area, they found that the presence of a giant plume, 2,500 miles wide, was the only way to explain the extension responsible for forming the Cerberus Fossae.

“In terms of what you expect to see with an active mantle plume, Elysium Planitia is checking all the right boxes,” Broquet said, adding that the finding poses a challenge for models used by planetary scientists to study the thermal evolution of planets. “This mantle plume has affected an area of Mars roughly equivalent to that of the continental United States. Future studies will have to find a way to account for a very large mantle plume that wasn’t expected to be there.

“We used to think that InSight landed in one of the most geologically boring regions on Mars – a nice flat surface that should be roughly representative of the planet’s lowlands,” Broquet added. “Instead, our study demonstrates that InSight landed right on top of an active plume head.”

The presence of an active plume will affect interpretations of the seismic data recorded by InSight, which must now take into account the fact that this region is far from normal for Mars.

“Having an active mantle plume on Mars today is a paradigm shift for our understanding of the planet’s geologic evolution,” Broquet said, “similar to when analyses of seismic measurements recorded during the Apollo era demonstrated the moon’s core to be molten.”

My first thought, when hearing about these findings, was that this activity also increases the chance of there being active microbial life in Mars’ crust, similar to what we’ve found on Earth. Reading this article, it seems that I’m also not alone in that. I don’t know how long it’ll be before we get clear answers, but it feels like actually finding that life might be closer than I thought. Once scientists have done their recalculations, accounting for these new data, my guess is that they’ll have a better idea of where to look for life, based on current geological activity.

Not Fine with Ultrafine: Airplane pollution comes from engine lube, not just burned fuel

I first dedicated a neuron to “ultrafine particles” (UFPs) around a decade ago, when I was looking into the health problems associated with the air that I, personally, was breathing. At the time I had just moved to an apartment a couple blocks southwest of Interstate 93, one of Boston’s biggest freeways. I knew that air pollution was harmful, but if memory serves, I was only just starting to learn how that harm actually manifests in the people exposed. In digging up information for this post, I came to the conclusion that the simplest way to describe the effects is that your health will just… be a bit worse. All of your health. It basically puts a cap on how healthy you, personally, can actually be. If you do everything right, you’ll still be less healthy, more vulnerable to chronic conditions, and more vulnerable to heart attacks and strokes. Or, to quote a study from Tufts, living near a highway can be bad for your health in a million small ways:

Fine and ultrafine particulates both cause cardiovascular disease in similar ways. Once they hit your lungs, your body immediately recognizes that something is amiss. “It essentially says, ‘Oh, crap, something’s wrong here,’ and releases cytokines, molecules that control immune response,” says David Weiss, M12, who works on the CAFEH study analyzing health surveys generated as part of the community outreach component of the research project. Those cytokines are used to summon help to the site of the infection, but also affect the activity of the immune system throughout the body.

Weiss likens the body’s reaction to the terror-alert system that was put into place after 9/11. “You know, the one that was green, yellow, red,” he says. “The higher levels of cytokines will take you from a level green to a level yellow.” In other words, your whole body goes on high alert, causing elevated levels of inflammation.

Of course, not all inflammation is bad, says Doug Brugge. For example, if you cut your finger, within a day, you’ll see some inflammation (redness) around the cut as your immune system mobilizes to kill any invading bacteria. “That is an example of a good inflammatory response, because it’s localized,” says Brugge. “It’s responding to a real problem, and it’s controlled. It has a beginning and an end.”

But constant exposure to fine and ultrafine particulate pollution can cause chronic inflammation. If that happens, white blood cells called macrophages, which are part of the body’s natural defense mechanism, go into overdrive, seeking out bacteria or other foreign objects in the bloodstream. They start attacking whatever’s there with extra gusto—including certain types of cholesterol that accumulate in the bloodstream. As macrophages gorge themselves on this fatty molecule, they (and their cholesterol contents) settle into the inner lining of blood vessels, where they slowly build up and create artery-clogging plaques.

Weiss says that some of these deposits may happen anyway as the body ages, but inflammation caused by particulate pollution speeds the process, leading to premature heart attacks and strokes.


Essentially, Weiss says, this gives the pollutants that make up ultrafine particles more bang for their buck. They’re more potent than larger particles, so they may lead more quickly to heart disease. And, he adds, they may be small enough to get directly into the bloodstream, where they can do even more damage.

“Larger particles can’t cross the barrier from the lungs to the bloodstream,” says Weiss, “but the ultrafine particles can. So because of that, and partly because of their increased exposed surface area, there’s more of an opportunity for them to have reactions that will cause inflammation.” The only way to avoid this inflammation—short of somehow removing particles from the air around you—is to spend less time near major highways.

“For people who move away from the highway, it’s like they quit smoking,” says Wig Zamore, a longtime resident of Somerville with a master’s degree in urban planning. Over the past decade, Zamore has worked with community groups on public health and clean-air issues, and is a member of the CAFEH steering committee, a group of academics and community members who help guide the study’s research.

“Their risk pretty immediately starts to go down, and for the people who move closer to a highway, their risk immediately starts to go up over a matter of just a couple years,” he says, citing a 2009 study by the University of British Columbia.

The problem is, of course, that many people living near highways don’t have the financial means to move. According to Zamore, of the 35 million Americans who live by a major four-lane highway, roughly 18 percent are renters or live in low-income housing.

We were living there because of the low rent – my flat farther away from I-93 had its rent go up by something like $150/month, so we had to move, and there didn’t seem to be anything of a comparable price that didn’t come with at least as much air pollution. It should not surprise you to learn that that neighborhood, like most high-pollution neighborhoods in the US, was mostly not white. Unfortunately, the dangers of UFPs go beyond this smoking-like effect on those most exposed. Infant exposure has been linked to adult lung disease, implying lifelong problems, and exposure in utero has been linked to childhood asthma.

But wait! There’s more!

See, as previously mentioned, the real problem with UFPs is that they’re so small. They’re smaller than our body is really capable of dealing with in a meaningful way. To my knowledge, we don’t currently know the exact causal chain from UFP exposure in pregnant mothers to asthma in preschool. It could be that the aforementioned inflammation is what’s actually affecting lung development, but it’s also possible that the particles are simply passing through the mother into the fetus, especially since there’s evidence that they also cross the blood/brain barrier. Unsurprisingly, scientists are looking into possible links to neurological problems.

There’s a great deal more such research out there, but I think this is enough to get across why I think that UFPs are something we should take seriously. The fact that a lot of them seem to come from car tires, rather than exhaust, is one reason that I think we should be moving away from cars as a primary mode of transit, even without their greenhouse gas emissions. If I snapped my fingers and made every car in the world electric, Somerville would still be having problems. If we manage to build a system that’s not obsessed with profit and growth, I think there will be a lot less need for people to be moving around so much. A shorter work week, for example, would mean less commuting, and more work could be done from home. That, combined with increased investment in mass transit, and the reclamation of urban landscapes for people, rather than cars, could largely eliminate traffic as we know it today.

Unfortunately, that’s not the only big source of UFPs. For the sake of this exercise, we’ll pretend that coal plants went away with the gas-powered cars, and were replaced with insert favorite power source here. We also need to reduce air traffic, and as with cars, focusing just on the fuel would be a mistake. It turns out that jet engines – specifically the oils that lubricate them – are a major source:

Since several years, the Hessian Agency for Nature Conservation, Environment and Geology (HLNUG) has been measuring the number and size of ultrafine particles at various air monitoring stations in the vicinity of Frankfurt International Airport, for example in the Frankfurt suburb of Schwanheim and in Raunheim. Last year, scientists led by Professor Alexander Vogel at Goethe University Frankfurt analysed the chemical composition of the ultrafine particles and came across a group of organic compounds which, according to their chemical fingerprints, originated from aircraft lubrication oils.

The research team has now corroborated this finding by means of further chemical measurements of the ultrafine particles: the particles originated to a significant degree from synthetic jet oils and were particularly prevalent in the smallest particle classes, i.e. particles 10 to 18 nanometres in size. Such lubrication oils can enter the exhaust plume of an aircraft’s engines, for example through vents where nanometre-sized oil droplets and gaseous oil vapours are not fully retained.

In laboratory experiments, the researchers also succeeded in reproducing the formation of ultrafine particles from lubrication oils. To this end, a common engine lubrication oil was first evaporated at around 300 °C in a hot gas stream, which simulated the exhaust plume of an aircraft engine, and subsequently cooled down. The number-size distribution of the freshly formed particles was then measured.

Alexander Vogel, Professor for Atmospheric Environmental Analytics at the Institute for Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences of Goethe University Frankfurt, explains: “When the oil vapour cools down, the gaseous synthetic esters are supersaturated and form the nuclei for new particles that can then grow fast to around 10 nanometres in size. These particles, as our experiments indicate, constitute a large fraction of the ultrafine particles produced by aircraft engines. The previous assumption that ultrafine particles originate primarily from sulphur and aromatic compounds in kerosene is evidently incomplete. According to our findings, lowering lubrication oil emissions from jet engines holds significant potential for reducing ultrafine particles.”

The experiments show that the formation of ultrafine particles in jet engines is not confined to the combustion of kerosene alone. Potential mitigation measures should take this into consideration. This means that using low-sulphur kerosene or switching to sustainable aviation fuel cannot eliminate all the pollution caused by ultrafine particles.

I think it’s important to be clear here – I don’t think we should be focused on the total elimination of all ultrafine particle sources. It’s a nice idea in theory, but so long as we want to keep the benefits of modern engines of any sort, there’s a good chance we’ll be producing some form of harmful air pollution. What I do want is to drastically reduce the amount we generate, even as we develop things like plant-based jet fuel. As with cars, I think that changing our economy would drastically reduce air travel (it’s almost like I’m obsessed with systemic change. Funny, that), but I also think that it would open up options for slower forms of air travel, like lighter-than-air craft, that don’t require the same kind of heat and friction involved in getting airplanes off the ground.

I also – since it’s a factor we shouldn’t forget – believe that a post-capitalist society would greatly reduce the amount of pollution generated by military activity.

Pollution will probably always be something we have to manage, rather than entirely eliminate, but as we’re all aware by now, we generate far, far more pollution than is required for humanity to have a good standard of living, complete with the benefits of technology. I wish it was as easy as swapping out our fuel sources, as difficult a task as that is. Unfortunately, it keeps coming back to the need for systemic change. Capitalism and imperialism are not the only source of problems in society, but the problems they’re creating have become so big that it’s often hard to even tell what those other problems might be. It’s like worrying about wet feet when you’ve fallen overboard at sea. In the meantime, while there’s no practical way to entirely protect yourself, there’s some evidence that having plants around can help, so support efforts to increase the amount of greenery in cities, and “green walls” around places like airports and freeways. There are plenty of other benefits to doing that, and I really do believe that any steps we take to strengthen people, including literally caring for their health, will bring that systemic change just a little bit more within our reach.

Thank you for reading! If you found this post enjoyable or interesting, please share it around! Due to my immigration status, my writing is my only source of income right now, which is why I like to “pass around the hat” now and then for people’s spare change. Supporting me on Patreon can cost as little as three or four cents per day, and when enough people join in, even those $1/month pledges add up. There’s not currently much in the way of patron-only content, but my $5 patrons do have the option to name a character in the fantasy novel I’m currently working on, so if you like my fiction and want to immortalize yourself, or someone you know, then giving me money may just be your best option!

Fear, Discovery, and Animal Crossing

Once upon a time, long, long ago, I was a college student studying biology with plans to go to grad school somewhere to study ecology and possibly animal behavior. I was frustrated with the small scale of research one had to do as an undergrad, and I was looking forward to digging into something better. For example, I’d spent a lot of time tracking fishers and mink in New Hampshire in my teens, and Indiana, where I got my BA in biology, didn’t really have fishers. Since the two species have overlapping territories and prey, it seemed likely that without the larger species to compete with, mink in Indiana would have more opportunities for larger prey, and would thus have some evolutionary pressure to embiggen across the generations.

My plan to study this using the animals tracks. This would have been far cheaper and less invasive than trying to catch, weigh, and measure a representative sample of mink in two different parts of the U.S., and while the more invasive study might be necessary to fully support my hypothesis, tracks would certainly be enough to provide solid justification for such a study. I’d learned how to build a “trap” to collect tracks using aluminum foil, contact paper, and wood, so the material end of things would have been pretty straightforward to put together, and it’s a technique that gives you quite consistent data, by baiting the animals to use consistent behavior in a fairly controlled setting. I was also told that was much too big of a project for undergrad work. I suppose I can see why, but I still wonder whether I would have taken a different path had I been able to go through with it. The research I did end up doing primarily taught me that the shrews living in east-central Indiana had somehow figured out how to avoid drift fences and pit traps. It’s accurate to say I’ve done research on shrews, but over about a month of setting out research-supported live traps, and checking them multiple times per day, my partner and I didn’t catch a single damned shrew.

All of this is to say that I have a long-standing interest in both animal ecology, and animal behavior, as well as the various aspects of conservation, environmentalism, and so on. Writing this now, I’m honestly very tempted to do a little track survey around Dublin’s rivers, just for the fun of it. Maybe if I get enough patrons that I can afford the materials, I’ll start doing research projects and writing about them here.

There are a lot of reasons why this kind of research is good. The first, of course, is the same reason I support most other research – it’s a process of exploration. There might be nothing on the other side of that mountain but more forest, just like this side, but we won’t know that, until someone actually goes and looks. And once we know what’s on the other side of the mountain, well, that opens up a new frontier that also needs to be explored. Sure, you might just discover that your shrew-catching methods need to be updated, but you might also discover that the reason why horseshoe crab blood coagulates in that particular manner, is a chemical reaction that would make that blood a pillar of modern medicine, while also raising a number of ethical and environmental questions that go well beyond the scope of this paragraph.

Part of my discomfort with the horseshoe crab situation comes from my understanding, born of both observation and study, animals are, in some ways, just like us. There are a great many differences of course, some of which matter a lot, but they’re not just meat automatons wandering through the world until we find a use for them. They’re made of the same stuff as us, and their behavior is often guided by the same chemical reactions as the ones going on in your brain as you are reading this.

There’s a recording from a radio show that’s been kicking around the internet for a while, in which a caller complained about the placement of deer crossing signs. Wouldn’t it be better, she asked, to put the signs in lower-traffic areas, to reduce car crashes? She’d somehow gotten it into her head that the sign was there to tell deer where to cross the road, rather than to warn humans that deer often crossed in that area. It’s a kind of mental slip that I think most of us have had at some point in our lives, but we’re generally lucky enough to not have it happen on radio for everyone to hear.

The thing is, while there’s zero chance of literacy in white-tailed deer, she’s not wrong to assume some level of agency. Deer have reasons for the things they do. They have reasons why they cross the roads we build, why their timing seems to be so terrible sometimes, and why they will sometimes just stand and stare at those weird pair of bright lights that seems to be growing. Whether your concern is for deer or for humans, understanding those reasons is key to reducing those crashes. The deer don’t seem to have the capacity to understand us, and work around the weird shit we do, and they certainly don’t have any power over our actions as a species, which means that it’s on us to figure out how to make things better.

Enter the wildlife crossing.

The image shows a highway cutting through a dense, green conifer forest. In the background, behind he road, you can stony mountains looming over the river valley the road is following. Near the center of the photograph, there is a wide bridge over the highway. The bridge, a wildlife crossing, is covered in grass, shrubs and small trees, forming a “natural” pathway for wildlife to cross the highway.

Wildlife crossings, both with and without fences to guide animals toward them, have proven to be beneficial in reducing collisions, and in allowing more natural movement of animals:

The findings of the MSU genetics study, which collected some 10,000 hair samples from  and grizzlies, have been published in the British journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, and a photograph of one of Banff’s wildlife overpasses is featured on the publication’s cover.

“Showing that the black  and grizzlies using the crossings to traverse the highway are also breeding is a major finding,” said former MSU graduate student and WTI scientist Michael Sawaya, who wrote the paper as the final piece for his doctorate in ecology. “While there have been a lot of studies showing that wildlife are using these crossings, this is the first time anyone has shown that animals using the crossings are breeding often enough to ensure that the populations on either side of the highway are not being genetically isolated.”

MSU professor of ecology Steven Kalinowski, who was Sawaya’s doctoral adviser and co-authored the paper, agreed that the genetic evidence offers the best indication to date of the success of Banff’s system of wildlife crossing structures.

The crossings – there are currently 44 in all – form the most extensive system of wildlife crossing structures on the planet. In addition to reducing collisions, the crossings project was designed to prevent fragmentation of wildlife populations living along Canada’s busiest highway. Grizzly bears, Banff’s marquee predator, are often negatively impacted by roads, Kalinowski added, so any true measure of the project’s success has to account for the impact on that population, which the Alberta government currently lists as threatened.

“These wildlife crossing structures cost millions of dollars and this is one of the first studies that has shown that they are doing what they are intended to do,” Kalinowski said. “If the bears aren’t crossing the road and breeding, you’re going to have fragmented and inbred populations on each side of the road.”

This is a good solution, and the kind of thinking I’ve always liked. My vision for a better world involves a lot of interweaving – in this case literal – of human and “natural” systems. Another version of these crossings that I would say is equally important, and far cheaper to build, is tunnels under roads, primarily for reptiles and amphibians, who tend to move seasonally in large numbers, and often get run over.

The thing is, as the radio caller from earlier eventually realized, we can’t just put up signs telling animals where to cross. We have to figure out where the heaviest animal traffic is, and build crossings there. Many such installations also use fences to guide animals to the crossing, similar to how I tried to use them to guide shrews to my bucket traps, but the ideal is to arrange things so that animals need as little direction as possible. This means, of course, that the research is ongoing. These animal crossings have worked quite well, but there’s still room for improvement. It turns out that some deer and elk, entirely reasonably, are suspicious of these bridges that we’ve built for them. We climbed the mountain, so to speak, and part of what’s on the other side is a bunch of frightened even-toed ungulates.

For the study, Abelson and Blumstein worked with UCLA undergraduate student Mehdi Nojoumi to review a set of nearly 600 animal-activated videos collected by Montana State University road ecologist Anthony Clevenger that showed elk and white-tailed deer in the vicinity of a Trans-Canada Highway wildlife undercrossing near Banff National Park in Alberta. Nojoumi observed the behavior of the animals before and after vehicles passed and counted the vehicles.

The videos showed that elk and deer on the roadside near the tunnel often shifted from foraging for food to fleeing or becoming vigilant after vehicles passed; those animals that showed fear or vigilance were much less likely to use the crossing. If they continued grazing when vehicles passed, as some did, they were more likely to use the crossing.

Surprisingly, the animals reacted more strongly when vehicles passed infrequently than when the traffic flowed steadily.

“We are not certain why animals are more responsive to fewer vehicles,” said Abelson, who is now a research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. “It is possible that when there are many cars barreling down the road, they can be heard from farther away and don’t surprise the animals as much.”

The study reinforces that animals respond dynamically to human activities in ways that can influence if and how they use wildlife crossings. Abelson pointed out that some animals, like racoons, may be so accustomed to human activities that they don’t respond negatively at all, while others may be much more cautious. Behaviors differ from species to species, he stressed, and further research can help reveal these species-specific patterns.

“If we can figure out ways to leverage wildlife behaviors, we may be able to make wildlife crossings more effective,” Abelson said. “For example, walls to dampen sound or to reduce the visual effects of passing headlights may encourage use of crossing structures. We hope that this this study is just one of many that will examine different wildlife species and levels of traffic to better develop tools that increase the use of crossing structures by wildlife and, ultimately, protect the lives of humans and wildlife.”

To me, it seems like more steady traffic is less frightening because of its constancy. There’s a clear pattern of the loud things zipping by without regard for any of the animals around. If there’s nothing at all, and then suddenly there’s a car, that’s a break in the pattern – a new creature on the scene. When I lived in the country, I was much more aware of cars going by than I am in the city, and as I’ve said, I don’t think animals are all that different from us. Regardless, some of the differences that do  exist are pretty big, and we never know when we’ll find something unexpected, so as the scientists say, we should keep studying this stuff.

Personally, it’s my goal to see the need for car traffic decrease a great deal, as part of a global end to capitalist overproduction and a shift in priorities. I’d like to see most land-based transit happening by rail, thus eliminating much of this problem, but we will always have a need to understand how our actions as the force of nature we’ve become affect the ecosystems around us. I feel as though we still have a tendency to view the world in terms of problems and solutions, rather than as something more fluid and dynamic. “Solution” feels like the wrong word, most of the time, because our efforts to improve society are rarely so definitive, and in my way of thinking, it’s always worth trying to do better.

And we’ll never find away around the hypothetical problems with our solutions, until we actually get there. It’s said that a brave person dies but once, while a coward dies a thousand times before their death. As I understand it, that means that the so-called “brave” person accepts that death will come, and tries to live a good life anyway, while the “coward” spends all their imagining how they might die, as part of an obsession with avoiding the inevitable. It feels as though, as a society, we’ve become so obsessed with the ways that life could be worse, that we can barely remember that things could actually get better. I suppose the question is – will we be the ones building forest bridges to save lives, or will we be the deer, so startled by loud noises that we can’t bring ourselves to cross those bridges?

Thank you for reading! If you found this post enjoyable or interesting, please share it around! Due to my immigration status, my writing is my only source of income right now, which is why I like to “pass around the hat” now and then for people’s spare change. Supporting me on Patreon can cost as little as three or four cents per day, and when enough people join in, even those $1/month pledges add up. There’s not currently much in the way of patron-only content, but my $5 patrons do have the option to name a character in the fantasy novel I’m currently working on, so if you like my fiction and want to immortalize yourself, or someone you know, then giving me money may just be your best option!