Big brains…what are they good for?

An interesting thought experiment: what if intelligent dinosaurs had evolved? Would we know it?

If, in the final 7,000 years of their reign, dinosaurs became hyperintelligent, built a civilization, started asteroid mining, and did so for centuries before forgetting to carry the one on an orbital calculation, thereby sending that famous valedictory six-mile space rock hurtling senselessly toward the Earth themselves—it would be virtually impossible to tell. All we do know is that an asteroid did hit, and that the fossils in the millions of years afterward look very different than in the millions of years prior.

So that’s what 180 million years of complete dominance buys you in the fossil record. What, then, will a few decades of industrial civilization get us? This is the central question of the Anthropocene—an epoch that supposedly started, not tens of millions of years ago, but perhaps during the Truman administration. Will our influence on the rock record really be so profound to geologists 100 million years from now, whoever they are, that they would look back and be tempted to declare the past few decades or centuries a bona fide epoch of its own?

I agree.Two of the major consequences of great intelligence seem to be heightened conceit about your importance, and an enhanced ability to exploit and wreck the environment on which your success depends. Maybe those are the two things we ought to be working on reducing, if we hope to last a little longer.

The arctic is melting and is on fire

Isn’t this a lovely example of a catastrophic threshold effect? Humans produce excess carbon in the atmosphere, warming the planet; warming the planet dries out gigantic swathes of peat in the arctic, which catches fire and releases more carbon into the atmosphere. The Earth has all these colossal reservoirs of sequestered carbon, and we burn through one, the buried fossil fuels, and it unlocks all the others, such as the peat bogs.

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, leading to the desiccation of vegetation, which fuels huge blazes. Fortunately for us, these wildfires typically threaten remote, sparsely populated areas. But unfortunately for the whole of humanity, so far this year Arctic fires have released some 121 megatonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, more than what Belgium emits annually. That beats the previous Arctic record of 110 megatonnes of CO2, set in 2004—and we’re only in June.

Yes, that article is from June, and being late in paying attention to it by a mere two months feels like I’m disgracefully tardy. We’re talking about climate events on a planetary scale, and they’re moving so fast that we need to be talking on a time scale of months. Usually, scientists and science reporters are telling you that geology moves incredibly slowly, but humans have effectively goosed the planet into bringing change so fast that we’re seeing it in a fraction of a lifetime.

These fires are largely happening where few people live, so we don’t see the effects directly. Aren’t we fortunate that we have satellites that let us see what destruction we have wrought?

All those fires are producing clouds of soot that darken the arctic ice, absorbing heat from the sun and increasing warming and melting. These are “some of the biggest fires on the planet”, and I don’t think anyone is going to put them out.

Meanwhile, back in the American fantasyland, we have a leadership that is denying that climate change is occurring, or that it’s entirely natural, or part of a normal cycle, and besides, even if it is happening, it would hurt the economy to do anything about it. Someone ought to explain to them that gradual change can lead to a crisis point and catastrophe…and that can happen in politics, too. There are fires smoldering everywhere.

Maya’s experiment

I was not looking forward to today — we have these swarms of spiders hatching out, and we have to do something with them all. They’re in cramped little petri dishes, an entire clutch together, which is fine early on, since they naturally aggregate after first emerging from the egg sac, and then a few days later start ballooning and dispersing by wafting away on the wind. “Wafting away on the wind” isn’t a great strategy for maintaining a laboratory colony, though. Last year I would pluck them out one by one and put them in tiny individual containers, which is ridiculously labor intensive, and then feed them flies individually, even worse, and that wasn’t going to work at all with the numbers we’re dealing with. Especially since fall term starts way too soon, and students are going to be occupied with mere classes.

So my student Maya is doing a simple experiment to see the effects of population density on juvenile mortality. We didn’t put the spiderlings in individual containers, but in two different sizes of containers in different numbers. We opened up the petri dishes of spiderlings and counted out individuals into larger containers.

It was amusing and different. The spiders, as soon as the lid was off, saw freedom awaiting them and would put out a thread to start ballooning. We’d gently sweep in with a paintbrush and snag them, move the brush over their new container, and give a little shake — sometimes they’d oblige by neatly rappelling down, sometimes they’d jump off, sometimes they’d get obstinate and you’d have to dab the brush against the container to convince them to move. Meanwhile, while you were distracted, more spiderlings were launching themselves skyward. More than a few escaped. More than a few, I’m sure, snugged themselves down in our clothing. It’s all good.

(Oops, just found one in my shirt sleeve. Now my office has some new residents.)

The end result is that we now have a known number of spiders in known volumes of space. We’ll track survival every few days to see how they fare. Once they get larger, we’ll spread them out a little more, but currently we find that the adults coexist nicely with two in a 5.7L container, so we’re hoping that the babies won’t fight and cannibalize each other at a somewhat higher density.

(Just found another baby under my shirt collar.)

D’Souza must really be an embarrassment to his alma mater

We learn a great deal from this tweet.

  • Dinesh D’Souza doesn’t understand the difference between weather and climate.
  • Dinesh D’Souza doesn’t understand the difference between anecdote and data.

  • Dinesh D’Souza doesn’t understand the that the planet is spherical, and the Southern hemisphere has seasons out of phase with the Northern.

Dinesh D’Souza is a goddamn idiot. But we already knew that.

It’s the Spider Purge!

Oh, no. My daughter and granddaughter are coming to visit for a week on Friday, and my wife has decided we have to make a more baby-friendly home. Which means…THE SPIDERS MUST GO. I tell her that the spiders were here first, so maybe it’s the baby who should make accommodations. That didn’t work. The baby will need to learn to love spiders eventually, so why not start early? No go. Maybe the baby would like to learn spider-catching technique, so you’re depriving her of a learning opportunity. Nope. So Mary’s been out in the sun room, destroying a happy, loving community by scooping up spiders and their many egg sacs, and has brought them to me. At least I’ve got a nice home for them in the lab.

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A successful Skeptiprom

Neglected spaces are neat. The hotel I’m at is not neglected, so it’s kind of barren of spiders…except that there’s one unused space deep in the bowels of the building, which used to be a sports bar, and there’s a back side of that that has been totally ignored for at least a year, and the cobwebs are dense and beautiful, so I got to spend a little time poking around with my arthropod friends, rather than sitting awkwardly in a corner nursing a drink and wallowing in self-loathing as I usually do at social events. See, there’s hope for us nerds someday!

I found a date for Skeptiprom!

I usually skip this event at Skepticon, the Skeptiprom. I’m kind of a wallflower, and I don’t dance, but this year, I have a reason to go.

It was a good day. I did my usual spiderwalk, and found that the outside of the federal building (yes, I got stopped by the police again) was populated with these furrowed orb weavers everywhere. I caught a few, they were impressive.

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News from home

I’m away from my wife this weekend, but she knows what important things are happening in Morris and is keeping me up to date on the essential news.

The swarm of caterpillars that have been gnawing on the milkweed she planted are pupating all over the house!

Now you know, too.