Earth as Egg

There was a time, a long time ago, when families were all by themselves. [1] These families were very much like your family, but they were poor. They didn’t have phones, and they didn’t have cars. They didn’t even have water or houses. These families lived in caves, or in the trees, and were always hungry and afraid. They could fall out of the tree, and if they were hurt, they could die. There were no doctors. Wild wild animals always wanted to eat them.

We know a little about these families because we can find their bones, their fireplace, their food. We sometimes even find their poop. If we are very lucky, we can even find their art. These families lived over a thousand centuries ago. That’s a long time.

Way back then, those families might meet another family. They might fight, or maybe they would be friends. If they became friends, perhaps their children would like each other and start their own family. We know many of them started families, or else your family wouldn’t be here!

When these families met for the first time, it was a big event. Each family thought of itself as an island in an ocean of nature. They thought they were all by themselves, almost all the time. They liked it that way.

A hundred centuries ago a lot of families got together in little groups. We call these groups tribes, and tribes live in villages. They could live together like this because they had discovered farming. As a result, lots of villages sprang up all around the world.

Little by little, the villages started talking to each other. Each time a village found another village for the first time, everyone became excited. Would this village be a friend? If they became friends, many good things could happen. They could trade lots of things. Their children could get married. And together, both of their villages could grow.

Still, each village was separated by great distances from the other village. Each village felt like an island surrounded by nature.

Over time the villages grew. Many of them would like each other so much that they became kingdoms, and even nations. Today our world is full of nations, almost two hundred of them. Nations have been so successful that they touch each other on almost all sides. They touch each other so often that no one feels lonely any more. There is hardly a single village in the whole world that still thinks of itself as an island.

Some people say our Earth is too crowded. There are seven thousand thousand thousand people living today, and together we are using up a lot of natural resources. When families were the islands, all the natural resources around them were more than enough for their needs. These resources were things like fish, fruit, wood, and water. Clean fresh water always seemed like it would never go away.

Today, families live next to each other, almost elbow to elbow in some countries. Even fresh water may run out soon.  Don’t worry. People always find a solution to problems like this. Other people might not like the solution, but they will still work. This is not what this story is about, though.

About one century ago people finally figured out that nature is much much bigger than we ever imagined. Nature isn’t only our neighborhood of nations. It’s not even our whole world. Nature is an entire universe. Our universe is big. So big that even trying to describe its bigness would take another story.

In this universe there are other worlds, similar to ours. There may be hundreds, thousands, or even thousands of thousands. No one is sure.

If you pretend to be a god, you can stand far above your house, your nation, and even far above the whole Earth. If you are standing up there, you can see all those other worlds at the same time. Each one is an island, separated by nature. It’s not the same nature as what you see out your window, but it’s nature all the same.

Our Earth is an island. There are many other islands out there, some closer than others. Remember those families from a thousand centuries ago? Remember how they felt when they met another family for the first time? We are just like them. The idea of meeting another world like ours makes us feel excited, and afraid.

Ready for eggs?

Have you ever seen a bird’s nest, full of fresh laid eggs? Not all the eggs will hatch. Something inside the egg doesn’t happen, and the egg always stays an egg.

Inside the good egg, something miraculous happens. Life emerges from non-life. Everything inside the egg is transformed from being yellow and clear into something that eats, poops, talks, flies, and even thinks.

Each egg is an island, just like our Earth. Not all eggs hatch into life, and not all worlds come alive like ours. But, like the egg, now that we are alive, we must not feel bad about transforming our planet. Like our egg, we need its resources to break open the shell and reach out to new worlds.

So, the next time you see a bird’s nest, think about your Earth. Don’t be too sad if we use of lots of trees or eat too many fish.  Why? Because when we go to a new world, we’re going to have to take some of them with us. After all, we are all in this egg together. [2]

The end.  Or is it?

 

[1] A story for the young at heart. Perhaps at bedtime when they are thinking deep thoughts, or maybe when they are looking at the sky. May all of us always be young at heart!

[2] It’s okay to be a little sad. And it’s very okay to be angry if someone uses up all the resources so that they are all gone.

 

Lunar Comedy

There are a lot of people out there who believe that the future of the human species relies on getting us to live in places far, far away. Not just in Hawaii, but on the Moon, or Mars. Or even further away than than.

The Moon seems like a good place to start, though, because it’s so close. Close is relative. It’s not as close to me as Florida, but it’s the closest thing that is not Earth. So let’s pick on the Moon for now, as being the next best place for people to live.

What should we call people who live on the Moon for their entire lives? Mooners? Moonies? Lunars? Lunies? Lunarians? For now, I’ll call them Loonites. No reason, except that it sounds funny for now.

Funny. That’s a hot topic. Funny wasn’t always hot. There was a time, not so long ago, before television, where funny was something that people saw once in a blue moon. Only the richest people could afford live funny time, in the form of a court jester.

Being a court jester wasn’t an easy job, either. If you were a court jester, you had an incredibly tough audience of one person, the King. If the King liked you, you had a good night’s sleep on a full stomach. If you had a bad day and the King didn’t like you, there was a good chance you’d be dead!

Nowadays it’s not as tough to be a comedian, but sometimes it feels that way. The difference is that comedy is the King, and comedians have become Kings in their own right. The best of them can make millions of dollars a year. In many ways, we can consider today’s society a society of comedy.

Which brings us back to the Moon. Lunites are going to be very busy. They will be working hard to survive, mining minerals for the people on Earth, working solar energy farms sending electricity back to the home planet, and continually digging new tunnels in order to expand their cramped living conditions. What will the Lunites do for fun?

It’s a good question. We don’t know. We do know that there were people just like the Lunites, living in the Boston area a few hundred years ago. They didn’t do much for fun because they were busy trying to survive for many decades. The Pilgrims were a pretty “grim” people for quite a few years. If you read some of the things they considered funny, you probably wouldn’t even crack a smile.

My guess is that the Lunites are going to be even busier than the Pilgrims. They won’t have as much free time, let alone time to spend having fun. They will have to spend more years making sure they can survive, because of several things. First, they won’t have other natives to help them, like the native Indians helped the first Pilgrims. Second, their mother country isn’t a few thousand kilometers away to keep sending more people or food. The Lunites’s mother country will be almost half a million kilometers away. Thirdly, the Moon won’t be full of resources that the Lunites can harvest easily. Vital things like water and air are going to have to be pulled by force from the Lunar soil. The Pilgrims were able to easily breathe the air, find a nearby fresh-water stream, and hunt fish and birds for food.

So, what will the Lunites do for fun? I don’t think they will do very much. I think they will be known as a very boring and busy people for many generations. Earth people will make fun of them for being different, and this will start a process where the Lunites truly become a society different from Earth.

These are my thoughts. What are yours?

 

Why Dinosaurs Matter

I’m reading a great book about dinosaurs, and had no intention of sharing this secret passion of mine with you. For that I must apologize. It’s not that I didn’t think you’d be interested in dinosaurs. After all, they are generally extremely cool. They’re mostly big – okay – huge, and, for most people are the kind of thing that make you stop and stare. They’re probably the source of many deep myths – dragons, giants, that sort of thing. The reason I wasn’t going to bring it up was because I was reading this book for pure pleasure. Then I realized two things.

First, this is a darn good book. Buy it. Read it. Thanks. [1]

Second, the study of dinosaurs is something that should be on the syllabus for every behavioral scientist. That’s right, every person who is serious about studying behavior should learn about the dinosaur. Now, why is that?

Yes, again, they are cool; the source of great myths; they’re big, scary, and touch something primal within us. But these aren’t good reasons to study them. The real reason we need to study them is they were incredibly successful life forms. They lived a very long time on this planet, almost 300 million years, and counting. They survived a wide variety of environments, from cold to hot, from dry to wet. They existed on a wide variety of scales, from very small, to extremely large. Whatever it was they were doing, worked. And if we want to be successful, then we should know their secrets.

Wait just a minute, you say. What do you mean, if we want to be successful? Aren’t we successful already? Don’t I have a good job? Doesn’t my family have a big house? Isn’t my country the best in the world? Doesn’t my species have a lock on using up planetary resources until they’re gone?

One narrow way to define success is making money. But money represents a type of behavior; a behavior that allows us to trade with each other using a proxy. That proxy is a piece of paper that says “I’m worth one dollar.” We all agree to this, and pieces of paper go traveling about while goods and services travel in the opposite direction. If your success is collecting more pieces of paper than everyone else, so be it.

As a scientist, we want definitions that are closer to being constants of nature. Biology requires us to think in terms of survival. You are successful if you live, that’s number one. Number two? You have to reproduce.

So the Great Game of Life begins. This is not weekend American football. It is not spying. In this game your genes get a chance to be passed on yet again. Money means little here, for the billionaire without offspring loses to the penniless mother. She has passed on her genes, the billionaire can only pass on his wealth. This is the greatest game of them all. If you can survive long enough to reproduce, you have won the smallest of battles in the Great Game of Life. If your family lives for several generations, they have won their own small battle. For your species to survive multiple generations is the smallest of battles at that scale. And if a particular life form, like dinosaurs, can exist for a million years, then they have only won a single battle in the Great Game.

What, a million years is only a single battle? How can this be? Here we must invoke some numbers, for this is a matter of scale. Life, in any form, has left tracks of its humble beginnings in Australian rocks roughly 3 billion years old. This becomes our base, our standard. Anything alive today has to compare itself to all life. If you’ve been alive 3 billion years, then you can claim to be the king of all life. Unfortunately for you, there’s a good chance a random rock is going to come along and dethrone you. It’s happened at least 5 times as far as we can tell.

As people – well, H sapiens anyway – we’ve been around about 150 thousand years. In percentage terms, that’s only about one half percent of one percent of all life, 0.00005. If we want to claim our primate heritage as being successful, then we can point to roughly 60 million years of success, as long as success includes hanging about in trees and running about like squirrels. In this case we have a good 2% of the entirety of life to cling to, or 0.02. All said, us primates have a shot at winning the Great Game. Or do we? After all, we’ve really only been the dominant species for about 10 thousand years. That’s such a small percentage of the Great Game I’m not even going bother writing out all the zeros.

The dinosaurs go back about 200 million years, and were easily dominant about 100 million. Let’s see, 100 million into 3 billion, that gets us … 3 percent, or 0.03. And that 3 percent is when they were dominant – not just existing, like us primates.

Which brings us back to why we should study dinosaurs. We want to win the Great Game.

What? You say you’re not interested in winning? You don’t even care about the Great Game? You don’t care if your species lives or dies in the next century? The next millennium? Tomorrow? Then there’s a good chance you’re not interested in behavior in the first place. You probably have your own version of success, most likely collecting those pieces of paper, and will hone your own behaviors so as to maximize that success. If you don’t care, then nothing can change your mind.

If you do care, if you are concerned with the fate of our species, our planet, then we owe it to ourselves and our posterity to learn as much as possible in order to succeed. The best way to succeed is to embrace the study of behavior in all its forms. For behavior is everything that all life does. It’s not only a smile or a handshake, but how we set up our government or blow up our cities. It’s how we adapt as a species over great spans of time, where a century counts as seconds, and millennia are as minutes.

To study behavior, we must look upon its atoms. For instance, a smile is one of the smallest units we have, an instant in time starting with hot neurons touching many facial muscles. We smile, and just as quickly, it’s gone. As scientists, we must be able to take that single smile and use it to understand the Great Game.

This is easier to visualize in the physical world, because we can see how the smallest of objects is connected to great events. Consider the snowflake, a unique combination of water, cold and convection that lasts only as long as the distance between its birthing cloud and the cold hard Earth below. Combine that snowflake with a googol of its brethren and you have a glacier, a glacier that challenges Time. As a glacier, that snowflake carves canyons, moves mountains, and crushes continents. Yes, crushing continents, for if it ever melts away, that continent will spring out of the ocean like a bobbing duck.

To understand that glacier, we must also understand that snowflake. To understand all life, and to have a chance at winning the Great Game, we must understand the smile. We must be able to connect that smile to whatever made the dinosaur so successful. This is why paleontology matters. Paleontologists have barely begun to scratch the surface, and look at what they have learned. We need to find out more if we are to have a chance at winning the Great Game.

One of the things they have already taught us is that dinosaurs are not extinct, they have survived in the form of birds. What does this mean for competing in the Great Game? It means that we should also be listening carefully to those who also study birds, and by extension, those who study all life. The ornithologist, the ecologist, and the biologist are all important players in this competition. They can help us connect the dots between that smile, and what it will take for us to survive a million years.

All life matters, whether it still breaths or not. There is something to learn from every species, and for our species to stand by as many disappear is one of the great tragedies of our time. It’s like being in school and intentionally throwing away the answer pages in the back of your textbook. Each species has something to teach us, each species contains an answer to an unasked question. Competing in the Great Game means that our species is always being put to the test, and when taking an open book test, it’s always helpful to have a handy answer guide. And Mother Nature always gives open book tests – it’s up to us to learn how to use it.

This is why studying the dinosaur matters. They have much to teach us, whether it is through 100 million year old fossils, or by teaching them to do simple math. The Great Game is being played, and I would like to see us succeed.

Do you think we will succeed?

 

[1] The book is called “My beloved Brontosaurus” by Brian Switek.

Read more about it here: http://books.scientificamerican.com/fsg/books/my-beloved-brontosaurus/

and see his website here: http://brianswitek.com/