Space Octopus/Star Fish

Octopus Flying Saucer
Octopus E.T. from Freaking

I really wanted to find out that the octopus came from outer space. With eye stalks that rotate, suckers on its multiple arms, and a “brain” located mostly along the tentacles, the octo is curious to some and downright disturbing to others. When I saw the headline: “Alien” octopuses “arrived on earth from space as cryopreserved eggs” I had to trace the theory back to the paper in a legitimate scientific journal which suggested this intriguing occurrence.

Unfortunately, my hopes were dashed by Snopes and the article’s lack of deductive reasoning and relevant facts. Bummer! The ghost of Darwin has, for now, fended off the extraterrestrials but, as an encore, has performed biological magic with starfish.

First, an important grammar lesson. I was taught that the plural of hippopotamus is hippopotami, so that the plural of octopus would be octopi, but my mother was wrong. Octopus is not Latin–like the word radius (plural radii)–but Greek oktṓpous (ὀκτώπους, ‘eight-foot’). So the plural is octopuses (or octopedes) but never octopi.

And Moses supposes his toeses are roses…

Octopuses Are from Space, Scientists Say

In the March 2018 issue of Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology, 33 scientists submitted the paper : “Cause of Cambrian Explosion – Terrestrial or Cosmic?” Once before, a scientist used the word “alien” in 2015 when discussing his theory of octopuses, and online sites ran wild with crazy claims; but it turned out scientist Clifton Ragsdale just meant they were weird. This time the gang of 33 wasn’t quoted out of context:

…The possibility that cryopreserved Squid and/or Octopus eggs, arrived in icy bolides several hundred million years ago should not be discounted … as that would be a parsimonious cosmic explanation for the Octopus’ sudden emergence on Earth ca. 270 million years ago. — Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology, March 2018

Octopus in Space
Is the Octopus an Alien Intelligence?–Jeff

If you read Science at all–and I can speak a little Multifactorial Data although I am more fluent in Chart and Logic–this article is a very fun read. Some of the concepts were alien to me (ho ho!), but the argument seems to be:

  • There was a huge explosion of biological diversity at the start of the Cambrian era, about 270 million years ago.
  • How can we explain this giant increase in the number, type, and complexity of creatures that “suddenly” appeared in that fossil record?
  • Pretty good evidence exists that comets and space things can support life i.e. viruses and such.
  • Lots of planets could be as habitable as earth because there are so many planets and, besides, Mars.
  • It was very hot on earth in those really early billion years, so it seems super strange and highly unlikely that all of the complexity of biological life could have developed the way it did, especially since we can’t replicate it in a lab.
  • Because there are probably so many habitable planets out there, it’s more likely that life would have gotten off those planets somehow, maybe on a comet (hitchhiking?), versus life developing on earth when it was so hot and primitive and all.
  • For example, the octopus.

This Looks Like a Job for Darwin

Those darn fossils! We’re limited to what we see. If there was an explosion of diversity in the pre-Cambrian era, but the critters didn’t leave skeletons in the right kind of clay, then we wouldn’t know about them. Plus that Darwin Natural Selection thing takes place over such a long time that how do we really know? You weren’t there, were you?

So, scientists did say that octopuses were seeded from eggs on comets, but the real fun is when other scientists started debunking their theory. I loved it when Mark Carnall from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History tweeted about “jumping the octopus”

Meanwhile, Natural Selection is at work in my own back yard. In 2014, oceanographers noticed something horrible happening to the sea star Pisaster ochraceus, a starfish common to the Pacific coast. An estimated 80% of this species was lost to Sea Star Wasting Disease (SSWD) by 2015.

Plague-infested starfish
Sea Star Wasting Disease, from Laura Anderson UC Santa Cruz

Last year, however, divers started noticing hundreds of little baby starfish clinging to rocks, “a 74-fold increase in the number of juveniles surviving…” according to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Scientists compared the DNA before and after: the 80% that died off, the 20% that survived the plague, and the new li’l miracles.

The new paper’s authors … found the juveniles who are succeeding in coastal ecosystems today share a gene that resists the virus, suggesting that the virus catalyzed a process of natural selection–from The Guardian

Repopulation by cometary cryopreserved eggs was not necessary. Natural selection did its thing. The starfish who were plague-resistant thrived and repopulated the species.

If only Darwin could figure out how to do that with the bees.

Yarn Octopus and Starfish
Octo and Ochre Star, from redheartyarn

Mare Nostrum IV: Gibraltar–Everyone Wants a Piece of the Rock

…The concept of two pillars, one in the North and another in the South, in those times, would be recognised by all sailors as a religious prohibition, a warning that only the approved might pass between them. The Pillar on the right, sailing out of the Mediterranean towards the Atlantic, Westwards, would be Gibraltar, a grey limestone monolith two miles long and 1380 feet high …The Pillar on the left, on the North African coast would be a lower mountain about 400 feet high, known as Septa… [covered in bushes which] flower yellow in January through to April, presenting the impression of the fiery pillar.
–William Serfaty, The Pillars of the Phoenicians

Macaque at Gibraltar
Straits of Gibraltar, photo by Kallmaker.

Mons Calpe. Pillar of Hercules (Ἡράκλειαι Στῆλαι). Jabar Tariq. What the Neanderthals called it is unknown. The Barbary Macaques–The Rock Apes–don’t tell us their name for it either. Nowadays, most humans call it Gibraltar.

Because of an advertising campaign, Gibraltar has long been associated with safety and security. Getting a “piece of the rock” is connected to insurance which yearns for a boring, uneventful existence. However, assumptions which link Gibraltar and peace are flawed at heart. The Rock has reflected 2.6 square miles of arguments and disputed ownership for much of its human history, especially during the last five centuries. Continue reading “Mare Nostrum IV: Gibraltar–Everyone Wants a Piece of the Rock”

San Francisco, American Phoenix

1906 SF earthquake
April 18, 1906 San Francisco, photo from wikipedia

Today marks the 112th anniversary of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Watching the news of the commemoration this morning, I am struck by how the city has throughout its history managed to stand for both old and new. The more I poked around the ashes of the story of this most famous disaster, the more I realized how much it stands for rebuilding and the spirit of renewal.

Perhaps the 50th Largest Earthquake

The 1906 earthquake struck at 5:12 am and lasted for 42 seconds, less than a full minute.  The estimated Richter magnitude is 7.9, which makes it the tenth largest quake recorded in the United States. However, the frequency and size of earthquakes around the Pacific Ocean–from Sumatra to Alaska–means that the SF quake doesn’t even make the list of top forty largest earthquakes in world history.

Earthquakes were not particularly frequent or known occurrences in the fledgling California at the time. The Richter scale wasn’t to be invented for another thirty years and scientists, looking back, don’t think there was a tremendous amount of seismic activity beforehand. But, of course, that is how pressure builds up and the quake is the mechanism that allows the faults relieve themselves when they are crushed too closely together. Pressure must escape and, like a genie released from a bottle, the impact of releasing a giant force from a tiny space is hugely felt. Continue reading “San Francisco, American Phoenix”

Middle-Aged Brains are Smarter Even Though We Tend to Put our Keys in the Refrigerator

Beautiful Brain
The Stupendous Middle-Aged Brain, picture from

Of course my keys are in the laundry basket. Of course my wallet fell out of the pouch I forgot to zip. My middle-aged brain forgets the name I looked up only two minutes ago, how to fix that thing that WordPress always does, and what you just said. Last week, my wife came out of the garage with a piece of paper. “Honey, did you need this list of CDs?” Such relief!  “I was frothing at the mouth looking for that! Where did you find it!” On top of the frozen bagels.

At middle-age, we lose episodic memory. More on that later, if I make myself a note not to forget to write that part. As we age, we do lose cognitive function, and we incur an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s. But our Over-40 brains also have a lot going for them, as I learned from Barbara Strauch’s fascinating book, The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind.

Debunking the Brain Myths: Smarter than a 25-year-old

Believe it or not, we are smarter than we were and, in some ways, demonstrably smarter than a 25-year-old. Strauch cites a number of studies that have had me crowing with pride for the last week. For example, psychologist Sherry Willis of Pennsylvania State University ran a forty-year longitudinal study on the mental prowess of 6,000 participants. This Seattle Study, which covered people of multiple genders, ages, and occupations, found that they performed better on cognitive tests between age forty and sixty than at any other time in their life. Continue reading “Middle-Aged Brains are Smarter Even Though We Tend to Put our Keys in the Refrigerator”

Fun with Tariffs

They’re in the news. They’re in our history. They’re causing massive churn in the stock market. They make my eyes want to roll back in my head. Like gremlins, those wacky, pesky tariffs are back to bother us again!

They even have funny names, like Smoot-Hawley, which has to be one of the more unfortunate names for a piece of legislation, or political theater, if that’s your preferred description for a tariff. The Tariff of Abominations from 1828 at least had a zing to it. Harmonized Systems sounds like something you listen to while floating in a hot tub, looking up at the stars. Even the possible origin of the word--Tarifa--might make you think of the sirocco whistling through an oasis of palm trees.

Smoot-Hawley was a name I could never remember, when I was a wee lass back in high school AP History. The Alien & Sedition Acts was a much easier moniker because that sounds like the title of sexy sci-fi thriller, doesn’t it?  Smoot-Hawley, nope; the long “o” and lazy “aw” sounds would make my eyelashes flutter faster than a hypnotist’s swaying watch. Filmmaker John Hughes understood this dynamic because he created one of the most famous teacher scenes ever filmed, in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Continue reading “Fun with Tariffs”