How Do Scientists Know?

Those scientists dudes–and dudenas–are so smart! They can tell you how much oxygen a dinosaur was using. They can figure out where the bubonic plague came from, 700 years ago. They can use new computers to rescan old pictures to look for earth-nudging asteroids. Exploring the universe with tools, logic, and an understanding of the behavior of things, they can describe what happened in places they can’t see and have never gone. Knowledge spreads ever-so-slightly outward into the vastness of the unknown.

Drawing of Dr. Jasmina Wiemann’s test subjects from scitechdaily.com.

Strangely enough, it gives me a warm and fuzzy sense of comfort. As the kids say, Science gives you All the Feels. But let’s not get it tangled up with Belief.

Hot Blood Begets Hot Thoughts and Hot Deeds

Whether dinosaurs were hot-blooded or cold-blooded is a century-old argument. It was two whole classes in my semester of Paleontology 2A, back in the 1980s. Dr. Jasmina Wiemann at CalTech may have come across clues that explain why it’s been so hard to determine. The answer is a little of both.

Dinosaurs were reptiles. They lay eggs, and they don’t have fur/hair–I will spare you the much longer explanation involving clades. Modern reptiles are cold-blooded, ectothermic; they rely on external sources to raise body temperature enough to move around. They have slow metabolisms, so are very thrifty with their energy movements. Mammals and other creatures are endothermic or warm-blooded, with fast metabolisms. We can move around even when it’s not warm or sunny, even though we’d rather burrow under the covers. And some of us have such low metabolisms that even thinking about Cheetos causes bloating. But I digress.

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Let Me Tell You About the Birds and the Bees

In a marriage ceremony from a 1940s black-and-white comedy, the priest begins by invoking the birds and the bees. He keeps getting interrupted, which is an in-joke because the two at the altar are really supposed to marry other people. However, the real joke is the reference to birds and bees and marriage.

As this is spring, where a young ‘uns fancy turns to thoughts of love, and this is 2021, where some still point to Nature as evidence that heterosexual monogamy and genders are rigid, it’s worth thinking about. Because then they mention the birds and bees. Well, what do we all know about bees?

Research shows queen bees communicate honestly. Photo by Bernardo Ni, Penn State.

If Not Three Genders, then Three of Something

When a mommy bee and daddy bee love each other very much… oh, no. That’s not how it works. Let’s go to sixth grade biology. There are queen bees, worker bees, and drone bees. For the sake of simplicity, let’s say we’re taught that the queens and workers are females and the drones are male. All the drones do is help in reproduction. They try to mate with queens. If they’re successful, they die from the experience. If they aren’t able to mate and still hang around the hive when food gets scarce, the workers will kick them out, and they die. Limited functionality, you might say. They do contribute to genetic diversity, which some explanations say counters the idea that the drone is the “most ineffective and unhelpful bee in the hive.” But the genetic diversity comes about because the queen mates with multiple drones, so arguably the queen is providing the diversity.

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Fate Has Already Been Decided

The Norns, weaving the past, present, and future. Artwork by Arthur Rackham.

Warning: Spoilers ahead for the TV series “The Travelers,” “The Umbrella Academy,” and the movie Interstellar, as well as The Time Machine, Star Trek’s “City on the Edge of Forever,” and Oedipus Rex. Plus thinking about things that make your head hurt.

Wyrd bið ful aræd: Fate is unalterable.
(“weird bidth ful ah-red”)

Old English poem The Wanderer and Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories

The Norse understood about Fate because their worldview envisioned Norns, Weird (Wyrd) Sisters who controlled all that happened, weaving the giant tapestry of our lives. The sisters represented what was, what is, and what is to be.  One Old English poet summed it up in that “weird” saying: Fate is unalterable. The Greeks understood it, too, at least the ones that told the story of Oedipus.

Science fiction writers are kind of on the fence.

Recently, I have been binge-watching series that happen to address time travel. We’ve gotten so used to this as a subject that we take for granted certain conventions, namely that it’s possible in a sci fi story to go back and change something in the past to alter the future. But what if it turns out that isn’t possible? What happens when Wyrd bið ful aræd — the idea that the future can’t be changed–smashes into the quantum technology that allows movement through time? Time travel, meet the Norns.

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