Category Archives: Religion & Philosophy

Water Into Wine

The Son of Man. The Lamb of God. The King of Kings. The Knave of Hearts. The Sultan of Swat. Jesus of Nazareth, also known as the Prince of Peace, and in America, the God of War, was said to perform a string of miracles at the beach town of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee in Israel. One of them involved catching a great deal of fish with one net. Another, feeding several thousand people with very little food. And yet another involved walking on water to meet a boat full of his disciples, who were caught in a sudden storm.

"Duuuuude! Watch out for that waaaaaaave!"

Now, Clarke’s Third Law states that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” So nowadays, the miracle of the modern fishing industry, with its deep-sea trawlers, 150-mile longlines, and space-age tracking and echolocation technology, ensure that our nets can catch hundreds of thousands of fish at a time. (Though not for much longer.) And genetic engineering, bolstered by mechanized farming and artificial fertilizers, ensures we can feed the multitudes. (Though not for much longer.) But biologically and technologically speaking, how miraculous is it to walk on water?

Stroke! Stroke! Stroke!

Not very, if you’ve got the right tools, and the right size. The most classic example of animal locomotion on the water’s surface is the water striders, or water skaters, or water scooters, or any of the other collective names for these 500 species of insects that make up the Gerridae family. They are hunters that use surface tension to their advantage; where prey might swim, they float like a bubble. Their short front legs are for grabbing, their middle pair for “skating,” and the hind pair act as rudders. The secret to their unsinkability is the hydrophobic hairs on their legs. Each leg is covered in thousands of fine filaments called microsetae that spread the weight out on the water’s electric “skin” of surface tension, and the grooves in each filament trap tiny air bubbles which add to their buoyancy. So powerful is the effect that a water strider could carry fifteen times its own weight and still remain afloat, and a few species have even adapted to walk the waves of the open ocean.

The ability to walk on water kind of goes to their heads.

But it’s not only insects that have the ability to walk on water. A few reptiles have also evolved to stay high and dry. And more advanced insects have discovered not just how to walk on water, but how to turn water into wine.

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The Mistletoe Rant

It is Yuletide Plants Week on The Quantum Biologist! This week, we’ll take a closer look at three plants that make the Christmas season special — both the fascinating social histories of them, and the biology behind the myth.

Christmas has its cultural traditions, and its private ones. I’m sure your family has its own peculiar private traditions. Perhaps your Uncle Frank hits the eggnog too hard and reenacts the Siege of Khe Sanh in the living room every year. Or maybe you annually try to recreate Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Falling Water” in gingerbread. If you hew closely to old cultural traditions, you might tack up a sprig of mistletoe. But since you probably don’t, you are then a potential victim of one of my personal private traditions, which is ranting to anyone who will listen about what a shame it is that mistletoe isn’t a cultural tradition anymore.

Pucker up, Poindexter.

It must have been phased out so gradually that few noticed its disappearance. But somehow, mistletoe has gone the way of sugar plums and other grand old British Christmas traditions that now exist mainly in carols and poems, perennially perplexing small children. (I still don’t know what “figgy pudding” is. I just know I want some.) Perhaps mistletoe was used once too often by sad, goofy bachelors at holiday parties, a sprig of it dangling from a hat like a an anglerfish’s unlucky lure. Perhaps it fell prey to our cultural ignorance and mistrust of wild plants; nevermind how many deadly poisons we willingly invite under our sinks, mistletoe has the reputation as the thing that can kill your dog. Or maybe, despite the Free Love revolution of the ’60s and ’70s, we’ve actually become more prudish about kissing strangers. Whatever the reason, the decline of mistletoe, to me, speaks volumes about its dangerous power. Like an ancient god of Love and Thunder, its deadly and erotic potential is simply too overwhelming for today’s passive society, and its shrines have been abandoned in the woods. Let’s examine how the mistletoe tradition started, and how the biology of the plant created the legend surrounding it.

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Raiders of the Ark

To the builders of Ark Encounter, a state-sponsored theme park in Kentucky espousing that the flood in Genesis was a historical event: While carpenters you must have many, and animal handlers at least a few, I imagine you don’t have a proper biologist on your crew. Before you build a replica of the famous Ark, let me give you a few pointers that may help you with construction:

  • There are between 3 and 30 million species of animal on Earth. Perhaps more.
  • 40,000 of these are spiders, and perhaps 1 million of those species are beetles. Happy hunting.
  • The Ark was supposedly 300 x 50 x 30 cubits — a “cubit” being about 18 inches — which means the boat was roughly 450 x 75 x 45 feet, or roughly the same carrying capacity as 569 railroad freight cars. No doubt your carpenters and engineers already know this. What your engineers may not have accounted for is that 569 train cars filled with 1,600 tons of animals do not float.
  • Especially not when you include the aquarium. You may have thought that Noah at least got to ignore the aquatic animals, but unfortunately, when you flood the Earth with freshwater until it covers the mountains, neither most freshwater nor most saltwater animals can survive. The ocean’s salinity level would have been merely “brackish,” a mix of salty water and fresh which most aquatic animals cannot tolerate. So you’ll want to account for several trillion gallons of water in several wooden aquariums, including potable freshwater for yourself and the terrestrial animals.
  • Might want to reconsider the size of a “cubit,” huh?
  • The ark is typically pictured with a single pair of giraffes, their heads sticking out like a couple loaves of french bread in a grocery bag. There are at least five subspecies of giraffe. Please do not forget all your giraffe-holes.
  • There was undoubtedly a separate room for the Tasmanian devils and the honey badgers. Probably a dungeon, with restraints.
  • A giant panda consumes between 20 and 40 lbs of bamboo daily. Account for storage capacity for 6,300 lbs of bamboo for your pandas alone. The elephants will need 60 tons of food for themselves.
  • In Genesis 7:2-3, it says:

    Of every clean beast thou shalt take to thee by sevens, the male and his female: and of beasts that are not clean by two, the male and his female.

    Of fowls also of the air by sevens, the male and the female; to keep seed alive upon the face of all the earth.

    This means that only the “unclean” animals were taken in single pairs, while “clean” animals were taken 14 at a time. Given that there are roughly 10,000 birds on Earth, for example, that means your Ark has to account for 140,000 individual birds. Even squeezed tight, there is not enough floor space on your current Ark model for the 100,000 square feet of newspaper Noah needs to change every day.

  • Here’s a trickier question: Where did Noah keep the termites? As an “unclean” animal, perhaps there were only two of each species aboard, a queen and a male. But the paradox here is that a giant anteater, which primarily eats termites, will eat 30,000 in a single day. And as it lacks teeth of any kind, or hydrochloric acid in its stomach as most mammals have (the formic acid from its ant and termite prey works just as well), you have to feed the anteater termites. So, ignoring the pangolins, the tuandaras, the aardwolves, the numbats, and all other anteaters and ant-eaters, a single pair of giant anteaters would need 12.6 million termites to survive the 7-month journey. Seeing how the Ark is built entirely of wood, you can see how this might present a problem.

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  • Kingdom Come

    “God made bees, but the devil made wasps”
    -German Proverb

    I’ve always hated wasps. They seemed like bees’ evil cousins. Bees, I was told as a boy, wouldn’t bother you if you didn’t bother them. (Though it’s hard not to bother them when you don’t know they’re in your can of Coke.) Bees make honey. They pollinate flowers. When combined with birds, they somehow make babies. Wasps, however, have all the sting with none of the sweetness. They don’t even have the decency to die when they sting you, which makes them extra fearless. They hover over food court trash cans and investigate the sweat on your forehead, waving wildly like a gun in a madman’s hand.

    I’ve always hated wasps, but only when I began studying zoology did I learn how insidious they truly are. There are wasps that lay eggs in ants’ brains, and wasps that zombify cockroaches in order to keep them as living incubators of their young. (Not that I have any great love for roaches, either.) But perhaps the most striking example of their nefariousness is one wasps’ epic battle with a butterfly, in which both species toy with a colony of ants like gods might begin world wars between mere mortals.

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    Broomsticks & Toad Skins

    I can’t tell whether it’s the advent of Halloween or these particular midterm elections, but witches have been on everyone’s mind lately. Until I was about 9 years old, I grew up near Salem, Massachusetts, the ground zero of American witchcraft, so I happen to know a few things about brides of Satan. I remember poring through an old book about the origins of Halloween around that time and staring at an illustration of the source of the myth about flying broomsticks. I wasn’t sure quite what I was seeing, but I got the sense that I was somehow less innocent for seeing it.

    Have you ever watched a neighborhood game of Quidditch and wondered, Ow, doesn’t that totally hurt their nards? If you’ve ever ridden a professional racing bike, imagine the seat of that bicycle in your crotch as you swoop and dive at several thousand feet; the average witch’s nightly commute would feel like a series of hits to the junk with a whiffle bat. It turns out, there’s a reason witches fly bareback instead of saddled. The “flying” practiced by real witches was closer to what we call “tripping.” During coven rituals, women would apply hallucinogenic ointments which numbed the flesh and produced the sensation of flying. An anesthetic rubbed on bare feet created the illusion of lift-off, and a mash of mandrake root, full of psychoactive alkaloids, gave the women visions of delivering packages around Japan on a sunny afternoon (good trip) or flying through a tornado and having a house dropped on them (bad trip). But the drug couldn’t be ingested orally; that would be nauseating as well as slow-working. The most effective way to absorb the alkaloids was through the mucous membrane of the labia, applied to a wooden shaft of some kind. This is how a 9-year old boy in a public library found a picture of a bunch of naked ladies galloping around the room with broomsticks rubbing their hoo-has, high off their asses, and how I discovered the true meaning of Halloween.

    But “flying ointment” was not always pure mandrake. Other varieties of hallucinogens were added to the recipe, including ergot, that psychoactive fungus which got the witches of Salem in such hot water. And I have heard tell that some recipes included the poison of the common toad, that eternal emblem of Halloween. Those rumors are at least mostly false. But the truth about psychoactive toads, as always with truth, is stranger than fiction.

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    His animal collections from the Amazon rainforest made lesser zoologists weep. He traveled into the jungle with the finest scientific equipment of his time, each instrument cradled in its own velvet-lined box. Thomas Jefferson once invited him to the White House, just to bask in his genius. Where ever he walked, he got a standing ovation. He was called “the greatest scientific explorer who ever lived”… by Charles Darwin.

    He was… the most interesting naturalist in the world.

    Ich weiß nicht immer Bier trinken, aber wenn ich das tue, ziehe ich Zwei XX.

    That Alexander von Humboldt does not enjoy household name recognition is a testament to American scientific illiteracy. During the 19th century, he enjoyed rock star status around the world for his contributions to geology, meteorology, and zoology, and for his books recounting his adventures in the jungles of Latin America. Edgar Allan Poe dedicated his last poem to him. “Every scientist is a descendant of Humboldt,” said Emil du Bois-Reymond, the father of neurology. “He is the true discoverer of America,” said Simón Bolívar.

    Though the word “ecology” didn’t exist yet, Humboldt was among the first scientists to view nature as a holistic, interconnected web, and as such he studied everything about a place’s environment wherever he traveled, from barometric pressure to soil samples. Scientific data, not religion or ideals, ruled his discipline to a degree never before achieved in field biology. During his long career, he advanced the science of volcanism, tested the bioluminescent properties of jellyfish and the electrogenerative powers of electric eels, dissected the larynx of the howler monkey, realized the use of bat guano as a fertilizer, figured out the correlation between plant species and altitude, discovered ocean currents and weather patterns, made the only reliable map of South America at the time, and met such species as the Humboldt penguin, the colossal Humboldt squid, and a subspecies of Amazon river dolphin living in the Orinoco river, Inia geoffrensis humboldtiana.

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    Altitude & Apotheosis

    At a cruising altitude of 30,000 feet, an airplane pilot doesn’t expect to hit roadkill. After all, Mount Everest, the world’s tallest mountain, is 29,029 feet above sea level, and the paper-thin air at its peak is hardly substantial enough for any animal to breathe for long. If you’ve ever been on a plane, you know what 30,000 feet looks like: far above the clouds, you can’t see cars on the road, but you can see the ends of the Earth. Imagine, then, the surprise of that pilot flying over Côte d’Ivoire in 1973 on a transcontinental trip, breathlessly calling in to air traffic control, Abidjan, this is TWA Flight 498 at a cruising altitude of 11,000 meters. And I think… I think we just hit a bird.

    Rüppell’s Griffon Vulture is the highest-flying bird in the world, reaching a world-record 36,100 feet above sea level — 14 miles high. (The first-place reward for that particular vulture was to be sucked into a jet’s turbines. No capes!) It can achieve this dizzying height because of its unique blood, which contains a special hemoglobin agent called alpha-D which bonds with oxygen extremely efficiently. But it’s one thing to know how it survives in the upper troposphere, and another to know why any animal would remove itself so far from the Earth.

    The vulture was named for Eduard Rüppell, a German naturalist on tour in Northern Africa in the 1820’s and 30’s. Rüppell, being from a wealthy and educated family, was supremely comfortable back at home, yet chose one of the most uncomfortable places for a Northern European to explore: the Sahara and the deserts of Saudi Arabia, Israel, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt. Essentially, he was sauerkraut on toast. But his contributions to zoology opened up the study of a region heretofore unknown to Western science: the desert ecosytem. Rüppell was the first biologst to speculate on why the desert fox has enormous ears (in, of course, a pre-Darwinian way) and observe the scimitar oryx in situ. And watching those minute specks wheeling above him in a blindingly blue sky until they disappeared from sight, he considered the vulture.

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