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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
08/14/09 -- Vol. 28, No. 7, Whole Number 1558
Table of Contents
Acknowledgement (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
This week's MT VOID is brought to you by the Pre-Owned-Humvee Owners Exchange. Buy a used Humvee today. Humvee: because God hates bad drivers as much as you do. [-mrl]
Science Fiction Discussion Groups:
August 27: THE BEST OF FREDERIK POHL, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM September 10: BLADERUNNER (based on Philip K. Dick's DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP?), Middletown (NJ) Public Library, film at 5:30PM, discussion of film and book after film
Encedalus Calamity (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Stephen Hunt of Science Fiction Crow's Nest says, "Earth's ocean life is dying, Saturn's moons are next--act now to save our alien fishy friends' lives before it's too late. Do you really want to have an extraterrestrial dolphin's death on your line-caught fish- cake munching tentacles? No, you don't!"
In fact, the situation may be worse than he realizes. I think overfishing is an important issue, and it may already be too late. I think it is very probably true that Enceladus fish populations are down a whopping 30% from last (Terran) year at this time. I suspect one in three surviving fish on Enceladus will be gone a year from now. [-mrl]
Ants and the Holy Grail (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
There is a comic bit in the film MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL in which during plague time in history a man comes around to pick up the dead. One such dead man is brought out to the cart over his protests that he is not dead yet. What follows is an argument over whether the man is dead or not with the man unsuccessfully taking the negative position. It all seems very funny in the movie, but at Harvard that scene was played out for real with ants. E. O. Wilson convinced an ant colony that one of their members, still very much alive, was dead. The ant was carried not once but several times to the ant graveyard, all the while struggling and trying to escape the self-appointed undertaker ant.
What was going on here? It all has to do with the question how do ants know when one of their number is dead. Well, as we are told in THEM!, ants do not see very well at all. We do not think about it very much, but the first clues we have that a human has died are frequently visual clues. Ants do not see well enough to know whether another ant is just inactive or is actually dead. They can be excused then for a behavior that in human society is much less forgivable. They ignore corpses in their path. If an ant drops dead the other ants just ignore her and walk around her. Ants make very good teams at some activities, but they do not have the perception or the attitude to worry much about a dead ant in their midst.
After walking around a dead ant for about two days, suddenly it becomes obvious that this is a dead ant. At that point some other ant will realize that ant is dead and will pick her up and take her to the ant cemetery where all the ants by mutual consent take their dead. I wonder how the undertaker ant feels about coming here, where she knows she will probably spend eternity, at least if all goes well. And it is not much of a reward for loyal service. The dead ant just no longer can help the colony and so is just thrown on a pile of other dead ants. There is little place in an ant colony for sentiment.
So what is it about two days that it takes that long for ants to realize another ant is dead? Well, as you might suspect, it is the fact that the ant has started to decompose. An ant that is decomposing creates new chemicals that smell different from those of a living ant. After two days of death an ant gives off a smell of ant-death. Then another passing ant says, "Hey, this gal is not just inactive, she has actually passed on to join the choir invisible. This is a dead ant."
Wilson investigated for several weeks dealing with all sort of repugnant odors until he found which one it was that signals to other ants "don't call me for tea," or whatever the ant equivalent is. He finally found that apparently it was oleic acid. That was a major ingredient of margarine (at one time called "oleo"). People eat it as an emulsifier in foods, but to ants it signals DEATH!
Wilson put a drop on an ant in an ant colony and immediately the ant knew something was wrong and tried to clean it off. While she was struggling to do that another ant came along and said, "Ah, a dead ant. I have to take this one out to the graveyard." She picked up the ant and headed out to the cemetery. The victim ant struggled as if to say, "Hey, I am not dead yet. I just have this stinky stuff on me." Well, the volunteer undertaker ant was not convinced. This may have been a particularly lively corpse, but you cannot fool an ant nose (or whatever it is that an ant smells with). So, like a situation from PREMATURE BURIAL, the living ant was taken to the graveyard. Undeterred she picked herself up and returned to the colony. In human terms this would have been really scary for observers, but ant observers take it pretty much in stride. So the zombie ant returns to the colony and what do you think happened? That's right. The next ant happened along and said, "Oh, a dead ant, and the process repeated itself.
They say, "If fifty people tell you you're dead, lay down!!!" That was what the other ants were trying to tell this ant. Well, the zombie ant saw the fallacy in that line of reasoning right away. In a triumph of Cartesian reasoning rarely seen in arthropoda, she said to herself, "I wiggle, therefore I am."
After an hour or so of cleaning and unpleasant rides the one-time zombie started getting friendly responses from the other ants. That is she was completely ignored which presumably is the best that a worker ant can hope for. The ant returned to her tasks with a better view of the finiteness of all things ant.
Hypothesis VV and Hydrothermal Vents (comments by Lee Beaumont):
In response to Mark's comments on parallel life in the 08/07/09 issue of the MT VOID, Lee Beaumont writes:
I enjoyed your article on parallel life genesis.
I wonder if the life forms sustained by hydrothermal vents form a separate evolutionary tree.
See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydrothermal_vent, especially the "Biological Community" section.
These life forms seem so different from the photosynthesis-based forms we are primarily familiar with that perhaps they have developed independently.
I assume the answer to this is known, but not to me. [-lrb]
Mark replies, "I hope someone can answer, but it could have been a gradual adaptation moving closer to heat vents a bit at a time." [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Will Durant is best known for his eleven-volume "Story of Civilization". THE GREATEST MINDS AND IDEAS OF ALL TIME (ISBN-13 978-0-743-23553-2, ISBN-10 0-743-23553-3) is a collection of his essays from various sources. Unfortunately, many of the things Durant says do not enhance his reputation as an historian. For example, he says that reason allowed us to defeat the dinosaur. We did not defeat the dinosaur, by reason or otherwise. While he wrote before the discovery of the KT layer that led us to the knowledge of the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, he should have known that they died off millions of years before reason arose. He also extrapolates from the idea that general intelligence is required for progress to the idea that genius is required for progress, which is not necessarily true. (Durant definitely subscribes to the "Great Man" theory of history.)
He also says things such as "[Bach] also had time to have twenty children." This is hardly an accomplishment per se. Now if Mrs. Bach had written all the music as well as having twenty children.... (My point, in case it is not clear, is that merely to father twenty children requires very little time.) He talks about "the educated man" and "masculine poetry" as an ideal, and so on. He rhapsodizes ancient Greece was a glorious civilization, but then talks about how Rome was defeated by slavery without ever explaining why slavery was okay in Greece.
His list are at times idiosyncratic. His "Ten Greatest Geniuses" are Confucius, Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Nicolai Copernicus, Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, Voltaire, Immanual Kant, and Charles Darwin. His "Ten Greatest Poets" are Homer, King David, Euripides, Lucretius, Li Po, Dante, William Shakespeare, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Walt Whitman.
When talking about the "Ten Greatest Achievements", he says that measuring progress should be objective, not subjective, so we cannot define it through happiness. Then he defines progress as "increased control over the environment/external world." It is not clear that this is any less subjective. (The achievements are speech, fire, the conquest of animals [both domestication and the ability to kill predators], agriculture, social organization, morality, tools, science, education, and writing/printing.)
The audiobook version has a whole set of additional problems. The reader mispronounces many words and names, including Flaubert, Goethe, and As(h)oka. But even more, listening to an essay which is primarily a list of "the hundred books necessary for a good education" does not give one much chance to retain the information. These turn out to be mostly texts and overviews--not "The Great Books"--and one suspects many of them are either outdated, unavailable, or both.
As I said, although the brief biographies et al are somewhat informative, I do not think that this book enhances Durant's reputation.
What is the name of the first identifiable European child born in North America? What you probably learned in school was Virginia Dare. These days they might acknowledge that there were plenty of children with some European heritage born in Mexico before her. But I don't think anyone learns that the first European child born in North America was Snorri Karlsefnisson, sometime about 1011. (In a sense, this is similar to how we are taught that the first novel was Samuel Richardson's PAMELA (1740), or possibly even Miguel de Cervantes's DON QUIXOTE (1605), with no mention of Lady Murasaki's TALE OF GENJI (1020).)
But it is clear from the Icelandic sagas that this was the case. It may not be clear where in North America Thorfinn Karlsefni established his settlement, but it is clear from the descriptions of the native inhabitants that it was North America. (Leif Eiriksson explored it a few years earlier, but Thorfinn was the first settler.)
The sagas are available from Penguin Books as THE VINLAND SAGAS (ISBN-13 978-0-140-44776-7, ISBN-10 0-140-44776-8), translated by Keneva Kunz, with an introduction by Gisli Sigurdsson. (The Penguin edition I read was translated by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson, with the introduction by them as well, so it was almost an entirely different book!) Both editions include "Graenlendinga Saga" and "Eirik's Saga", as well as a long introduction on history, literature, etc., a glossary of proper names, and several maps. I have not seen the new edition; one suspects that there have been many discoveries affecting the belief in the accuracy or translation of various parts.
For example, Chapter 5 of "Eirik's Saga" mentions Thjodhild's Church, but the 1932 excavations of Eirik's farmstead at Brattahlid/Kagssiarssuk found no such building. So people used this as an example of the inaccuracy/unreliability of the saga. Then in 1961 a workman digging in Kagssiarssuk found remains and when that area was excavated, a very small medieval church was found which is now believed to be Thjodhild's Church.
There is definitely some humor in the sagas: "They stayed there [Straumfjord] that winter, which turned out to be a very severe one; they had made no provision for it during the summer, and now they ran short of food and the hunting failed. They moved out to the island in the hope of finding game, or stranded whales, but there was little food to be found there, although their livestock throve. Then they prayed to God to send them something to eat, but the response was not as prompt as they would have liked." ["Eirik's Saga", Chapter 8] Perhaps the best-known, though, is "[Eirik] named the country he had discovered Greenland, for he said that people would be much more tempted to go there if it had an attractive name." ["Graenlendinga Saga", Chapter 1]
And why was I reading these? Because we were visiting L'Anse aux Meadows, the site on the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland where they had discovered a Viking site dating from around 1000. Actually, "Viking" is probably an inaccurate term. "Viking" was a verb, not a noun. More accurately, it was a Norse, Icelandic, or Greenlander settlement, depending on how you parse the geopolitics of the era. [-ecl]
[The first European child born in the New World was most likely a Clovis and would likely have been born 9500 BCE or thereabouts. Clovis probably came from the areas we now call France or Spain. The oldest human fossils found in the Americas are probably of European origin.
Durant says it was "we" who defeated the dinosaurs. But he does not say what that includes. It is possible that "we" did defeat the dinosaurs where "we" refers to me and a certain asteroid. -mrl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: The meaning of life is whatever you want it to be. --Nic Chappell
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