January 29, 2019

When Temperatures Climb, Bodies Shrink

There's more and more talk (justly so, in my opinion) of global warming. This effect, though not new (NASA states that "just in the last 650,000 years there have been seven cycles of glacial advance and retreat, with the abrupt end of the last ice age about 7,000 years ago), still engenders dramatic (even catastrophic) changes. And the increase in temperatures we're seeing now, is the most rapid one the world has seen thus far (the increase in CO2 levels that caused the Great Dying, aka the greatest extinction event ever seen on Earth, was only 1/10th of the current increase rate we're seeing now).

One of these changes, as studied by Jennifer A. Sheridan and David Bickford, is the change in body size. Or, to be more precise, its shrinking. Which, as stressed out in their paper, "could negatively impact both crop plants and protein sources such as fish that are important for human nutrition." An ever more pressing issue as the global population keeps expanding, despite doing so at a slowing rate.

Here are some interesting details from their paper:

  1. The increase in temperatures and the resulting change in rain patterns will affect every organism on the planet.
  2. However, although each organism should see "shrinkage", this won't happen all at once nor equally across all species, which means that our whole ecosystem will be even more out of balance.
  3. What will shrink? Everything, including:
    1. Oysters, scallops, and corals (some of which may even disappear entirely since they wouldn't be able to form exoskeletons anymore).
    2. Phytoplankton, which is the food base for most marine life, and, incidentally, is also the plant that absorbs most of the CO2 on Earth.
    3. For every 1°C of temperature increase, the following drops in mass/size are expected (as examples):
      1.  fruit: 3-17%
      2. marine invertebrates: 0.5-4%
      3. fish: 6-22%
      4. beetles: 1-3%
      5. salamanders: 14%
  4. The downsizing trend has already started, by the way, and evidenced through studies of creatures in the wild as well as those subject to commercial harvesting. These organisms include polar bears, red deer, toads, squirrels, birds, plants, sheep. Scientists and farmers have also seen that cows follow the same trend in hotter temperatures, thereby also producing less milk.
    Source: Journal of Dairy Science
  5. Evidence of such massive size reduction is also supported by fossils, which show, for example:
    1. Bees, wasps, spiders, beetles, ants, and cicadas shrank by 50-75% in size almost 55 million years ago, when global temperatures suddenly jumped 3-7°C and rainfalls dropped by ~40%. 
    2. Similar shrinking was observed on small mammals during other global warming periods:
      1. An early horse got 14% smaller (granted, it wasn't a very big horse to begin with, going from the size of a dog to that of a cat)
      2. Early primates got 4% smaller.
  6. Other changes to expect from global warming:
    1. Melting glaciers.
    2. Rising sea levels (definitive flooding of land).
    3. Acidification of all water sources--marine and fresh.
    4. Increased ultraviolet-B radiation (risks to humans include: skin cancer, reduced immune response to Herpes, skin lesions, harm the spleen, eye problems; risks to plants include: impaired photosynthesis so less oxygen's produced, size reduction, drop in overall production, increased susceptibility to disease, changed flowering pattern).
    5. Increased fire frequency.
    6. Less rain/precipitation globally; and for those places with more rainfall, will see it happen all at once, with long stretches of water limitation.
    7. Subtropics will get drier while much of the equatorial and high-latitude regions will get wetter (fewer habitable areas for humans)--linked to points 5 and 6.
    8. Nutrient loss (either to excessive soil nitrogen loss through fires, or leaching due to too much rain at once).
    9. Extermination of many species that can't adapt quickly enough.

I know. Lots of data to take in. And scary. A few percentage points might not seem like much, but they can mess up the balance of life on earth completely.

Already, as reported in The New Yorker in 2018, the number of chronically-malnourished people and the number of children forced into labor has started to grow again, "driven in part by an increase in conflicts and climate-induced disasters."  And that's "only" with a 1°C increase over pre-industrial temperatures. The article also mentions other effects from global warming that we're suffering from right now, such as: an increase in Lyme disease (Are there ticks on that beautiful green lawn? Should I still have my BBQ party?), proliferation of jellyfish (paddling among a cloud of medusas while out surfing doesn't sound so cool).

It's going to happen, it's happened before. The question is, by how much will temperatures rise, how quickly, and will we be ready to face the consequences (or have solutions to help protect our flora and fauna as much as possible) when the time comes?
N. America after sea levels rise due to ice melts
Europe after sea levels rise due to the melting of the ice caps

NASA - Global Climate Change
World Population Clock
Shrinking body size as an ecological response to climate change, by Jennifer A. Sheridan and David Bickford
Global warming shrank animals in the past, article in USA Today, March 18, 2017
How Extreme Weather is Shrinking the Planet, by Mill McKibben for The New Yorker, November 26, 2018
What the world would look like if all the ice melted, National Geographic
Ultraviolet Radiation: How it Affects Life on Earth, NASA - Earth Observatory

January 22, 2019

Please Wash Your Hands

Before germs were "discovered" (proof of which was brought by Louis Pasteur between 1860 and 1864), Hungarian ob-gyn at the Vienna general hospital, Ignaz Semmelweis, guessed that the death of his friend, Dr. Jakob Kolletschka, was he was infected by the very doctors who'd tried to heal him.

So in 1847, Dr. Semmelweiss made his staff clean their hands before helping patients to prevent the latter from succumbing to what he called "invisible poison." Turned out this saved numerous lives (the mortality rate in his department dropped from 12% to 2.4%, and again to 1.3% when the order was given to anyone helping with childbirth).
Baron Joseph Lister, pioneer of antiseptic surgery,
idea first developed by Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis

But, as no good deed goes unpunished, Dr. Semmelweiss's colleagues started berating and insulting him, until he was finally fired from the hospital. He did find work again in another hospital in Hungary, but only if he promised not to talk about this whole washing of hands business.

All this despite the obvious proof of his theory. I just don't understand why people have to be so jealous of others' findings, particularly when they're for the good of the people, instead of simply applying these new systems themselves?

In any case, Dr. Semmelweiss didn't give up on his findings, and tried to bring the subject up at the university of Budapest. But he was arrested by the police, taken back to Vienna by his Hungarian colleagues, to be placed in an asylum. Once there, the staff beat him up whenever he mentioned anything about washing hands, and he ended up dying by the unwashed hands of a doctor who, instead of healing his severe wounds, ended up giving him gangrene.

January 15, 2019

Macabre Constant

This is an entry in Bernard Werber's awesome Encyclopédie du Savoir Relatif et Absolu, which groups all eleven of his books, like The Ants, We The Gods, and Third Humanity, as well as some additional material.

It is a compendium of a lot of interesting facts, theories, thoughts (and includes a couple recipes as well), and is simply a fascinating read!

Due to the fact that these bite-size entries in his encyclopedia discuss so many varied topics, I find it also is a great source of inspiration for future stories... That's right folks, if you guys can read French (for the encyclopedia is currently only available in the author's mother tongue, or in Russian, I just found out), you may be able to find out which items I may end up using in one of my next series ;)

Here's an entry I found interesting in terms of how our society tends to organize itself...which, imho should change, but the question is: How?

(translation by yours truly)

The Macabre Constant

The name "macabre constant" comes from the researcher André Antibi. This lab director for educational sciences at the university of Paul-Sabatier in Toulouse posits that, in a classroom, the teacher has to have the following distribution among its students: 1/3 good students, 1/3 average students, and 1/3 bad students.  (My note: This is similar to grading on a curve)

What would one say of a teacher who didn't attribute a grade below B?(1) That s/he's too indulgent. For a teacher to be credible, s/he has to have 1/3 of her/his class be considered "bad students." Under societal pressure, the teacher therefore becomes a selector despite her/himself.

In a 2000 survey done on teachers and professors, 95% admitted that they felt obliged to establish a certain percentage of bad grades. However, this "macabre constant" that creates a selection based on failure, ends up making its victims lose confidence in themselves, and even discourages these students entirely. (My note: Sometimes wrongfully so. Besides, shouldn't a teacher/professor be evaluated instead on how well s/he successfully imparts knowledge instead?)
Mandelbrot set detail

André Antibi proposed, to avoid it, another system, the EBCC, or the Evaluation By Contract of Confidence (2), which consists in verifying whether the student has acquired the requisite knowledge.

One can find this principle, that rules there should be 1/3 winners, 1/3 in the middle, and 1/3 losers, is also applied outside of the scholastic system, to all human groups, as if it were necessary to have a third world, emerging countries, and industrialized countries, to keep humanity balanced.

Likewise, inside each nation, we find again this division in thirds: the poor, the middle class, and the rich.

And just like with Mandelbrot's fractals, this three-tiered scheme is reproduced indefinitely. Even in slums (just like within the middle classes, or with those in power), this distribution can be found again.

Despite all Utopian equality that's been attempted (anarchists, communists, hippies, ...), this principle of the macabre constant keeps coming back, as if it were inexorably linked to our species. 
The measure of any victory can only be undertaken based on the defeat or failure of a group of individuals designated as "losers."

Income Inequality in the USA (March 24, 2014)
From demographicpartitions.org

(1) Note that this is technically France, where the grading is out of 20, with passing grades going from 10-12, depending on the school system, so the author, B. Werber, actually said "didn't grade below a 12."
(2) In French, it's EPCC, or Evaluation par contrat de confiance.

January 8, 2019

The Birth Of Writing

Ancient Egyptians believed that writing was a gift taught to them by the god Thoth, calling their script the "words of gods," composed of hieroglyphs, or "sacred inscriptions."

His gift was meant to share wisdom with the Egyptian people, and help preserve their memory. But when he announced his deed to the god Ra, the latter told him he feared writing would actually shorten people's memories, for they would rely too much on what was written instead.

I can see both points. For myself, I rely severely on my intense note-taking to "remember" important points. Yet should I lose those notes, all that knowledge would be irrevocably lost. People also state that it's better to rely on writings, for people will make up memories or change the story over time.

But the issue is also found in written historical accounts--for aren't these subjective retellings of events? If these people chose not to write about an event, then for all intents and purposes, it's the same as erasing a part of history, right?(1) Scientists/historians try to ascertain the truth by finding different sources describing the same event that would corroborate, but that's still far from foolproof. Makes it interesting to see how different history could have been vs. what textbooks tell us, huh?

Incidentally, people tend to trust the written word more than hearsay, even if the one who wrote the book/article/post doesn't know a thing about the topic, while the speaker might be an expert in said subject. I wonder if this has to do with the fact that humans (an estimated 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual (2) )...

In any case, I find this fascinating, and is possibly one of the reasons why I enjoy mixing facts and fiction in my stories, blending them in such ways that it's sometimes difficult to tell where one ends and the other starts.

If it were up to you, how would you like to alter history (could be in big or small ways), to make it more fun or interesting?

(1) For instance, in 1054, there was a supernova explosion that was witnessed on earth (its remains now form the Crab Nebula). It was so powerful it lit up the whole sky up, then remained visible for two years after. Europe, however, is the only (sub-)continent that doesn't mention it. Why? Because back then, European scientists believed that the world/universe was fixed, and therefore no new event could ever happen or be recorded. Since they couldn't explain this particular event, the European astronomers decided not to write it down. As if it never happened.
(2) Humans Process Visual Data Better

January 1, 2019

The Power Of Words - A New Year's Resolution Based On Transformational Vocabulary

Wonder Woman inspirational power
& strength through words
~ art print by Marvin Blaine
I've been reading Anthony Robbins's inspiring book Awaken the Giant Within: How to Take Immediate Control of Your Mental, Emotional, Physical, and Financial Destiny!  It's a great book, though some examples are dated, and the basics of the content is applicable no matter what century we happen to be living in. Unless we've all turned into robots, but that's another problem altogether.

In any case, there's a section in this book that discusses the power of the word on our lives, and our ability to be happy and fulfill our self-chosen destiny thanks to it. This is because "words absolutely do filter and transform experience." For you see, "since words are our primary tool for interpretation or translation, the way we label our experience immediately changes the sensations produced in our nervous systems. You and I must realize that words do indeed create a biochemical effect."

In fact, in Words Can Change Your Brain, Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman state that "a single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress." Negative words cause our brain to create fear-inducing, stress-related hormones, while positive words stimulate the frontal lobe of our brain, which is linked to logic and reason. The frontal lobe activation by the positive word(s) will, in turn, activate other parts of the brain, like the parietal lobe (responsible for how you view yourself), and the thalamus (responsible for how you view others and reality), so that we will start feeling better about ourselves, others around us, and basically our whole world.

Robbins used as an example how one of his friends inspired him to start using the word "peeved" whenever he started feeling angry about a situation. Just the use of that word (instead of potentially stronger words like "livid" or "enraged") automatically diffuses the situation emotionally-speaking, and therefore allows him to be open to more ways to solve the problem that's suddenly appeared because he's not flooding his brain and body with stress hormones.

But Robbins doesn't just stop there. Indeed, he posits that not only do the labels we apply to how we feel/what we think alter our emotions (with the goal being that we want to more relaxed and happier beings), but that the greater our vocabulary, the easier it is for us to do so.

To illustrate this point, Robbins mentions a study that had once been undertaken in a prison, where it was found that "when inmates experienced pain, one of the few ways they could communicate it was through physical action--their limited vocabulary limited their emotional range, channeling even the slightest feelings of discomfort into heightened levels of violent anger." So the better you are at labeling your emotions, the better you become at controlling your anger (and potentially your violence), and lessening the degree of the emotions while at the same time heightening the positive one.

In an online class I took (I'm all about self-empowerment these days), the teacher stressed the fact that you can choose to be happy, and the way to do that is to realize that your thoughts--shaped by your words--affect how you feel. So it's very important to use empowering words, ones that will make you feel good about yourself and your world, words of love, and encouragement, and inspiration.

And it works! It truly, really works! I'm not saying that it's always going to be easy, that we won't feel pain or sadness (like I said, we haven't yet "evolved" into machines), but it will certainly skew our life towards the more positive side of things. So my goal (or one of them anyways, but this one's at the top of my list) is to consistently choose to be happy, and build up my vocabulary so I can describe my emotions in more variegated ways.

I'm also hoping this will allow me to become a better writer over time.

So, what word(s) of power would you like to calibrate your life to in the coming weeks, months, or years?

If we want to change our lives and shape our destiny, we need to consciously select the words we're going to use, and we need to constantly strive to expand our level of choice.
~Anthony Robbins