Can Mammoths Stop Thawing Arctic Permafrost?

“Let’s not watch this – it is depressing, and some of that stuff makes my blood curl.”, I said as the daughter suggested some gothic fiction. It was the week-end before Halloween, and we were picking our Friday evening entertainment. Never an easy task.

“Fine! What do you want to watch?”

Cosmos” I said without flipping a heart beat. (Watch the you-tube video introducing Cosmos here)

To her eye-roll, I said “No really! You see, there are so many things in there that I wanted to understand as a student.  I plodded along to the library and I got to admit, the Physics books in there. “ I gave a shudder here, and I fully meant it. “I suggest you curl up with one of those tomes in our library looking jaundiced, pale, and excellent cures to Insomnia. I thought some of them needed vitamins, sunshine and exercise to regain what Doctors call a healthy glow. “

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So, we sat together and watched a Cosmos episode by Neil deGrasse Tyson on global warming. In his slow, sure voice, he rumbled like the volcanoes on Venus that set the poor planet into an irreversible green house cycle.

The World Set Free (Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey)

http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/cosmos-a-spacetime-odyssey/episodes/the-world-set-free/

We have twenty years at the current rate to stop us from going into an irreversible state like Venus.

The daughter gave me a significant look .I gave her a more sig. look, and we sat there looking like stuffed frogs with s. looks etched on our faces digesting the info. “How could you think this was okay to watch, but that movie was too scary. This is the scariest thing I have ever seen. How do you think it will all end?” said the daughter sounding worried, and deeply stirred.

 

A few days later, I read out a passage from the book I was reading. Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures. (Related post: Mankind trying to resurrect the woolly mammoth by impregnating Asian elephants with mammoth genes.)

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Pleistocene park  – Using 160 square kilometers of Siberian Tundra given to him by the Russian government, Zimov’s goal was repopulating the area with modern equivalents of prehistoric animals that had adapted to Arctic conditions (moose, Yakutian horses, Finnish reindeer and even North American bison.) … To re-create the effects of the Woolly Mammoths on the land, he’d bought in a World War II tank …. Punching holes in the snow, … , using the tank treads to mimic the continual stomps of Mammoth feet, he’d worked the land, year after year. And along the way, he’d accumulated data that were staggering in their implications.

Within his 16- square kilometers refuge, he had lowered the permafrost temperature by an average of fifteen degrees. 

We change the world just be being. I remember watching a video by National Geographic in which they chronicle how 41 wolves introduced in the Yellowstone park, changed the ecology and even the physical structure of the park.

Introducing Wolves in YellowStone National Park – National Geographic Video

If that was the case with 41 wolves, what would introducing Mammoths do? Would it save us from the brink of extinction or introduce problems of the kind we hardly envisioned?

We never know the ramifications of our creations. I mean we are a species who has unintended consequences from a ‘Like’ button on Social Media.

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Teapot Spirituality

Sheesh kababs! What is with Amma – is she tired and cleaning again?” said the daughter, when I acted like a teapot sliding off my tea spout.

I whistled my protest with as much dignity as a teapot sliding off the tea-sp. could when caught in the act. “There is nothing wrong with me. Merely that a lot of work needs to be done, and I cannot come and play a game of Life now. I have Life to deal with now.” The queenly dignity sounded overdone like these actresses who act for 10 dollars when paid 3. I waved my hands impressively at the surrounding environs.

It was true, at least in my mind. Pots and pans needed washing, the floors needed scrubbing, the ….

“You said you are tired at the end of the week, and it has been a tough week. You just said we escaped a fire, and we should just be thankful for Life huh? Get it. Get it? Come on now.”

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I could not argue, and after a flimsy protest, waved down by the children who helped me get the kitchen to a state of relative cleanliness, we sat around playing the game of Life. There was a serendipitous beauty to it. The evening had made me nervous and jumpy, more conscious of the gift of Life, and as usual the children had led me to the calm instead of the frenzy, with their customary élan.

Northern California had been reeling from the effect of wild fires. After an unnaturally hot summer, calamity struck too close to home for comfort. This time, it was people we had lunches with, people we holler out to when we catch a glimpse of them in crowded places. People who will slowly extend that quizzical look into a slow, wide smile as they recognize you, these were the folks asked to evacuate.

Luckily the fires had been contained, and I felt like we could look forward to a quieting down. I had spoken too soon.  That evening, flames leaped higher than trees behind our home, and smoke billowed from nearby. The bags were packed in the car: documents, some cash, a change of clothes, laptops, water bottles, snack bars, and a few pictures. When it comes to it, that is all there is, isn’t there?  Nothing else matters.

That night, everything felt keener. The comfort of putting away the dishes, the joy of playing a board game, the delight of being ordinary, the familiarity of the mundane, the contentment of a bedtime story, the gratitude for the simple act of breathing.

“I just got twins Amma.” said the son after rolling his dice.

“There goes your quiet retirement!” said the daughter, and the children went into peels of laughter, and I joined in noticing how much better it felt to laugh with abandon. I felt the 17 facial muscles work as the laughter gripped me. I observed the act of laughing together as if I was perched atop the roof, looking at us having a good time. Is this what consciousness is?

I finished the piece on resurrecting the Woolly Mammoth using genetic samples obtained from the pristine Arctic Tundra, and impregnating an Asian elephant with the questions on consciousness, and whether or not there is a Soul. I love it when a work of fiction explores the questions posed by futuristic Science, and I finished the post by tying it up with Never Let Me Go, By Kazuo Ishiguro.

Everyone knows, teapots are far from spiritual, and my understanding could make a teapot sing. If you were to explain the concept of consciousness, conscience and soul, how would you do it?

 

The Concept of Conscious Conscience

“Appa got me the Cheetos”, said the daughter sounding gleeful over dinner.

Cheetos, I had explained to her that morning, was full of food coloring, and therefore not a good idea.

“You went and asked him for that after everything I explained to you this morning? Carcinogens. You know what? I think you should look up Mammoth DNA sequences and compare and contrast it with the genome of an Asian elephant.”

“That is the world’s worst punishment ever!” she said pulling an impressive teenage affront with ease. “I don’t think anyone has been given that.”

“Well..there are several reasons you are being given that, “, I said. “One: I am reading the book that is all about resurrecting the woolly mammoth by impregnating an Asian elephant with mammoth genes. Two: Did you know that the elephant, that large an animal as it is, does not suffer from cancer? Maybe there is something in it’s genetic makeup that prevents malfunctions during cell reproduction.” I said giving her my Idiot’s Guide to Genetics lecture.

It’s true. I had just finished reading the book called “Woolly – Bringing a woolly mammoth back to life” by Ben Mersich. For someone who does not know the first thing about genetics and genome sequencing and such, this is a good book to read. It is written like a fast paced novel, moving between the lives of reclusive scientists, Sergey and Nikita Zimov in the Russian Tundra and Jy Minh’s work in Hwang Woo-Suk’s Sooam Laboratories in South Korea to George Church’s lab work in Harvard. All these efforts are working towards resurrecting the woolly mammoth using DNA samples obtained from mammoths preserved in pristine conditions in the Arctic Tundra.

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If that feels like Jurassic Park, it is, though the book explains why it is not exactly like Jurassic park, but sort of. It is Pleistocene Park – a concept that beat Jurassic Park by 2 years in conception.

If you are looking for a scientific explanation of techniques, and theory, this isn’t the book. The book is to be made into a movie, and is written as such: I can imagine the scenes leaping off the pages. Following the Russian scientists on a quest to resurrect life in the Arctic life makes a thrilling tale. Combining that with the race by Korean scientists to engineer and reverse engineer life, and scenes from a research laboratory down in Harvard makes for brilliant movie scenes. Only as the book assures you, it is not fictional. It is true. You will pause and think of ramifications, of the evil that can be wrought when powers like this fall into wrong hands, of political leaders with no qualifications dictating the genome factory.

Life from life, Minh thought, as he moved past the implantation table. Still, he couldn’t shake the chills he felt as he thought of those 3 dogs, lying supine, tongues hanging to the side around the breathing tubes, as the surgeons did their work. He chided himself for his own backward thinking: of course, futuristic science always seemed unnatural – until it became routine.

The discussion that evening over supper bleated over to the world’s most famous sheep, Dolly, who had been cloned in 1995. Sheep, Mammoths and Dogs make good cloning subjects for they do not yet touch the uncomfortable topic of human cloning.

http://www.businessinsider.com/sooam-biotechs-is-bringing-back-the-mammoth-2015-9

Human cloning, however, is a topic you can rely on authors to explore.

The thought provoking work by Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go is worth a read in this context. The book talks of a future in which clones are generated from a master copy, and are raised separate from mainstream society, just so that they can function as ‘givers’ and ‘carers’ – a euphemism for organ donations. It is a heart rending read, as it centers around three young people, who have the same feelings of love, jealousy and friendship that ‘mainstream’ people do. Their art work is collected by a lady, who is trying to petition the state against this barbaric practice as Art shows the soul, and clearly the ‘spares’ have souls.

Never_Let_Me_Go
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15168925

Human beings are tinkerers – we always have been. What have we in store this time?

  • Is there a concept of the Soul that is separate from the engineered parts of cells, muscle, tissue and genes?
  • Is Consciousness something that can be engineered?
  • What role does our conscience play while tinkering consciously?

Related read: Of Dinosaurs, Genes & Aliens

Sailing The Solar Winds

“So, you are saying that we have no method of seeing the images on the CD now?”

“Not without a Windows machine. We have an external CD drive that we can mount, but if you do not have a Windows machine, you cannot install the software to load those particular images – yes.”

The husband looked sheepish. He is the tech enthusiast between the pair of us – a mellow one compared to some of our friends, I will grant him that. But I felt sorry for the fellow as he said we will not be able to install and retrieve the images on the disk. He is the one who feels elated when a new breakthrough happens that will disrupt storage as we know it, and all that lark.

I was holding a CD that contained some images that could be retrieved by the software also on the CD. I had been given the disc in 2017, and I was attempting to see the images in 2017. I could not. I live in a home spotted freely with software engineers. We trip over cables, hunt for laptops and so on.

I looked at the CD disc in my hand, and burst out laughing.

To think that we sent the Arecibo message to a star cluster some 25,000 light years away hoping that extra terrestrial life will receive and interpret it. Carl Sagan and an impressive set of folks came up with a message that showed humans, a double helix, numbers, elements and so much more. Read all about it here:

Arecibo Message

Arecibo_message.svg
Image attribution: By Arne Nordmann (norro) – Own drawing, 2005, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=365130

How confident we are that if intelligent beings do receive some radio messages, they will have the technology to extract it in the format we sent it to them in forty years ago. Just for fun, I’d like to see what would happen if that dratted message were to flop back onto Earth because of a series of mis-bumps along the way. We would first drive ourselves into a tizzy that beings of another planet reached out to us, and then I am not sure we would be able extract our own message.

I was reading an article recently about human beings sending a probe to our nearest galactic neighbor, Alpha Centauri.

$100-Million Plan Will Send Probes to the Nearest Star

The article talks about using “light sails” to ride those beams to other stars. I quote:

Although they have no mass, the photons in a sunbeam do carry momentum. In sufficient numbers they can push objects around in the vacuum of space. Bounce enough photons off a large reflective spacecraft and light alone can continuously accelerate it without the need for any onboard fuel, much like a sailboat catching a ride on the wind. Such spacecraft are called “solar sails.” This elegant idea goes back more than 400 years, to the German astronomer Johannes Kepler, who noted that a wind seemed to blow comet tails away from the sun, and that it might someday be harnessed to push a celestial vessel through the “heavenly air.”

The explanation makes my head swim somewhat. They plan to send the probe that will zoom past Alpha Centauri in 20 years time, and hope to see images of an earth-like planet orbiting the star.

But hopefully we catch something worth catching, since as Stephen Hawking so elegantly put it:

Stephen Hawking explained his support for the project as less about science and more about survival. “Earth is a wonderful place, but it might not last forever,” Hawking says. “Sooner or later, we must look to the stars. Breakthrough Starshot is a very exciting first step on that journey.”

Now what took me on this interstellar, intergalactic quest you ask me. This is where you see me scratching my head, looking goofy, and mumbling something about googling on how to see images in a CD that I hold in my hand.

cd

Hola Amigos! Tres Bien Nachos

This article appeared in The Hindu’s Open Page Section dated 15th October 2017

“Hi Amma. Konichiwa!”, said the little fellow as he pranced home from school.

Konichiwa?”

“It means Hola! Hello in Japanese.” said the fellow beaming.

“Oh that’s nice. Konichiwa. It sounds like a tinkling windchime. Koni-chiwa. “

Ni Hao is Hello in Chinese.” said the Hello expert.

“How did you know these things? Did they teach you in school?” I asked.

He pulled out a beautiful children’s book called ‘Say Hello’ by Rachel Isadora, and said he picked that from the library that day. That night we snuggled into bed with the Say Hello book. I must say that it is a most beautiful inclusive book and includes illustrations as a little girl walks through town saying Hello to the various people she meets.

The Shalom Aleikkum, Ni Hao and Konichiwa-s roll out with ease, before she finally finds her Abuela and says ‘Hola!’

The daughter sometimes joins us for story-time, and this time the two minute read turned into a twelve minute reminiscence into what is lovingly known as the Hola Snafu At Cancun.

The fellow at the gates to the resort in Cancun was looking morose, and wondering whether there was any purpose in going on sitting at the resort gates like this. There were folks inside going about their duties sipping a whisk of margarita as they were preparing some for the guests at the bar inside, while he had an iced water bottle that had long since melted the ice and left a puddle around it. Our van pulled up after a day’s trip to Chichen-Itza, and I poked my head out.

Hola! Uno nuevo nuevo deux.” I said and smiled. I gave him the room number allocated to us at the resort, so he could let us pass. It had been a long day with dinosaurs, asteroids, nuclear warfare by aliens from another galaxy, hobnobbing with the spirits of those who built the pyramids centuries ago.

The fellow chuckled to himself and looked uplifted in spirits. Just for this performance of Spanish, it was well worth giving up the spot to work at the bartenders backyard. He waved us in cheerfully, and I said in perfect Spanish. “Thank you Amigos. Have a tres bien day!

I turned around to see the daughter who incidentally learns Spanish up at the school rolling in the aisles and laughing with her little brother. “Did you just think you spoke Spanish?” she gurgled when I asked her what the matter was.

Our van was trundling in toward the resort, so I must have said all the right things, I said Oui with confidence.

“Have a tres bien day! Tres Bien is French Amma, not Spanish!”

It sure was. I had not considered the possibility that French and Spanish occupied the same area in the old brain. Amazing what all happens inside the walnut isn’t it?

“Well Spain is near France, so I am sure they will understand. “, I said miffed that my marvelous attempt at Spanish was being given the rip down by the children.

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“Yes! But Mexico isn’t near France. If I were him I would have asked for the room number again, and keep you there till you got it right.”

I was on solid ground there. Our room number was 1-9-9-2. Uno Nuevo Nuevo Deux.

Nuevo means ‘New’ ; Nueve means 9”, said the Stickler for Spanish Perfection.

“Why didn’t you say anything then, eh? Hola?”

I hola-ed and tres bien-ed and buenos nachos and muchos gracias-ed my way through the Mexican resort much to the delight of the staff there. Some of them taught me that Buenos Nachos means ‘Good Nachos’, not Good Night but smiled along indulging me in my Spanish dreams of fluency.

We all laughed, but the husband said that the important thing is that I made the effort to communicate with them all, and they understood that. Even when I said Muchos Nachos Tres Bien, and Google translator had no clue what that meant, the server who had laid out dinner for us with amazing vegetarian fare knew I meant well, and bestowed an avuncular smile on me.

The recent mass shooting at Las Vegas has horrified America yet again, and the press has said the latest terrorist attack was because the terrorist was a lone wolf. (Yes, when an act is calculated and carried out to spread terror, it is a terrorist attack, ask any fellow who works up these places that curates dictionaries and so on. The press seems to have this curious idea that the word can only be applied to certain sub sects of people, though the feeling of terror is universal.)

Anyway, as I was saying the Lone Wolf – I read a book by Daniel Byman a professor on Middle Eastern studies who tried to see the correlation between how terrorist organizations recruit and train towards extremism and any other factor (economic, academic, geographic), but came up with no correlation whatsoever. It was baffling. There was only one unifying factor among each of the recruits: They were all Lone Wolves. 

That got me thinking that every time we spot someone feeling lonely in our community, why not send a Hello or Hola or an Konichiwa or Ni Hao or Namaste or Salaam Alaikkum their way? We never know when a simple smile and word can change the course of one’s day. A smile is as universal as loneliness after all.

 

Freedom Is Sweet

Driving through lush green hills, past wide rivers and huge boulders, the route was marvelous. We had been a-visiting India for a short trip. The roads were smooth, and the rain clouds brought on a blast of monsoon rains. The little car burst forth joyfully on the empty roads swerving like a little child to splash puddles along the way.

The driver may be a grown man who sports whiskers on his face, but the heart the body houses is a child’s when it rains.
“You know? Two years ago, I took this road and it was agonizing to drive. The road was full of potholes, and our backs were sore for days.” he said smiling before splashing a big puddle again. The brother was driving and we were on the way to the city where my parents lived.
“What changed then?” I asked puzzled, for the gray ribbon in front of us was smooth and clean.
“Politics happened. The interim chief minister’s constituency is somewhere on this road, so we got our lovely scenic route done up – no charge.”

mettur_route.JPG

We reached home and affectionate greetings exchanged between parents, grandparents and children alike. A little while later, I was sprawled on the couch listening to the pater rile himself up with the news. Blithering-idiots-the-lot-of-them-are, seemed to about the gist of it, and I watched him amused.

The next day was Indian Independence Day, and the politicians were scrambling to see whose speeches would get maximum coverage on television, while ensuring that important topics of daily living were tabled for later. One incensed statement from the host of the News network forced the father to mute the television, and launch into a full scale explanation of politics that is best explained with a bedtime story. If you would snuggle in and close your eyes. Good then..:

There was a diamond ring, and everyone wanted it. But one strong, majestic troll had it, and did not let anybody else touch it. One day, the troll died, and all the remaining trolls fought each other for the ring. The troll children were hungry and thirsty, but that bothered no one. They are still fighting for the ring.

The End.

I know what you are thinking. As far as bedtime stories go, that was pretty rotten! I agree, but the state in which the parents live had recently lost their chief minister, and the squabble around the position was enough to make reality show hosts blanch. The populace has learned to look at the ensuing drama as such, and take a philosophical view of enjoying the good roads while they lasted.

We chewed the fat about the latest situ. in the United States, and how divisive strains were making themselves heard, and how we must do all we can to fight it.

Like Mark Twain said, The truth is stranger than fiction, but that is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities whereas the Truth isn’t.

The next day was August 15th – Indian Independence Day, and we chirped with the birds, looked smart and went down for the flag hoisting in the community. I had with me my son and nephew – both five year olds who were eager for any activity involving the outdoors. As they stepped out, the boys were warned that they were not to take more than 1 sweet when offered the plate after the flag hoisting. If they were pups, I could have seen their ears drooping, but they bore the blow stoically enough and charged downstairs.

I stood there marveling at the fact that a month earlier we had celebrated Independence Day in the US. I looked around at the knot of people with whom I was celebrating Indian Independence Day. The stupendous privilege of celebrating Independence Day in the world’s largest democracies was not lost on me. To every one of us who looked at the flower petals fluttering down from the flag, freedom meant a different thing. To some of us, it meant living peaceful lives, to some, it meant having the right to dream, to some others, the ability to dissent. But we all agreed that it deserves celebration.

independence_day

Reading Lolita in Tehran, a book about the oppressive regime in Iran, was still in my mind, and as I was in the habit of reading particularly affecting passages to those near me ( a malady I inherited from the pater), I was doubly grateful to Democracy in spite of all its pitfalls. Fighting for diamond rings or no, taking a stand against divisive policies or not, we have something worth fighting for.

Afterward, we walked towards a small store. The path was an exciting one – past barking dogs, and motorcycles weaving their way through the streets. I smiled and asked for some chocolates for the lads. Their faces lit up with joy: Freedom is sweet.

 

The Butter Battle Course

When you look up the definition for religion, it states among other things that it is “a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance”

How many conflicts has the world endured, is enduring, and will continue to endure because of this belief to which one ascribes supreme importance? I had written about it here (religion).

Who was it who said that every good kind of learning  can be obtained from Childrens’ books?  I whole heartedly agree.

The latest book that I am babbling about is the Butter Battle book, by Dr Seuss.

The Yooks and the Zooks live on either side of a long, meandering wall. The Yooks wear blue, the Zooks wear orange.
butter_battle

The Yooks think the Zooks silly for buttering their bread with the butter side down, while the Zooks think the Yooks are somewhat dim-witted for buttering their bread with the butter side facing up. The flags of the Yooks and Zooks represent the belief in buttering bread, and the animosity builds from this bread-butter-theory to which they attach supreme importance.

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One day, the Yook patrolman is prowling the place with his Tough-Tufted Prickly Snick-Berry Switch, when a Zook pelts him with a slingshot. This sets in motion an escalating conflict, with both sides coming up with more and more exotic and dangerous arms with which to fight each other.

The Triple Sling Jigger, the Jigger Rock Snatchem, the Blue Goo-er, the Kick-a-poo kid operated by a cocker spaniel – Daniel, the Eight-Nozzled Elephant-Toted Boom Blitz.

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The last page has the Yook patrolman sitting atop the wall with a Zook warrior. Both of them have in their hands a Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo – a small bomb that can annihilate life as we know it, signifying the nuclear threat.

I know we ask of no formal training as a politician: there are no politician licenses, no courses one has to complete to take up public office, but I really think there should be a set of children’s books that they all have to read and re-read as refreshers every year in order to stay in office. We could call it the Butter Battle Course.

The Butter Battle Book has of course given rise to great hilarity in the house. “Do you want to be a Yook or a Zook?”, we ask taking out the butter and the bread. We now butter our bread on both sides so we can be Yooky-Zooks, and sometimes Zooky-Yooks.

The next time any two nations start warring, I suggest thrusting bread buttered on both sides to both parties.

Complement with:
Kahlil Gibran on the Absurdity of Self righteousness
The Colander Religion
Bertrand Russell’s Teapot Religion