Overweening Generalist

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Cosmic Indifference and High Weirdness In The Natural World: Have A Swell Day!

High weirdness, and unforeseen existential threats. Threats to humans, that is. It's as if some Malign Creator was operating. Or worse: Something That Is Completely Indifferent. A poet once wrote "Vast, cool and unsympathetic." (CUE: demonic laughter.)

I will defer discussion on the Robot Apocalypse until it's too late...err...I mean...some other day. [But for a possible thrill, or interesting homework, read HERE, HERE and maybe HERE for a jumpstart, or just a jump-jolt. Hey, I'm as "American" as any of you when it comes to being fascinated by the End Times. My versions don't involve Jesus or Four Horsemen, though. I'm strictly a secular apocalyptic, when I'm in those morbid moods.]

                                        intelligent yellow slime-mold

Eerily Intelligent Beings Are Here and They Don't Have Nervous Systems
When I first started reading about the yellow slime molds I couldn't stop thinking about H.P. Lovecraft and his prescience. Or the Steve McQueen 1958 B-film blast The Blob. These slime molds, which are shape-shifters, depending on whether they find themselves in the forest (like a spatter of mustard on the side of a tree), or in a petri dish in a lab (like a piece of coral). They have no nervous system or brain, and yet they have been rigorously studied and have been shown to make decisions, anticipate change, and choose from a large selection of foods the very thing they need most. They seem to have memory, too. How so?

Well, when presented with a maze with food at the end, these "protists" (which are really a taxonomic category for something only dimly understood by us), send out long feelers along every route. They extend themselves...and they're only really single-celled amoebae! It's just that they're weird little unicellular buggers, with millions of nuclei, small sacs of DNA, proteins and enzymes. And they are constantly pulsating, gelatinous things, sorta like human muscle tissue. The cytoplasm is always pulsating rhythmically. But back to how they have memories.

As they extend themselves through a maze, one tendril of itself finds the food. The others retract, leaving a thin layer of translucent goo along the paths that were no good. Then, the Thing remembers the "right" path, almost 100% of the time. It's as if it leaves its memories in the environment.

O! The Other Ways of Being!

How do they eat? They engulf and ingest bacteria, spores from fungi, and other wee beasties. Very much like The Blob. A Physarum polycephalum has not yet eaten a human. Or rather: it has not been recorded.

These Things were originally studied because of the fascination with how, when you cut one in half, they'd reattach themselves. Scientists wanted to know how they did this; they had zero inklings that the Things were intelligent...Aye: intelligent: if an organism demonstrates memory, appropriate choice, anticipation of change, and an over-the-top ability to concoct a network of best ways to get around (their behavior has stunned scientists by mimicking the schema of the Tokyo railway system, something that took hundreds of Engineers to plan), then it seems we may need to redefine what intelligence "is." These slime molds have been around for at least 600 million years, possibly a billion years. And they have no brain. They have no nervous system. And they're scary-smart. It's reminiscent of something out of Lovecraft. They have been Around for far, far, far longer than Homo sapiens, who are only about 160,000 years old. The hominids are only about 15-20 million years old.

Physarum polycephalum: They're here, they smear, let's get used to it.

                                          ultra-deadly Box Jellyfish

Our Conquering Jelly Overlords Are Here
Like the yellow slime, these creatures have inhabited Earth since before the Pre-Cambrian Era.  The Cambrian Era was from around 540 million to 485 million years ago. [If you want to see what animal life would look like if Salvador Dali were The Creator and not blind evolution, see HERE, where I simply Googled "Cambrian Explosion Images." Hey, you're welcome.]

Jellyfish were around by about 550 million years ago, and they may have had the world's oceans all to themselves at first. They seem well on their way to having It All again, which would mean that aforementioned species, Homo sapiens, is doomed.

These Things are evolutionarily winners, no question. Bigtime. What are their strategies? How did they do so well? How do they reproduce? Well, imagine if you easily cloned yourself. Jellyfish do that. Some of 'em, anyway. Imagine you had a friend that was a hermaphrodite. You have a spat one day and yell out, "Go fuck yourself!" Your friend laffs and says, "What do you think I do?" And you laff too, knowing the irony. Some jellyfish have both male and female parts and can reproduce that way.

You have a male co-worker, imagine, that jerks off onto some place in the work-environment, and another female co-worker comes along and works the sperm into herself, later. Jellies do that, too. Some can fertilize themselves, aye, and some do courtship and copulation, like us. Other jellies simply break in two and now you've got twice the jellyfish, suddenly. Some jellyfish fuse together. Some are cannibals. It's worked well for them, all of those strategies. Who thinks we'll be here for another 500 million years? I don't see it. I'm optimistic, but that's insane.

What's so scary about them?, you're asking. Lemme tell ya.

They've devastated the fishing industries of Bulgaria, Georgia, and Romania. Because they eat the things that the anchovies eat. In the Gulf of Mexico, 15-pounders eat everything in sight: eggs, plankton: they shoot out a foam that captures plankton to make it easier for them to eat a huge meal. They eat and eat. And when Katrina hit and then the BP oil spill occurred in the Gulf? All sea creatures suffered. Except the jellyfish. They seemed to like it. How?

Well, they have very low metabolisms, which allow them to survive in oxygen-free waters, for a period that other species can't. All over the world, too: in warm tropical waters, and near the polar ice caps. They're eating the plankton so whales are going to suffer, maybe go extinct. In just one cooling system in one Japanese nuclear reactor, they gum up the works with their own bodies to the tune of 150 tons per day. That's just one cooling system. They're really hard to get rid of too: one scientist said their bodies cling to man-made meshes like "thin plastic wrappers." They've caused havoc in India, they've capsized ships. They clogged up the US aircraft carrier the USS Ronald Reagan until it had to be moved. 50 truckloads of jellyfish clogged a coal-fueled power plant in the Philippines, causing a total blackout on the islands.

What helps to curtail their works-gumming of human industrial structures? Sound, chemical repellants, electrical shocks and curtains of bubbles have all been tried. They all failed.

There's Chironex fleckeri, or the Box Jellyfish, which is a gelatinous bag of digestive tissues and gonads. It has 550 feet of tentacles, a head 12 inches across that has "bells" dangling from it. It drifts in the current, and if you get stung by it while swimming you're fucked. You have two minutes to live, four tops. This Lovecrafty Thing has eyes with a a retina, cornea and lenses, when most jellies lack those things. It has a brain and can learn and remember. It's huge and deadly and it's spreading throughout the globe.

There's a peanut-sized jelly: "Irukandji." The Australian Aborigines knew about this one long ago. This tiny thing stings you, barely needs to brush against your skin, and you hardly feel it. 30 minutes later a pain in your lower back sets in, like gangsters are taking a baseball bat to your kidneys. This is only the beginning of the fun. Nausea and vomiting set in, every minute for hours on end. You get spasms of pain shooting down your arms and legs, your blood pressure raises to a dangerous, killing level, and you find it very difficult to breath. Then you get something like what meth or coke addicts get: the feeling that bugs are crawling around under your skin, or worms. Many people beg the doctor to please let them die, quickly.

The Irukandji were thought to only inhabit the waters off of Australia, but now they're off the cape of Africa, and near Florida.

They come in very many shapes and sizes. They've formed a "stingy-slimy killing field" 30,000 square miles wide off the coast of Africa, eating everything in sight.

When you quarter a jellyfish the pieces regenerate and resume normal life as adults within three days. There are species of which, when one dies...they really don't die. In zombie-ish fashion, cells from the rotting body escape, float away, find each other and form a new jellyfish polyp, which is the junior stage of jellyfish-hood. Polyps need to attach to smooth, hard surfaces, and the competing species named Homo sapiens makes structures tailor-made for jellyfish polyps.

Also, the H. sapiens have done far more than any other species to pave the way for the Re-Emergence of the Jellies as Pre-eminent Beings of the Earth-Ocean: Homo sapiens has overfished its world oceans. Jellies can make food by sunlight, or just eat all the plankton. Drift nets and plastic bags have killed off the Jelly's main predators, like the Sea Turtle. From agricultural run-off into the oceans, the new species of H. sap has created hypoxia zones in the waters: vast regions of very little to zero oxygen, killing off all living things...except the Jellies. They can handle it. Their metabolism allows them to deal with it.

The H. sap has created, over 30 years, a 30% increase in acidification of the ocean. Higher levels of acids are eating through the hard calcium shells of many sea creatures. The Jellies just laff and whistle along, eating and gumming up the works. Also, the warmer oceans have only been more of a boon to the Jellies. Plankton slows climate change, but the Jellies are eating the plankton, so the warming on land for the H. sap may increase faster as time goes by.

"Even sober scientists are now talking of the jellification of the oceans," says a recent, wonderfully terrifying book. This book says the Day of No Return has long passed; we didn't even know it when it happened, and possibly the only thing we can do to combat this global takeover by these Terrible Beings is to adopt ancient (1700 years?) cuisine-behavior of the Chinese and Japanese, who eat jellyfish. Are you ready for just one more bite?

40,000 Bullies In The Neighborhood
Here's another thing almost no one in the world knew about until about 3 minutes ago, historically: the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago? One of those will hit Earth every 1-100 million years. That was a very big asteroid, and if one hit tomorrow, it would very likely end the time of H. sapiens. Through a dirt-cheap program ($200-$400 million; the cost of one fancy military helicopter) seeking to track all of the 40,000 asteroids a football field or larger that are roaming in our solar system (backyard, really), 90% of them have been pinpointed, and none look like they're heading our way.

But even some of the smaller ones that haven't been identified could do incredible damage. "Small" collisions happen every few centuries, like the 1908 Siberian-Tunguska one, that packed the destructive power of 300 Hiroshima bombs. That's small. And it didn't hit near a densely-populated area. The odds are that, when a Tunguska-sized one hits next, it will hit the ocean, 'cuz our planet is about 66% covered by water. This will cause a major tsunami, but hey: it could be worse. Am I right?

There are already some ingenious plans to "nudge" the Nemesis asteroid that we do discover has us in its gunsights. My favorite is the Gravitational Tractor, but first things first: let's get a very accurate census of all the Bullies who could wipe us out in an instant, even the "small" ones that could take out Paris, New York, Sydney...any one of the metropolises.

There's no cause for existential dread over the 40,000 Bullies, but they all represent an Existential Threat. But probably not as much as Global Warming, Overpopulation, Nuclear Weapons, Jellyfish, or Robots.

Although: Things could change with new info, eh?

Jeez, it's as if Nobody, No One, or No Thing cared about us, and we're maybe helpless to stop the pending destruction. Maybe Lovecraft was a major prophet?

The good news? Peanut butter tastes really good. So does beer. And sex is fun!

Some Articles That Were Consulted
"How Brainless Slime Molds Redefine Intelligence"
Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean, by Lisa-Ann Gershwin
Gershwin TV interview
"They're Taking Over"
"Target: Earth"
"Per Square Mile: What Are The Odds A Meteor Will Destroy A City?"


Peter Kingsley said...

I like your blog, but you do know that the universe is only a little over 6000 years old. All the scientific details you provide confirm the wonders of God's creation.

The good news? God loves you.

Eric Wagner said...

Terrific piece. What works by Lovecraft do you consider your favorites?

michael said...

@ Peter Kingsley: the 6000 yr model seems like poetic inspiration to me. The "God"? Who IS she?

@Eric Wagner: I get a reliable buzz from any HPL I pull off my shelf. "The Colour Out Of Space" was where I first got hit with the fantastic notion that there may be Beings Out There that we not only can't understand, but they show no care at all for what we understand as "morality" or any emotional qualities we see as markers for "human" of human-like. That made a lot of sense to me! And it creeped the crap out of me. THEY are also physically opaque and we cannot discern their motivations.

In general, the idea throughout HPL: that we looked into something that we should not have, and now it's too late, we can't go back? I love that. It harmonized with, for example, my four-year period of sitting in libraries and reading about empires, the CIA, the hidden aspects of economics, the way the owners of the world have always treated us, the serfs, etc. I got to the point where I wish I hadn't learned "all that." But I couldn't stop delving deeper, trying to convince myself that the "truth" is beautiful no matter how it seems to me...HPL's transdimensional Beings that operate with "cosmic indifference" with an inexhorrible (<----portmanteu ripped from another genius), machinelike logic of its own...seemed like a cosmically hilarious hypostatization of my studies.

HPL allowed me to "come out the other side" and see Things from a new angle; when I read RAW I realized he acted as a sort of guide to that novel consciousness: it's so horrific that it's gorgeous and you have to LAFF!

From "The Colour Out Of Space":
"The shock served to loosen several tongues, and embarrassed whispers were exchanged. 'It spreads on everything organic that's been around here,' muttered the medical examiner. No one replied, but the man who had been in the well gave a hint that his long pole must have stirred up something intangible. 'It was awful,' he added. 'There was no bottom at all. Just ooze and bubbles and the feeling of something lurking under there.'"

This piques my curiosity: Let's poke around down there anyway to see what's going on?

Let's see if the equations that suggest there is super-tremendous power locked inside an atom really pans out! I wonder what we'll find...?

Eric Wagner said...

I read The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath in junior high and started the De Camp biography of Lovecraft. I read more of Lovecraft in the 80's, and I visited some Lovecraft locations in Providence in 1988 (?).

We read "The Colour out of Space" in my special topics in literature class last spring. It went over ok, but the kids didn't ask for more Lovecraft.

Anonymous said...

I am always amazed at your ability
to cheer me up.

The idea we should spend that much
money looking for planet killers is
one the bureaucrats don't share.
They'd rather build a looney his own
mockup of the Starship Enterprise
bridge for an office. That reminds
me of the famous Tutu wearer who was
saving us from villains by keeping a
file on everybody.

I have always predicted that our
reckless oceanic behavior would be
haunting us someday. Having tangled
with the more innocuous jelly I
want nothing to do with the nasty

I'm sure under the right circumstance the slime mold could
hold it's pseudo nose long enough
to choke down some Long pig.

I recall an Analog article years
ago that explained why a meteor
strike into the ocean was a lot
worse than a land strike. Something
about energy transfer.

We may be ready to learn about the
equilibium which keeps the biota
in some semblance of predictable.
It took some major horror outbreaks
to make biologists begin to notice.
The Marine types have been making
noises for years without anyone
paying much attention. The name
Philip Wylie (creator of Superman)
comes to mind. Try reading,Gladiator, generation of
Vipers, and the Magic Animal. He
said no one under fourteen should
read one of them but I didn't see
that part until it was too late.

He was unkind to Mom which offended
quite a few... GRIN

I found Dee's epic on archive
another weighty tome which should
be required for every young nosy
type. It's too bad HPL couldn't
get a copy of it.

What cheers me up is if the whales
go then Architeuthis and his big
cousin can hunt on the surface.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

I knew about the asteroids (Arthur C. Clarke used to write about them) but the Jellyfish Menace was news to me. I looked at some of your links and they are frightening.

So, Michael, you are known for your adventurous food tastes. After you wrote the blog post, did you head for Chinatown and munch down some delicious jellyfish? It's for humanity, you know. Maybe Congress should pass a law that anytime someone wants to eat jellyfish, Uncle Sam will pick up the tab.

fyreflye said...

There's an excellent review of Gershwin's jellyfish book with extended commentary here:

fyreflye said...

Well, no, that wasn't the link to the review of Gershwin's book; try:


fyreflye said...

Well, I see belatedly that Michael has already linked to it.
And I decoded all those captcha's for nothing!

michael said...


I really want to try jellyfish after reading Tim Flannery's review (which fyreflye managed to link to twice and myself only once) in NYRB, then finding my local library owned 2 copies but both were checked out (maybe they read Flannery's review before I did?), then standing in a bookstore for 45 mins and paging through its 400+ pages. I had no idea. My previous ideas about jellyfish were 1.) some got stung by them and some hurt, but I thought dying was impossible; and 2.) every public aquarium I'd been to found me most mesmerized by the jellyfish, which seemed ethereal, mostly translucent, lit from within, and otherworldy things. I had no idea they actually were the Ancient Ones who will inherit the Earth.

If you try jellyfish, report your findings!

I sorta hope they taste like squid, but I don't see how they could. They look like they'd be tasteless, and any Asian-style prep would probably use some spicy ooomph to make them seem substantial, but who knows.

Fyre- I can delete the redundant links but I figure if they get more people to read Flannery's review (still the best one I've seen), they might feel compelled to read Gershwin's book, and then we'd have one more solider on our side in the future fight against These Ghastly Things, which seem, if not malevolent, cosmically indifferent to our fate as a species.

Until then, I look forward to staring at one (fried?) on my plate, stabbing it with a fork and saying, "If it's a fight you want you ethereal, otherworldly bastards, a fight you'll have!" And then choking one down in revenge and, possibly, mild hunger. Probably washed down with a Tsingtao?

Ryan Carroll said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ryan Carroll said...

Kidding I hope?