Sunday, September 29, 2013

What Friends Are and Why I Left Facebook

I left Facebook recently. I left behind a lot. I had over 1,000 friends. Many of them I had met while traveling the world. Without Facebook, I will likely never hear from them again. I used Facebook as a storage location for lots of pictures and memories. Now that I am off Facebook, those tokens will be lost for me. I play in a band and I used Facebook to get people to come to shows and events as well as to stay in the loop with other peoples’ shows and events. Now that I am off Facebook, it will be much more difficult to know when events are occurring or to get lots of people together in one place at one time.

Facebook can be used in very positive ways. If I was only using it in the above ways, I would have never left.

I left Facebook because I was also using it in unhealthy, destructive ways. I was using Facebook to construct an identity for myself and other people. I was using vague status updates that more than 1,000 people saw as a way to get someone (anyone!) to fulfill a need that I had to feel loved, supported, and accepted. I was using Facebook as a soap box to stand on and champion my own self righteous ideas about how the world should work. Sometimes I was posting things on Facebook because I wanted certain people to see and I wanted to hurt them or show them they are wrong in discreet, underhanded ways. I substituted Facebook for real human interaction and communication.

I’m young and I’m learning a lot right now. I’m learning about myself and why I feel the way I feel. I’m learning how to honestly communicate my feelings to other people. I’m learning how to be a good friend and how to love another person. I’m learning how to listen to and understand other people. I’m learning how to forgive people and let them grow. I’m learning how to admit that I’m wrong and imperfect and realize that I still deserve love. I’m learning that every other person in this world is just as intricate and complex as I am. I’m learning that no one is good and no one is bad…we are all stumbling through this confusing world trying to figure things out in our own ways at our own pace.

Facebook was enabling some horrible misconceptions I had about the world: Mistakes are permanent, friends are disposable, and peoples’ entire identity and intentions can be extracted from minimal information. I was basing my ideas about people on some really non-human things; Specifically, lines of text or images.

Text is perhaps the worst way possible to communicate. Intentions are entirely lost. There are people that base their entire lives on debating what fantastic writers of literature meant when they wrote certain things. We compromise everything beautiful and heart-felt about interpersonal communication when we surrender to the convenience of communicating via written text.

Here’s a really bad habit I have: misunderstanding, simplifying, and compartmentalizing people. I think I’m not alone on this bad habit. I think we all distill other people into static, one dimensional shadows cast from our own assumptions and projections.

When I was using Facebook, I was projecting an image of myself that I wanted the world to see. We should always be suspicious of the self that is edited and designed for public eyes. That’s not a real person. That’s a shadow person.

Real people are so complex that it takes a life time to figure them out, even if you live inside of one’s body. We like to forget that. We like to simplify people. We do this when we disagree with someone or when we feel hurt or threatened by them. We also do this when we admire and idolize someone. We like to categorize people like this: evil asshole or perfect being who could do no wrong.

We don’t take the time to consider other peoples’ experience, their insecurities and the intricate ways they rationalize things or respond to different inputs. Why don’t we do this? Because we have compartmentalizing brains that function via association. We are quite literally taking stimuli from outside of ourselves and sorting it into different physical locations in our brains based on categories that we have created throughout our lives.

Check out this this awesome research done at University of California, Berkeley where subjects got an MRI while they watched movie trailers with all the objects and actions labeled on the screen. With the data from the MRI, researchers were actually able to map the areas to which people categorize different objects and actions. You can play with the brain map!! Check it out:

To really know someone, you might need to have a category that contains only that one person with thousands of subcategories for all their intricacies, experiences, mannerisms, life-patterns, ect…

Facebook allows us to “know” so many people that we couldn’t possibly KNOW any of them.  We need to create over-arching categories and make sure people are simple enough that they fit neatly inside of them.

Category: people you don’t like. People in this category do these things and act this way. Someone you like could never do those things or act that way. If they do, you need to switch their compartment…quick!

Facebook makes our friends seem disposable. The minute they step outside of the box we’ve created for them, we can delete them from our lives in one mouse click. Or, even if we don’t delete them…we can decide that we don’t like them anymore and feel justified in our reasoning. Facebook makes the number of people available to us as friends seem infinite. Why take the time to figure out why one person is saying things that hurt/annoy/offend you when you could simply delete them or ignore them and find another friend who is a perfect shadow person and could do no wrong?

We hurt people because we misunderstand and simplify them. This is what humans do. We’ve done it forever. I happen to be in Europe right now. I’m staying in Brno. I went to this labyrinth of tunnels under the city and saw a dungeon where people were imprisoned and tortured. There was an exhibit of a cage where they used to put mentally handicapped people. In this part of the world during the middle ages, the explanation for mental retardation was an obsession with the devil. The cages were sized so that these people couldn’t stand up or lay down. It was built to be physically exhausting and uncomfortable. They would be put on public display inside of the cage. The mentally disabled people had no idea what was going on or why they were being tortured.

This is obviously not the only example in history of persecution based on misunderstanding and making assumptions about people. In fact, I’m willing to suggest that this is the cause of every single historical event involving any sort of violence. We come up with overly simple reasons for why people behave in ways we don’t understand. These reasons tend to be that they are just evil, they are just BAD people. This allows us to be as cruel to them as we want.

I left Facebook because it’s giving me the tools I need to make negative assumptions about people based on limited evidence. I left Facebook because I was using it to project an untrue and simplified image of myself and what my life is like. I left Facebook because I felt like none of my experiences were authentic anymore; like I was just doing things so I could tell Facebook about it and make myself seem however I wanted to seem to other people at the time.

I recently lost a friend that I care about a lot due to mutual misunderstanding, negative assumptions, and communication solely via written text. I don’t want that to happen again. I want to understand my friends. I want friends that require time, open-hearted communication, listening and understanding. I want friends that confuse and frustrate me until we decide that we love and value each other enough to hash it out and figure out where we are both coming from. I want friends that let me grow and change. I want friends that forgive me for sometimes pissing them off with the way I am learning how to deal with this world. I want friends that communicate with me in person so I can hear their voice, their story, their intentions, so that I can hold their hand and see their expression when they deliver their words.

 I want real friends. I want to live for real and stop living for pretend. I want to be completely honest about who I am and what I’m feeling. I want to be understood. I want to understand people. These are my main goals in life right now. Facebook is not helping me get there. I’m breaking up with all my Facebook friends until I learn what real friends are and how to tell the difference. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


I'm am about to describe the things I found out via the internet about a religion that is affiliated with a culture that I am not part of and know very little about. I understand this is the quickest way to accidently say something totally stupid/ignorant/offensive. As such, I feel the need to explain why I am interested in learning about voodoo before I do anything else.

Voodoo is something I've wanted to know more about for a very long time but only recently looked into.

It started in college when I took an education class (one of many) in order to get an endorsement to teach science. The class was called Science and Society and in this class we were tasked with picking apart various non-western traditions (astrology, acupuncture...ect) and exposing all the reasons why these things were "pseudo-science". It seemed to me that a large part of the class was applying our western values to various belief systems that none of us could really claim to know anything about. It also seemed to me that the whole attitude behind this class was congratulating ourselves on our superior, well-informed, western beliefs and scoffing at cultures that don't base their beliefs on the all-mighty, infallible, scientific method. It felt like supremacy to me. I didn't like it.

One of the texts from this class was called "Voodoo Science: The Road From Foolishness to Fraud". I remember being annoyed at the title.

"That's someone's religion!" I said to my professor.

"Well, what would you call the book?" He asked.

"I don't know...Debunking Pseudoscience?"

"And then you'll never sell a book"

...And we moved on to talking about how people who believe in intelligent design aren't interested in facts or some other judgmental bullshit about other peoples' deep seated beliefs, as though ours are intrinsically better. It's the same kind of self righteousness that makes people think science and spirituality need to be pitted against each other instead of seen as allies on the mutual mission to explore our place in this universe.

I didn't do very well in this class because instead of turning in a paper ripping apart palm reading and going through the various ways the lines of your hand couldn't possibly mean anything to your personality or life, I turned in a research paper on palm reading. I had 6 people photo copy their hands for me and gave them personality tests and questionnaires about their life style. I examined the ways their palm features correlated or did not correlate with their personalities and lives. Even though my sample size was small, I did what I could to look for statistical significance. I made pie charts and histograms. I used peer reviewed resources from the British Journal of Medical Psychology and The Journal of Medical Science showing that schizophrenia has been shown to manifest itself in the hand. I tried to convey my feelings that perhaps the reason no one had ever done extensive research on this topic is because delving into non-western traditions is a career-ruiner in the science world. It makes you sound like a spooky, psuedo-scientific kook that no one wants to give grant money.

I put lots of work into it and wrote an awesome paper. But I got an F because according to my prof, I missed the point. I guess that's true, I didn't write about the ways palm reading is psuedo science. Maybe because I felt like the difference between science and pseudo science was extremely obvious to me and the whole assignment was insulting to my intelligence and I wanted to make a statement about my feelings on this class rather than do some busy work. I was a pain in the ass, what can I say? I'm pretty sure he didn't get it, though. He just thought I was kooky. I should be used to that by now, I suppose.

Anyway, this whole palm reading rant was just a chance for me to get on my soap box and a digression from the point: Voodoo. The use of the expression, "voodoo science" in lieu of "psuedo" or "fake" science got me thinking about the way we members of western culture, we offspring of the semitic religions, tend to view other belief systems. In my research on Voodoo, I found this syllabus from a college course on voodoo. I think it's pretty telling that right away the instructor felt the need to remind his students,

"First and foremost Voodoo is a religion. It is the dominant religion of Haiti. Many of the practices and descriptions of Voodoo belief may sound to us like rank superstition, but then, imagine the beliefs of Christianity to people who know nothing about it. Tell them about the trinity or the resurrection, or the presence of Jesus in the eucharist. Any of these practices which very intelligent Christians believe in the fullest would seem no less superstitious to someone unfamiliar with Christianity.
Thus I urge you to recognize that Voodoo is Haiti's religion, it is taken very seriously not merely by unlettered peasants, but many intelligent and learned members of the Haitian society believe as sincerely in Voodoo as do German theology professors in their Christianity. In no way do I expect you to believe in Voodoo; no more than I would expect you to convert to Islam if I taught a course on that religion. But, please do recognize that it is every bit as real a religion as the major religions of the world."

 Voodoo is particularly interesting because not only are westerners usually ignorant about it and consider it frivolous superstition...lots of them are actually afraid of it! Something people know nothing about and also fear? What better thing to nerd out on?

Mainly, I would like it to make it clear that in learning about Voodoo, I am coming from a place of respect and fascination.

So here we go! Voodoo!

It's a syncretic religion, which is a word I just learned. That means it's a combination of various belief systems and schools of thought. Voodoo is a combination of the African religion, Vodun, and Catholicism.

A relatively young religion, Voodoo started up in Haiti in the late 1600's/early 1700's when the French established an agricultural colony on the island. The success of this colony was completely driven by slave labor. In order to preserve their culture, the African slaves practiced their religion under the guise of practicing Catholicism. To this day, Voodoo is pretty much only practiced in Haiti and places where there are a large density of Haitian immigrants (like Louisiana).

Voodoo's main god is named Bondyé. Bondyé is far beyond human understanding and doesn't interact with humans or get involved in human affairs. In order to interact with the spiritual realm, Voodooist invite spirits, which they call lwa or loa, to possess them. These loa are the conduits between the physical and spiritual world.

The way Voodooists view spiritual possession seems to be very different than the way people from my cultural background view it. It's not like Regan from "The Exorcist" at all. In fact, Voodooists don't even use a word that translates to possession or ownership over someone's body. They use a word that translates to "ride" or "mount". A loa will "ride" a human body after being invited to do so in community ceremony where everyone participates. It is in this way that the spiritual world can transmit messages to the community.

 This guy has some cool stuff to say about spiritual possession in Voodoo. He talks about spiritual possession as letting your unconscious mind take over, not so much letting something else enter you. We should be wary of listening to any one person's relationship with Voodoo and using that to generalize, however. Voodoo is a tradition passed down orally, which allows for lots of individualism and the potential for the practice to vary widely from one person to the next. No matter how you slice it though, spiritual possession in Voodoo is seen as positive and necessary as opposed to evil and scary. Furthermore, it's something that well practiced Voodooists have complete control over.

The loa that ride community members during the ceremony are associated with Catholic saints. This was a necessary guise during the slave days. To evoke a certain loa, a symbol is drawn on the ground with sand, cornmeal, or other powdery substance. Each loa has their own symbol, called veves. They are usually really cool looking like a tattoo Bjork would get. Here are two of my favorites:
This is the veve for a loa known as Gran Bwa or Gran Bois, which means great woods or big tree. He's the kind hearted master of the wilderness and he's associated with the Catholic Saint Sebastian who was tied to a tree and shot with arrows. 

This is the veve for the loa known as Oguon, the loa credited for getting the Haitian slaves all riled up for the revolution. Oguon is associated with St. James. Maybe because James was killed with a sword and Oguon is usually pictured holding a machete. (That's just me hypothesizing) 

Gran Bwa is the master of the forests of vilokan, the Voodoo spirit realm. Vilokan is described as a forested and submerged island.
This is kind of how I imagine it. What a beautiful heaven!
Voodoo has a strong connection with nature and a special relationship with the mapou tree, which is used as a central part of their holiest ceremonies.
I'm pretty sure the movie Avatar drew lots of inspiration from Voodooism and Haitian history.
The mapou tree is seen as a connection between the physical and spiritual world and is used as a temple of sorts.

With such a close relationship to the spiritual realm and the dead, Voodooists know they have the power to use spirits for both positive and negative magic. They are dissuaded from negative magic by a deep concern for the well being of their ancestors. The Haitian Vodou Handbook by Kenaz Filan states, "Taking spirits who were violent in life and using them as attack dogs will only hinder their enlightenment. Instead of helping those spirits grow and to conquer their problems, you will be encouraging them to wallow in their weakness and become more, not less, flawed."

For some reason, Voodoo has become associated with devil worship for some. This certainly is the attitude of the Christian missionaries that were interviewed in Real Voodoo, a short film. This is obviously flawed logic because Voodooists don't even believe in the devil...why would they worship him?

Maybe it makes certain Christians more comfortable to describe any sort of spirituality they don't understand as devil worship. We've seen Christians associate pagan beliefs with the devil again and again throughout Christianity's historical conquest to convert everyone in the world. The very image of the devil with his goat lower half was based off pagan god Pan in attempts to scare people away from nature worship.

For a good description of Pan, read Tom Robbins' book Jitter Bug Perfume 

 Even though Christians have a long history of pointing fingers and yelling "Devil!", I think some of the main reasons Voodoo became associated with the devil are political.

To understand the evolution of Voodoo and the stereotypes that come with it, it's becomes very important to understand the history of Haiti.

During the European colonization of the Americas, the French got a hold of the western part of Hispañola, the island that the Haiti and the Dominican Republic share.

The French were successful at growing tobacco, sugar, indigo, and coffee but not so successful at enslaving the natives to do their work for them. To sustain their labor-driven society, the French started importing slaves from West Africa, the area that is now Benin. By the late 1700s, Haiti (then known as Saint Domingue) was the most profitable of all French colonies and known for being one of the most "brutally efficient" slave holding societies. They followed the code noir (the black code) which was a document written by the French government that basically instructed the colonists to treat the Africans worse than the most soulless person would ever treat a dog. Seriously, read that shit. It's disgusting.

So brutal were conditions for slaves, that many died within a few years of being imported. Many African mothers were suspected of abortions and infanticide to prevent their babies from growing up in slavery.

In Benin the Africans had practiced Vodun. This evolved into Voodoo in Haiti due to the code noir's strict policies on Catholicism being the only religion practiced by anyone. Code noir also had strict rules about slaves gathering. However, since black slaves out numbered their white masters 10 to 1...this may have been hard to keep track of and enforce. This gave the slaves opportunity to gather and practice Voodoo.

Probably the most famous Voodoo gathering was named Bois Caiman and happened on August 22nd, 1791. During this ceremony, the slaves discussed their resentment of the conditions forced upon them and evoked Oguon (pictured above) who is credited with planting the seeds of revolution in their souls. That night, the slaves revolted. They killed all the whites they met and set fire to the plantations. This was at the same time as the French Revolution so the French government really didn't have their shit together enough to defend the colony. On top of that, Haiti's slave revolt and successive cry for independence made the new leadership of France ask themselves, "how strong ARE our convictions?  I mean, if poor people in France get rights...why don't black people in Haiti?"

All of these factors combined made Haiti the first and only state to ever be formed from a slave rebellion. In addition, Haiti and The United States were the only two countries in America to become sovereign nations before the 1900's. Not bad, Haiti.

With the onset of the revolution and Haiti's successive independence, the remaining white plantation owners and the slaves they were able to retain fled to Louisiana. As a result of this exodus, the population of New Orleans doubled.

The French, undoubtably bitter at getting their asses handed to them for being total dicks, starting spreading propaganda about the evil Haitians and their worship of the devil. Regardless, Haiti was left alone for a couple hundred years. That is, until 1915 when US president Woodrow Wilson got all bent out of shape because Germans were moving to Haiti and were pretty good at mingling with the Haitians. The Germans had been more successful than any other Europeans at marrying into Haitian families and becoming land owners. At the time, Haiti had a law that said foreigners could not own land. US troops were sent to Haiti to "protect US interests". The entire point was to change the law so that foreigners could own land and Americans could profit from Haiti's rich farmland instead of the Haitians.

US troops occupied Haiti for 19 years. During this time, Haitians were pretty much enslaved again. The National Guard ruled Haiti with a violent regime and the Haitians were left with no choice but to support themselves doing back breaking labor building roads for the US military.

Why did the US get away with this? I'll bet that it was because of erroneous propaganda that made Haiti out to be a nation of devil worshippers. A Christian nation like the US is probably not going to feel all that bad about taking away the rights and sovereignty of a nation they deem evil.

For such a community-based religion, Voodoo sure has had to overcome a lot of hatred and ignorance. It wasn't until 2003 that Voodoo was even declared an official religion within Haiti.

Along with healing the wounds of oppression and slavery, the catastrophic earthquake that occurred in Haiti in 2010 has made lots of work for Haitians in rebuilding their nation. I hope that Haitians can turn to their culture and spirituality as a means of empowering themselves and defining their own destiny.

As a closer, watch this interview with La Belle Deesse, Voodoo priestess.

"Voodoo teaches us how to love one another, be there for one another and never let each other down. Don't betray your sisters and brothers. If they have a problem you stand by their side and fight till the end."

Monday, July 30, 2012

Philosophical Crisis/Cry For Help

What is sanity? I guess all we can use as a measure is whether or not other people would call you sane. We are a social creature and to not live up to social expectations would be to reject your status as a functioning human.

So I mean...I guess you are crazy if other people think you are.

What if you chose to reject the mentality of this society? You consciously decide to take some sort of mental high ground because you've convinced yourself that the way mainstream society thinks, believes and functions is wrong. Well, if you can find yourself in a community of like-thinkers, this is called counter culture. This is sometimes called revolution or even renaissance. If you can't find a community of like-thinkers, this is called megalomania.

Herein lies my philosophical crisis. This winter, I consciously decided to reject popular mentality and rationality. It came with a backdrop of lots of things. I was in the middle of my second month hitch hiking around South America, I was learning more about the universe than I ever thought possible, and I was reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This was the only book I had with me. I read it several times and thought constantly about how much I can relate to those ideas.

The author, Robert M Pirsig has lots of cool ideas. I don't pretend to know exactly what his intentions were when writing the book but what I got out of it was this: The entire way we think, feel, relate to each other, and personally function is flawed. It's based on the philosophies of men in ancient Greece who told the western world how to rationalize. These men literally set guidelines into stone for how to think. We consumed, internalized and perpetuated these ideas so thoroughly that we convinced ourselves this is how human brains naturally work. Brains that don't work that way are crazy and brains that openly and publicly reject the way we as a culture rationalize are egomaniacs or megalomaniacs.

Pirsig was committed to a mental ward. He completely lost touch with society and received electric shock therapy which somehow altered the structure or function of his brain enough for doctors to declare him sane. He was fixed.

This happened in the 1960s. Not too terribly long ago. I know lots of people that can remember when electric shock therapy was common practice. We consider it cruel and unusual these days.

Pirsig's nervous break down, his time in a mental ward, and his diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia and clinical depression freaks me out. The reason why is because I so strongly relate with all my heart and soul to these ideas that drove him insane.

These philosophers...the men that came up with the very basics for how to think, how to reason, how to rationalize...what sort of backdrop did they come up with this shit in? I'm not going to pretend to know very much about ancient greek history and culture...but I would be willing to bet that these men were leaders. They were politicians, they were religious figures, they were men who were wealthy enough to have the time to sit around and contemplate the "right" way to think, reason, and rationalize. Does that make their ideas suspect? To me, it kind of does.

I don't have a viable alternative to modern rationality. Maybe I've been so thoroughly steeped in the culture that utilizes this school of thought that my brain has grown around these ideas. The very way my brain is wired is based on this philosophy. Maybe it's the kind of thing that can only be undone by electric shock.

I wonder...before these Greek philosophers, these men in sheets that came up with these rules for rationality... Before we set up thousands of years of institutions that perpetuate these did people think? How did we think before the Greeks told us how to think?

Maybe the bible is a good resource for this. It's one of the very few documented compilations of human thought in western culture that existed before these Greek and Roman metropolises.

All the magic in the bible, the burning bushes and people living in whale bellies and woman growing from a man's rib...what does this say about the way people thought?

According to our modern rationality, these things couldn't have happened. They are myths. Why would people have made these things up? Were they just lying? Are they supposed to represent something I can't grasp because the way I think is so separate and different from the way the authors of the bible thought?

I know there are people around today that literally believe these things in the bible.  These things are "scientifically impossible" according to modern rationality. Maybe someone who literally believes the bible will even read this blog. I know lots of atheists that would say people who believe these things are just stupid. They would point to their "superior" school of rational thought and scoff while they think about how much smarter and better they are. How their school of thought gives them the "freedom to think for themselves".

In my opinion, this is lazy. Writing people off as stupid or crazy because you don't understand their beliefs is LAZY. This way of thinking does everything if can to swerve away from the open hearted pursuit of knowledge that all of us western thinkers who like to congratulate ourselves for being so clever and critical say that we champion.

I don't like it. I don't like the way we think. It's hypocritical. It's lazy. It's judgmental. There is no love in it. There is no opportunity for exploration of things that seem magical. It disconnects us from each other. It gives us an excuse to write off ideas, alienate and one-dimensionalize people and all the while pat ourselves on the back for being so rational and logical.  I reject it. I REJECT RATIONALITY.

The reason this concerns me is because unless I can find a community of people who agree with me...I am by definition, crazy. I am headed down the same path as Pirsig.

This blog, I guess, is a cry for help. Because I really suspect that I am not alone on this one. I suspect that there exists a community of like minded people who also reject modern rationality. We've just been so entrenched in our culture and the way we've learned to think that the thought of starting a counter culture to rationality itself is daunting and impossible. I'm not asking that we start a counter culture to rationality. In fact, perhaps that a group of people sitting down together and writing actual guidelines for how people should think was something that could have only existed in ancient greek culture. It was just the right time and the right place.

I realize that the thought of doing that...of deciding how people should think, is megalomaniacal. It's egomaniacal. The fact that these greeks dudes did it and got away with it totally blows my mind. But at the same time...if they did it, why can't others?

I guess all I want to know is this: is anyone else frustrated by rationality itself? By the very way we think? By the way we write things off as impossible and treat people like they are crazy/stupid/wrong if they think different? Am I alone on this? Am I crazy? Should I just watch TV and stop living in my head so often? Or are these things other people obsess over too?

I know these types of thoughts are extremely personal. The only reason I am able to publicly talk about them is because I have made every attempt to be so shamelessly honest about my thoughts and feelings in the last few years that sometimes it's even frightening and repulsive to the people who know me and love me the most. These are the people who will sometimes call me crazy for thinking the way I do. I don't know about y'all but when the people who love me and know me more than anyone suggest I am makes me call my sanity into question.

I'm not asking for you to agree with me or say what you think if you don't want to (if you do want to...please do!). I am asking, if you can in anyway relate to this can you please comment with something like, "word" or whatever? I need to know whether I am a revolutionary or an egomaniacal crazy person. Yes, this is a pathetic cry for support. So sue me.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Beetle I Found

Y'all! So many exciting things have happened in my life since the last time I blogged. 

One of the main things I’m excited about is that I’ve been given a tool to feed my obsessive nerdyness. This tool happens to be a company that makes microscopes and I totally tricked someone into hiring me there. Suckers. 

SO ANYWAY. I found this Beetle. I found it on the black top of some airport. It was all dead and dehydrated. I picked it up because I thought I could glue it to a canvas and make a cool painting around it. It looked like this:

Photo Credit to JJ Blackwood

But I happened to be hanging out with a coworker who suggested we take it to work and look at it. 

So then, I cut off it's leg and I cut off it's head and my friend Marc stuck it into his Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM). It looked FREAKY. I'll show you in a sec but first you need to know that it was a pristonychus terricola (I think) based on a picture I found in a library book called The Anatomy of Insects & Spiders by Claire Beverly and David Ponsonby. 

This is a really cool book because not only is it full of historical drawings that are from as far back as 1255 but it also talks a lot about uses for these bugs in ancient cultures. Turns out, Egyptians were really into Beetles and their traditions around it are fascinating and worth their own blog which I might get to someday. 
Ok, so first of all...let's look at it's leg. 

We are about to look at this part.

This is the hook at the end of it's foot. I was playing with the cutest june bug that I found when I was in Tennessee last weekend. It was crawling all over me and I kept thinking about how it's digging it's little micro-hooks into my skin but they can't cause me pain because they are too small.
That scale bar in the bottom right hand corner says 500 microns. To give you a frame of reference, a strand of human hair can be 17-50 microns for people of European descent and 56-181 microns for people of African descent. If you want to measure the diameter of your own hair, it's really easy! All you need is a laser. Follow these steps. If you are using one of those red laser pointers then it's a helium neon laser and the wavelength, λ, is around 633 nanometers. 

This is what I like to call the leg vertebrae! See in the drawing above how beetles have a whole bunch of joints on the leg? You know what I just found out about these joints? They work like screws! Instead of a ball-and-socket joint like humans have, beetles joints have threads that screw into place. They can do a full 360 rotation and are much harder to dislocate than human joints. 
Here is a close-up of one of the leg vertebrae. It's a beetle-knee!  I think the spikes are for defense based on the fact that they kind of look like medieval armor. I don't know what enemies beetles have besides birds and things that could just swallow their little 10-micron-wide knee weapons whole...but it probably makes them look tough to other bugs.
The schmutz all over it is probably dirt or dust specks. 
This is one of the coolest pictures in here, in my opinion. It's looking into the inside of the leg from where we cut it off. That's right...EXOSKELETON. Besides the support structures, it's totally hollow on the inside! If this beetle hadn't been dehydrating in the sun when it found me, it would have been full of goo.
Exoskeletons are made out of chitin, which is a long-chain polysaccharide. According to Wikipedia, "chitin has some unusual properties that accelerate the healing of wounds in humans". The Egyptians totally knew about that, fyi. As I learn more, I'm starting to suspect that beetles are actually magical. 
Ok, next we are going to look at this long antennae here.
Look at all the little hair follicles! Antennas are for sensing, and are insects' primary olfactory senses. In other words, these are the smellers. I tried to figure out how they work but then got really confused by all the jargon. Maybe one of you bio people can explain it to me? Thaddaeus, I'm looking at you. 

OK, compare the texture of the big antennae to the smaller one.
This one.
Super smooth! They must have two entirely different functions. Like, one for sensing and one for collecting particles...or, something like that. I'm not really sure. 
This is the end of one of the long antennas. The antennas are jointed just like the knees and this one was broken off at one of the joints when I found it. This is really cool because you can see those screw threads I was talking about where their joints come together! See them?
I think the stuff on the end of it is a little speck of pollen.

This is that pollen up close. It's also got this thread stuff all over it. Seems too small to be spider web....maybe a bacteria?
This is that same thread stuff that was all over it. I have no idea what this is.  I looked up SEM images of bacteria and spider webs and they don't really look like this. What do you all think? 
Here it is close-up. See how it's kind of braided like rope but then it's got this gooey part like snot? 
Here is part of it's head. It's got a chunk of dirt and also a little crawly thing. 
Here's the crawly thing up close. Maybe a little bacteria? It's got those little leg-looking things. I actually have no idea what this is. It's hard to put "5um long wormy thing with legs" into google and get meaningful results. I wish I knew more about this stuff so I knew what I was looking at!
Ok, I guess that's enough nerding out for now. See ya next time!

UPDATE: My friend Jessyka told me that the crawly thing might be a nematode. Here is a picture I found online of a nematode:
Yep....looks like it. Nematodes are a parasite to beetles and are used as organic pest control. Maybe that's what killed my beetle. Check out nematode pest control

Thursday, June 9, 2011

21 cm cosmology

I haven't blogged in a very long time! I've been spending most of my intellectual energy and free time trying to learn spanish and graduate college instead of nerding out. However, for the next two months I plan on: 1.) Being really broke and 2.) Having lots of free time. This means many more blogs are on the way! Suggestions are welcome. In the meantime, I'd like to share a paper I wrote for my cosmology class this quarter.  It used to be full of lots of equations to describe the quantum behavior of hydrogen but I can't figure out how to insert equations in this thing. Does anyone know how to do that?

 It's a little different than the way I usually write in this blog but maybe you'll dig it anyway!

21 Centimeter Astronomy
The Dark Age
Applications of quantum mechanics have proven to be of great utility in the expanding field of radio cosmology. As astronomers begin to piece together answers to the question, “what did the early universe look like?”, the quantum model of hydrogen plays a large role. Understanding the nature of hydrogen’s hyperfine structure and it’s interaction with radiation becomes crucial to this investigation.
Hydrogen has a forking energy structure: each branch separates into a different set of branches. This branching begins with electrons, which exist in quantized energy levels, known as orbitals, around hydrogen nuclei. Within these orbitals the electrons are subject to two types of angular momentum: orbital (associated with motion of the center of mass) and spin (associated with motion about the center of mass).  While it should be noted that electrons are fundamental particles without interior structure, (and therefore cannot literally spin) this analogy is useful in analyzing the splitting behavior of orbiting electrons. Suffice it to say that electrons carry an intrinsic angular momentum which can alter the total energy.  It is spin that creates the hyperfine structure of hydrogen.
According to classical electrodynamics, a rotating electric charge creates a magnetic dipole. This sets up the electron as a magnetic dipole. The proton, like the electron, has an intrinsic spin, which sets up its own dipole moment in the same direction as the proton’s spin. The dipole of the proton is more complex because it is a composite structure, made up of three quarks, which gives a different gyromagnetic ratio. The proton’s dipole moment creates a magnetic field.
            The difference between levels in hydrogen’s hyperfine structure is an artifact of the interaction between the electron’s dipole moment and the proton’s magnetic field. If the dipole moments of the electron and proton point in the same direction (parallel) the energy of this configuration is slightly higher than if the dipoles point in the opposite direction (antiparallel). It is found that the frequency of a photon emitted during the transition from parallel to antiparallel is 1420MHz, which corresponds to a wavelength of c/v=21 cm. This falls within the microwave region of the electromagnetic spectrum.

The probability of this transition taking place is so small that it is classified as forbidden. To be precise, the probability of such an event taking place is 2.9*10^-15 1/s, or once every 10 million years. As a result, it can never be manufactured in a laboratory. However, evidence of this transmission is detected pervasively in all directions as astronomers look into space. Carl Sagan and Frank Drake considered the 21cm line to be so ubiquitous and universal that they utilized it on the Pioneer Plaque of the Voyager Mission as a single unit measurement in defining length and time. The omnipresence of this extremely improbable detection indicates that the universe contains a tremendous amount of neutral hydrogen.
The dumbbell looking thing the the upper left hand corner represents hydrogen undergoing a spin-flip transition. For those of you that don't know about this plaque, it's floating out in space with the hopes that someday aliens will find it. This plaque and the rest of the bizarro messages on board the Voyager definitely deserves it's own blog. Hopefully I'll get to that soon!
Of special importance to big bang cosmologists are the 21cm transmissions detected at redshifts between z=25 and z=10^3. Radiation detected in this range comes from a period between two important epochs of gas phase change in the early universe: recombination and reionization. To give a brief history of the state of hydrogen throughout time, shortly after the big bang, the universe was radiation dominated. During this period, protons and electrons could not combine to form neutral atoms without being quickly ionized by energetic photons. However, the universe cooled as it expanded, eventually allowing for this reaction to take place. This is known as the epoch of recombination and took place around redshift z=1100.  For several hundred million years following recombination there were no radiating sources, only cold, dark hydrogen. For this reason, the period is referred to as the Dark Age. In this epoch the universe was transparent, meaning photons could travel unimpeded through space. This is important to cosmologists as it means there is much information retained in the photons. The second epoch of the universe, known as reionization, occurred after the gravitational interaction between neutral hydrogen atoms allowed for the formation of the first structures large enough to radiate and ionize surrounding atoms. Astronomers interested in probing the structure of the universe between these two phase changes, when the universe was dominated by cold, dark hydrogen, must examine the fingerprints of such an era:  21cm photons.
Photon emission due to the spin-flip transition of hydrogen is temperature dependent. This means as 21 cm photons are released they will catalyze other reactions from neutral hydrogen nearby. By mapping the intensity of this radiation, cosmologists can develop a precise picture of the topography of the universe during the Dark Age. This is predicted to provide crucial constraints on current models for dark matter and dark energy. Furthermore, neutral hydrogen that has been ionized by those first radiating structures will appear as dark spots in the 21cm background. By examining these anisotropies, cosmologists can gain a firmer understanding of how the process of universal reionization occurred.
Research involving the 21cm line places cosmology on the verge of a new era. However, this field has a long way to go as observation of this transmission is extremely difficult. After redshift, this line is observed on Earth deep into the radio spectrum. This presents many challenges in collecting data as photons in the 21cm spectrum are drowned out by background noise from television transmission and the ionosphere. In the last few years, progression has been made both theoretically and observationally: theoretically, computer simulations of reionization have achieved larger dynamic range and can make more reliable predictions; observationally, plans have been made for four machines to start sensitive 21cm detection in the near future. Precise observations of the 21cm line from distant redshifts promise to revolutionize our understanding of the early universe.   


Griffiths, David. Quantum Mechanics. 2nd. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, 2005. Print.

Pritchard, Jonathan, and Loeb Abraham. "Evolution of the 21 cm Signal Throughout Cosmic History."

Miguel, Morales, and Wyithe Stuart. "Reionization and Cosmology with 21-cm Fluctuations." Annual Rev. Astron. Astrophys.. (2010)

Monday, March 21, 2011

Perception, LSD, and Synesthesia

PERCEPTION. It's crazy, right? The way you view the world around you depends so much on your current state of mind. Whether your perception is altered by your mood, illness, or drugs, it’s plasticity is almost frightening.

Of course, one of the easiest and most marked alterations you can make to your perception is via hallucinogenic drugs. I’ve never tried them myself just because the thought of letting my imagination become my reality kind of terrifies me, to be honest. I don’t think I am emotionally mature enough to deal with the monsters that my personal psyche would create for me. Not yet, anyway. At some point in my future, however, I would love to hallucinate. I think it would be a fascinating experience. I’ve heard that some people are forever changed after taking LSD. You can talk to God. You can come to life-shattering realizations about the universe. Your spirituality and worldview might be forever altered. Like this guy. On the darker side, however, some people come out of LSD trips with permanent psychosis.

It’s hard to find accurate accounts of what people actually experience while on LSD. Google will bring up government websites with obvious bias toward scaring people away from drugs or hippy forums that seem pretty sketchy and not very reputable. Since the experiences of those who take acid are so personal and individualized, I think the best resources available to me are personal anecdotes.

I spent a little time watching people take LSD and talk about their trips on YouTube. Apparently to some people it sounds like a good idea to take video of them selves doing illegal things and post it on the internet. It’s amazing how many people will willfully and enthusiastically incriminate them selves. I did find some interesting stories though. This one is good.

He brings up the monumental question, “what is reality?”. Questioning what is real seems to be common among LSD users. Some people, like the hippy I linked above, might challenge the idea of reality for the rest of their lives. You can see, hear, smell, taste and feel “unreal” things while you are on acid. To the tripper, these things are completely tangible. How could that not eff with your perception of reality?

It’s difficult for our minds to grasp the fact that all sensory perceptions are just electrical and chemical signals in our brains. The reason my computer screen looks the way it does is because photons of a certain frequency stimulate my retina and cause it to send signals to my brain. The same goes for all the information that my brain is taking in from my surrounding: sounds, smells, temperature, air pressure, everything. My brain uses electrical and chemical processes to somehow construct my understanding of what is around me. This understanding of my surroundings is projected into my consciousness and it is the only way I can relate to reality. If the mechanism that allows us to interact with reality is altered, then our personal reality is altered. This can be a significant, permanent change.

If people are forever changed by taking LSD, then it must be permanently altering the structure or function of the brain somehow. But how?

Well… I guess first of all I need to figure out what LSD is, exactly.

LSD stands for lysergic acid diethylamide. So it’s made from reacting two chemicals: lysergic acid and diethylamide.

What are those two things?

Looks like lysergic acid is the good part…

Lysergic acid is found in a fungus known as ergot, it commonly infects rye. More specifically, ergot has high concentrations of a chemical called ergoline. It is from ergoline that lysergic acid is extracted.

When ergoline is ingested it does some knarly things to the body including constricting blood vessels, causing convulsions, headaches, nausea, vomiting, and most famously: hallucinations.

People have known about ergot for a long time. Since the middle ages, controlled doses were used by midwives to induce abortions. There is also evidence of its (intentional?) use thousands of years before this as ergot was found in the stomachs of prehistoric human remains preserved in bogs. Perhaps it was used in prehistoric rituals of spirituality.

It has also been ingested accidently on several famous occasions. Turns out ergot is a trifling little fungus that may have had a hand in several historical events. Many historians have suggested that the behavior of the young women who were “bewitched” during the Salem witch trials was due to ergot poisoning. It has even been linked to The Great Fear, wide spread panic among peasants that helped spur on the French Revolution.

As for the D part of LSD, diethylamide, it’s a bunch of carbons, hydrogens, and a nitrogen strung together. You can get it from mixing ethanol and ammonia. I’m not quite sure of its purpose in LSD. It might be a potentiator, a chemical that enhances the hallucinogenic effects of the lysergic acid. With a potentiator like this, you can just take a drop and go on a mental vacation without the unpleasant effects from the ergoline like vomiting, diarreah, gangrene, ect…Diethylamine sounds like a plus.

OK, so what is it doing to your brain?

Well, LSD is structurally very similar to a chemical called serotonin. 

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, a chemical that transmits signals from neurons.

This is how neurotransmitters work:

Neurons have lots of little packets of chemicals inside them (like serotonin). When a neuron receives an electrical impulse from the nervous system it converts this electrical signal into a chemical signal by releasing the little packets of neurotransmitters.
Here is a really cool animation.
This one is not as cool but it explains what is happening.
The neurotransmitters swim around in your brain and bond with receiver cells and this causes many varied responses in your body. In the case of serotonin, it might affect your mood, anxiety levels, appetite…the list goes on and on.

I didn’t know much about serotonin so I did a few google searches and I found this great blog by neuroscientist Sheril Kesenbaum that gives a fantastic run down on serotonin. 

Man, I tried really hard to understand what serotonin was all about. One thing Dr. Kesenbaum said that made me feel much better is that no one really understands serotonin because the serotonin system is insanely complicated. Serotonin has LOTS of different functions in our bodies and it fulfils these functions in many different ways.  

When the LSD molecule enters our brain, since it looks a lot like serotonin, it binds to serotonin receptors. This is where LSD gets unpredictable: sometimes it will excite the receptor and sometimes it will inhibit it. The effect is a flood of serotonin or no serotonin at all. This is happening at several serotonin receptors throughout the brain.  When a person takes LSD they are messing with their natural ecosystem of serotonin on a grand scale. For reasons no one understands entirely, this causes a marked change in your sensory perceptions.

LSD distorts sensory perceptions in several ways. My favorite is called synesthesia. This is where sensory perceptions tend to blend together. IE: A person may see music or hear/feel color. This word comes from a real medical condition. Ok, after reading up on it a little, synesthesia is actually my new favorite thing. Synesthesia is a real, documented psychological condition in which the stimulation of one sensory pathway leads to the immediate stimulation of another, unrelated pathway. So, for some people the sound of middle C on a piano might smell like roses or maybe every time they see a humming bird they will taste chocolate or if they have a toothache it will have a color, smell, and taste.

The most common manifestation of synesthesia is that letters and numbers will have a certain intrinsic color. IE: G is orange. 8 is purple. They just are. And yes, they are actually SEEING these colors along with the numbers or letters, not just imagining them. The most compelling evidence is that brain scans reveal the visual color processing sections of a synesthete’s brain lighting up when they are shown a certain number or letter. Furthermore, the colors they report seeing are consistent. If they see J as pink at age 9 it will still be pink when they are 32, and the same goes for all other letters and numbers that have a color. If this were just an artifact of imagination it’s hard to imagine that such remarkable consistency would be maintained throughout a person’s lifetime.

Since you don’t question what you are experiencing until you realize that everyone else is not experiencing the same thing, many people don’t even realize that they have this condition. I found this book on synesthesia called The Frog Croaked Blue and there is this cool quote from a woman who describes the moment when she realized that she perceives the world differently than everyone else,
 “I did not 'discover' my synesthesia until I made a comment to my parents in my mid-twenties about a number. They were disputing some number that I had given them as a statistic and I said, by way of proof, that it could not have been seventy and had to be forty because it was a red number with a warm feel, and it was only halfway up the line to 100. It is extremely strange when the two people who know you better than anyone else regard you as though you were a complete alien. I then went on to describe how my numbers are not only colored, but also have very distinct patterns, as does time - the time of day, days of the week, months within the year, and the years themselves.”

Most synethetes view this as a gift that helps them excel at certain tasks such as spelling, arithmetic, memorization, composing... the list goes on. Two famous composers, Franz Liszt and Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov once had a public disagreement about what color certain keys were! I have no idea of the circumstances of the argument but I really like to imagine these two heartily debating the color of a sound in a room full of uncomfortable people who have no idea what they are talking about because to everyone else, sounds are not colors.

Many brilliant people have been known to be synethetes. As a child, Vladimir Nabokov insisted that the colors of the letters on his blocks were all wrong.  Physicist Richard Feynman describes his colored equations,
"When I see equations, I see the letters in colors – I don't know why. As I'm talking, I see vague pictures of Bessel functions from Jahnke and Emde's book, with light-tan j's, slightly violet-bluish n's, and dark brown x's flying around. And I wonder what the hell it must look like to the students."

One of the things I find the most interesting about synesthesia is that certain perceptions seem to be consistent among different synesthetes. For example, for those who have color/letter synesthesia: S will tend to be yellow, A tends to be red, O tends to be white or black. Different people tend to agree on the intrinsic color of certain letters!

Ok, come with me into the weeds for a sec…

If one person can observe something that is completely tangible to them, it doesn’t necessarily constitute reality. BUT if several people see the same thing isn’t THAT reality? I mean…if you see something unbelievable the first thing you will probably do is ask someone else, “Do you see that too?” and if they do then you know it’s real and not just in your head. If more than one person can agree on seeing the same thing then …What IS this? Is this a different reality?

Synesthetes’ brains must be different from the brains of regular/boring people like me some how. But how? It seems that no one is really sure.

If LSD is temporarily inducing these effects in people who don’t have synesthesia and LSD is known to affect the serotonin system…perhaps it has something to do with serotonin?

Do you have synesthesia? I would love to talk to you about the awesome way you see the world around you!

Obviously, much more research should be done on perception, LSD, and synesthesia, but alas, this subject seems to have widely been abandoned by psychologists and neuroscientists. Perhaps it's a reputation ruiner these days. I did find this 2010 project from the Multidisciplinary Association For Psychadelic Study, though. They used a mysticism scale to quantify spiritual experiences! Imagine that. The mysticism scale was developed by this guy named Ralph W. Hood in 1975. It's 32 questions that are thought to measure mystic experience scientifically. Check it out.  

LSD seems to be a powerful gateway toward an understanding of oneself and our role in the surrounding universe and should perhaps be used in that context. However, while breaking down psychological barriers of the mind can be an enlightening learning experience, it should be noted that these barriers exist for a reason. Sounds like with enough LSD use, it's possible to lose your ability to relate to others, to reality, and effectively, to yourself.  

I think a good way to end this post is with this interview from Saul Williams on LSD and how to use it. Smart dude. He's got some good things to say. Have a watch.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Was Clay the First Life on Earth?

I just finished this book called Seven Clues to the Origin of Life by a biochemist named A.G. Cairns-Smith from the University of Glasgow. He’s got this theory that the first life on Earth was clay. It’s pretty intriguing. I’ll try to explain…

Cairns-Smith is looking to answer the question: how did life spring up on Earth? It’s an elusive puzzle that even the most well respected biologists don’t know how to begin solving.

 Life is highly complicated and organized. Perhaps this could be chalked up to evolution if it weren’t for the fact that the complexity seems to be vital to the whole way that life works. The crucial elements of life (DNA, proteins, lipids, and carbohydrates) depend on each other completely. They are interlocked. You can’t have proteins without DNA, proteins can’t do anything without the energy from lipids and carbohydrates, lipids and carbohydrates are constructed by proteins, and proteins construct DNA which brings you back to the beginning of this sentence.

An analogy that I really like is a stone arch.

You can’t take out one stone without the entire structure collapsing. You also can’t build this kind of arch stone by stone. Similarly, all fundamental pieces of life are necessary to the whole so life could not have evolved piece by piece.

The popular example amongst proponents of intelligent design is a mousetrap, it won’t work unless all the pieces are there simultaneously. They call it irreducible complexity. It’s a pretty valid argument, in my opinion. It’s difficult to imagine how even the simplest life form on earth, a single cell, sprung up out of nothing but the oceans. Why would a bunch of atoms spontaneously and simultaneously organize themselves into a complex system in which every piece depends on the other pieces?

You almost can’t blame people for giving up on this question by just throwing their hands up and saying, “God did it!”. The circumstances that would have been necessary to make the first cells are so unlikely that it’s pretty much preposterous to assume that cells assembled themselves by chance.

Let’s take DNA, for example. DNA is made from nucleic acids. In order to synthesize it in a lab you are going to need a primer, which is a strand of nucleic acid that is used as the starter. In order to make primed nucleic acids there are hundreds of steps that need to be performed in a very precise order. Pouring, stirring, heating, concentrating, agitating…ect.

Sure, you could imagine all of these steps happening on their own in nature. We could imagine a pool evaporating in the sun to create a concentrated solution, lightning striking the pool to agitate it, rainfall to dilute, filtration through rocks… and so on. It’s not that the occurrence of each individual step is too unlikely, it’s that the sequence of hundreds of these events successfully happening one after another is too unlikely. It’s analogous to flipping a coin and throwing heads 10,000 times in a row… if you can make this happen I want to be on your team.

And this is just DNA! We also have lipids, carbohydrates, and proteins to worry about; Each requiring their own long series of steps for synthesis. Not only that but ready-to-go proteins, lipids, carbohydrates, and nucleic acids would have to all be in the same place at the same time in order to assemble themselves into an interlocked cell.

Of course, even extremely improbable events can happen given enough time and all the resources on Earth. However, there wasn’t enough time and there isn’t enough Earth.

What do I mean by this?

Cairns-Smith gives a pretty neat run down of this immense improbability: Let’s say that there are 140 steps to perform in order to synthesize DNA. Let’s also say that the chances of the appropriate event happening naturally at each step is one out of six. Both of these are very optimistic estimates. The chances of, say, lightning striking a certain puddle of chemicals at a certain time, are probably much smaller than one in six. However, if we use one in six we can pretend we are rolling dice, which makes this analogy cuter.

Ok so now we are rolling a dice 140 times in a row and we need the same number to come up every time. This number represents success at each step in the life-making process.

What are the odds of this kind of miraculous rolling actually happening? Since you can roll a 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6, there are 6 possible outcomes for one throw. There are 6*6 possible outcomes for two throws, 6*6*6 possible outcomes for three throws and so on. For 140 throws there are 6 multiplied by itself 140 times possible outcomes.

Put this into google: 6^140. You will get, approximately, 10^109. This is a one followed by 109 zeroes. Try writing that number down just to get a feel for how enormous it is. You will get bored and give up after 10 zeroes, max. Five, if your attention span is slightly longer than mine. The chances of you rolling a dice and getting the same number 140 times in a row are 1 out of this huge freakin number. So, you would need a number of trials that is something like 10^109 in order to hit on the ONE successful trial. 

Well that doesn’t seem like such a big deal…just roll the thing for 10^109 trials. You’ll get the successful one eventually. We have all the time in the world and the whole earth. Sounds feasible…right?

Well, if you were to roll one dice every second since the beginning of earth’s history you can only get through about 10^15 trails. No problem…get more dice. In order to squeeze in 10^109 trails we need to be rolling 10^94 different dice every second.

Turns out 10^94 is a ridiculous number. That’s more than the number of electrons in the observable universe, which means it’s WAY more than the number of atoms that have ever been present on Earth. Earth just doesn’t have enough stuff on it and it hasn’t been around long enough for these kinds of odds.

So, you see what I mean when I say this is a pretty valid argument for intelligent design?

Personally, however, I think it’s quite lazy to assume that cells were prepackaged and handed over to the earth as a finished product. If there is a god I don’t she is as boring as that. As crazy and unlikely as it seems, life has to have started up via natural processes on this planet and I’d like to learn about the ways this could be possible.

Perhaps the very first life was not so interlocked; the pieces not completely dependent on each other. Maybe the stone arch was originally scaffolded, like a wall, and then pieces were gradually subtracted leaving us with the mutually dependent, arch-like system we have now.

Enter this bizarre-o clay theory. I really like it. Maybe you will too!

Let’s start here:

Organisms reproduce by copying the messages that define the organisms. This is what we call passing on genes.  Passing on genetic material that is capable of mutating is all natural selection really requires. Of course, the mutations that are beneficial to an organism’s survival are the ones that get passed on and the ones that are detrimental to survival do not get passed on. This is evolution.

In order to pass on genes, or messages, all we really need are the messages themselves. If the messages can be replicated using readily available materials, then we don’t need all the manufacturing machinery of the cell.

Cairns-Smith proposes that the very first organisms were “naked genes”, genetic material without a cell. He suggests that the atomic structure of crystals served as the very first genes.

I’ll explain. Crystals “reproduce” by making layers. The layers are simply repeating patterns of atoms and ions.

A single layer of kaolinite crystal looks like this:

Due to the sizes and charges of each of these particles, only certain atoms and ions can stack up on top of this layer and become the next layer. Think of it like legos…not just any lego can go on top, it has to have the right hole size. Take it one step further…think of it as legos with positive and negative charge. You can’t stack two like-charges right on top of each other. Therefore, the next layer of legos (atoms) is pretty much determined by the first. Starting to sound like DNA yet?

If your family wasn’t as dorky as mine and you didn’t get a grow-your-own-crystal kit as a kid here are some cool videos of crystals growing:

Don’t they even kind of look like they are alive??

For a crystal to grow like this it’s necessary for the environment it’s in to be in a state of super saturation. Super saturation is just when there is more stuff dissolved in a solvent than can usually be dissolved… sugar in water, for example. If you add sugar to water while stirring it will dissolve, of course. But if you keep adding sugar the water will get to a point of saturation where nothing else will dissolve. However, if you heat the solution, then EVEN MORE sugar will dissolve and the water will stay more sugary than it ought to be even after cooling… It’s become super saturated! 

All we need now is a seed- a small crystal from which a large crystal can be grown. Put a little crystal fleck in the solution and in no time you will have grown a dazzling crystal! In a super saturated solution, crystals can be added on faster than they are dissolved away. If your saturation level is high enough you don’t even need a seed crystal. Spontaneous seeding can happen on little flecks of dust or on the surface of its container.

Sometimes, especially if the saturation level is very high and crystals are forming fast, the units will add together in the wrong way. When this happens the resulting crystal bit becomes destabilized and it will dissolve faster, not allowing more crystals to grow on top of it. Or maybe the crystals will add together in a way that strengthens the crystal and allows it to last longer. This “mutation” will then repeat itself because, remember, the next layer is determined by the one that came before it. Ahem…evolution by natural selection much?

But even with perfectly constructed crystals, when the stacks of crystals get too heavy they will break off, exposing both ends for continued growth. The crystals “breed” by breaking up as they grow and providing new seeds for more crystals to grow on. So now we have a mechanisms for crystal birth and mortality!

Ok, but eventually the solution is going to run out of stuff to give, right? The crystals can’t keep growing and reproducing forever because sooner or later everything that was dissolved in the solution will be deposited on the crystal. There will be nothing left to make more crystals from.

This is why we need a continuous crystallizer! A continuous crystallizer is a vessel system that allows for inflows and outflows. It just so happens that the whole earth is a continuous crystallizer for clay materials. The earth makes clay all the time…and lots of it!

I know we probably aren’t used to thinking of clay as a crystal but that’s just because the crystals are so small we can’t see them. Here are some pictures of clay way close up:

This is Smectite


Dickite...haha. God. What am I, 12?

See how there are tiny uniform units that get repeated and stacked up? That’s the signature of a crystal.

Ok, well this whole analogy is cute and all but it doesn’t change the fact that CLAY ISN’T ALIVE. Our genes aren’t made of crystals…they are made of organic molecules. What gives?

Is it possible that modern organic genes could have evolved from crystal genes?

Cairns-Smith thinks so!

It just so happens that certain organic molecules could be very useful to an evolving crystal organism. Not only that, but clay is very good at holding onto organic molecules. Let’s look at some of the important life molecules and how they could be of use to clay crystals. Amino acids and formic acids could be used to control acidity and promote crystallization in clay. Sugars, like polysaccharides will soften and harden under certain circumstances and could serve to control the sliminess of the clay, which is useful if the survival of the clay crystals depend on not being dried out. Nucleotides could be used to bind clay crystals together in certain ways. Perhaps the very first DNA molecules were constructed to interact with clay and lock the pieces of the crystals together.

Now that we have a mechanisms for all these organic molecules to interact, it’s not so difficult to imagine the organic molecules starting to use each other as templates for reproduction instead of the crystals. DNA-like molecules could have come along to help amino acids join up into chains, all the while being protected and promoted inside the “membrane” of a clay crystal. Sooner or later, cell membranes would have had to evolve to replace the clay cradle and proteins would evolve to aid in the assembly process. All this could have been accomplished with more and more sophisticated crystal growth. Remember, the more well-constructed the crystal, the more likely it is that there will be lots of them.

As organic organisms become the more high-tech and efficient organism, one that can construct itself from air and sunshine, they eventually replaced crystal organisms. This would have happened via genetic takeover.

I found this diagram here. It represents a secondary gene type taking over the original gene type.

Is this what really happened? Was our very first ancestor really clay? Hell if I know. Aren’t there some religious stories about humans being created from clay? That might add a whole layer of beauty and humanity to this theory.

There are certainly criticisms of the clay theory but it seems that most of them have to do with the lack of evidence. Unfortunately, we can’t go back in time and watch as the very first life began to evolve. Life springing from clay has also never been demonstrated in a lab setting. Of course, this whole process of evolution from clay to cells would have taken a VERY long time so perhaps it’s not feasible to recreate it in a lab.

Maybe we’ll never know how life began on this planet. And isn’t that great? In a way? Maybe?

Well that’s enough nerding out for now!

But before I go….

I doubt that anyone really reads my blog this closely but I have a few updates and follow-ups. From my alternate biochemistry blog: I got that book, Extraterrestrials, A Field Guide for Earthlings and it’s AWESOME! Tons of cool pictures and hypothetical aliens! It was definitely worth the one penny I paid for it on Amazon, even worth the $4 of shipping. I recommend it.

From my brain waves blog: my eccentric (in the best way) mother bought herself a Mindflex…remember? That maze toy that you control with your brainwaves? It seems to work! I tested it out by doing math problems while the probe was on my head and I made the ball levitate pretty high. Then while I was zoning out and watching TV the ball would fall down. Maybe it has a delay of a few seconds…but overall, I’m a believer! How cool will it be when we develop technology that is even better at measuring and responding to brain activity so that we can begin to control things exterior to our bodies with nothing but thought? YAY! THE FUTURE! Well, someone’s gotta be jazzed about it, right?

OK see ya next time!