I was recently contacted by John Brooks. He writes of himself:
John Brooks loves animals from the core of his heart. Whenever he gets time, he tries to write regarding animal health & condition so that all pet lovers like you don’t fall in any hazardous situation.
He went on to explain that:
One day, Findshadow helped me to find my lost dog. So that I wrote about Findshadow.
So with no further ado, here is John’s post.
What Is Findshadow How It Can Help You Find Your Missing Dog
Dog owners share a lot of the same grievances, annoyances, and frustrations. From getting up to your pet barking in the wee hours of the night to cleaning up after your dog’s mess during walks around the neighborhood, raising and taking care of a pet comes with a host of responsibilities. And with those responsibilities come work, and with work comes grievance, annoyance, and frustration.
However, one of the worst, most gut-wrenching feelings that dog owners can relate to is the moment you realize your dog is missing. After searching every room, backtracking to the park you were at with your dog in the morning, asking your neighbors if they have seen them and posting flyers on every telephone you can find, the hopelessness begins to set in.
Luckily for you, Findshadow, a free app that helps dog owners locate their missing companions, is harnessing the power of community and technology to reunite you with your lost pets. And it is doing a pretty darn good job.
So, what is Findshadow? It is is a free smartphone app that walks owners who have lost their pets step-by-step through the process of finding their dogs.
The app offers a wide array of services and tips for their users, all for free. First, you post your lost or found dog to the community. Then, the app gives you a completely personalized, step-by-step plan on how to use the app and other resources to locate your dog. While you may think of some of these steps yourself, you’ll be surprised how thorough the process can be.
After going through these first introductory steps, you can use Findshadow to print or download personalized street flyers. Although posting your pup to the community in-app will definitely increase visibility far more than strictly putting up posters, having physical images of your dog around the neighborhood will still help you get in front of a demographic that doesn’t have Findshadow downloaded.
You can share your post on social media to easily reach friends and family. With just the three aforementioned features, Findshadow has already allowed you to reach three different populations: Findshadow users, people in your neighborhood and your connections on social media.
Getting your dog’s photo in front of as many people as possible is the recipe to success for finding your dog as quickly as possible. The more people who see it, regardless if they use Findshadow or not, the more people who will be able to identify your pet if they see it.
Findshadow also has a nifty feature that makes it easier to contact nearby shelters to ask if they have seen your dog. Even if you don’t directly contact shelters yourself, Findshadow volunteers can help snap pictures of dogs in shelters and send them to you in-app to see if they match.
The sense of community behind Findshadow is powerful. Past users of Findshadow who have successfully been reunited with their dog because of the app give back to the community by becoming active volunteers. This creates a culture where owners are helping each other out. Every dog is considered important.
The interface of the app is easy-to-use and allows users to quickly switch between different features and services. You can browse through found dog listings to double-check posts to see if someone on Findshadow has already found your dog.
The amount of positive reviews and testimonials from dog owners who gush over the app is well-justified. The app has reunited countless owners with their dogs, oftentimes within the same day they went missing.
Even if you haven’t lost your dog, it is a great app to have downloaded just in case something does come up.
This is the essence of blogging and sharing.
I hadn’t heard of Findshadow before now but will surely put the app on my phone.
The problem with coming up to the age of 75, and aware that I am close to the average life expectancy in the US, is that one increasingly worries about stuff. Such as it seems like the world is becoming more unsettled. But then it is put down to age!
But this article does imply that it is a more unsettled world and we should take notice. Republished with permission.
5 tips for surviving in an increasingly uncertain world
The U.S. presidential impeachment inquiry has added another layer of uncertainty to an already unstable situation that includes political polarization and the effects of climate change.
As a clinical psychologist in the Washington, D.C. area, I hear people report being stressed, anxious, worried, depressed and angry. Indeed, an American Psychological Association 2017 survey found that 63% of Americans were stressed by “the future of our nation,” and 57% by the “current political climate.”
Humans dislike uncertainty in most situations, but some deal with it better than others. Numerous studies link high intolerance of uncertainty to anxiety and anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, PTSD and eating disorders.
While no one person can reduce the uncertainty of the current political situation, you can learn to decrease intolerance of uncertainty by implementing these scientifically sound strategies.
When unsure how to best proceed with a work assignment, you might either immediately seek help, over-research or procrastinate. As you prepare for the day, uncertainty about the weather or traffic is quickly short-circuited by checking a phone. Similarly, inquiries about family or friends’ whereabouts or emotions can be instantly gratified by texting or checking social media.
Tolerance for uncertainty is like a muscle that weakens if not used. So, work that muscle next time you face uncertainty.
Start gradually: Resist the urge to reflexively check your GPS the next time you are lost and aren’t pressured for time. Or go to a concert without Googling the band beforehand. Next, try to sit with the feelings of uncertainty for a while before you pepper your teenager with texts when he is running late. Over time, the discomfort will diminish.
2. Connect to a bigger purpose
Rita Levi-Montalcini was a promising young Jewish scientist when fascists came to power in Italy and she had to go into hiding. As World War II was raging, she set up a secret lab in her parents’ bedroom, studying cell growth. She would later say that the meaning that she derived from her work helped her to deal with the evil outside and with the ultimate uncertainty of whether she would be discovered.
It turns out that humans are generally resilient, even in the face of very stressful or traumatic events. If a feared outcome materializes, chances are you will deal with it better than you could now imagine. Remember that the next time uncertainty rears its head.
4. Bolster resilience by increasing self-care
You have probably heard it many times by now: Sleep well, exercise and prioritize social connections if you want to have a long and happy life.
Possibly the best tool for coping with uncertainty is making sure that you have an active and meaningful social life. Loneliness fundamentally undermines a person’s sense of safety
and makes it very hard to deal with the unpredictable nature of life.
In spite of civilization’s great progress, the fantasy of humankind’s absolute control over its environment and fate is still just that – a fantasy. So, I say to embrace the reality of uncertainty and enjoy the ride.
When I take a walk with that little fluff ball of a foster puppy above, we don’t get very far. It’s not because Galen is blind. It’s because everyone wants to stop and pet him because he’s so darn cute.
I’m fostering Galen for Speak! St. Louis, a rescue that specializes in blind and/or deaf dogs. He’s my second special needs foster puppy. My first, Whibbles Magoo, was blind and deaf, which was a little more challenging. Both of them are double merles. Merle is a beautiful mottled pattern in a dog’s coat. Some disreputable breeders will breed two merles together hoping to get merle puppies. Those puppies have a 25% chance of being double merle — which results in a predominantly white coat and usually means they have hearing or vision loss or both.
As I’ve been talking to potential adopters, there have been so many questions about how to prepare for a blind dog. It’s like getting ready for a sighted pup, but with a little extra special planning.
Create a safe zone
Whether your new blind pal is a puppy or an adult dog, you’ll want to make an area for him where he feels safe. It should be a place where he can’t hurt himself or anything in your home and where he feels comfortable. Some people gate off a room in their homes or use a pen and crate.
I work from home, so Galen has a metal exercise pen surrounding a crate in my office. He can sprawl out or play in his pen or sleep in his crate. He has toys and there’s plenty of room for him to do what he wants, but he can’t gnaw on baseboards or electrical cords. At night, I put him in the crate to sleep.
Blind-proof your home and yar
Look for any sharp edges or stairs where your pup could get into trouble. Install baby gates to block off rooms or staircases. A recent applicant climbed around her home on her hands and knees to see what perils might be at Galen’s level.
Consider using carpet runners and mats to define specific areas. At our house, there’s one at the back door, one near the kitchen and a runner that goes down the hallway to the office. When I recently cleaned the kitchen floor and picked up the mats, Galen stood frozen and confused in the room as if his world was turned upside-down. When I placed the mats back down, he raced around again, now that everything had returned to normal.
Similarly, make sure your yard doesn’t have any hazards and is securely fenced. If you have a pool, fountain or electrical outlets, be sure they are puppy-proofed with fences, gates or locks. Walk your dog on a leash for the first few days and stay nearby after that until you know he has the yard mapped. Once he does, you’ll be amazed at how deftly he will navigate. Galen zooms around the yard, avoiding bushes and fences, gleefully running at full speed.
Resist the urge to move things around. Keep the things at dog eye-level where they are so as not to confuse your dog. Your pet will learn landmarks and maneuver around them, quickly learning the locations of doors, walls, furniture and anything that could potentially be in his way. Be careful about remembering to push in chairs or ottomans after using them so they don’t become new obstacles.
Work on training
It’s always smart to take training classes with a new dog, but especially important to work on training with a special-needs pup. It’s key that you have a strong bond, and working on games and commands is an excellent way to get there. One of the first commands to teach is “watch!” whenever your dog is about to get too close to something like a wall, a bush or even your legs. You’ll find that soon he’ll put on the brakes when you say it.
When a dog doesn’t have one sense, his other senses are often heightened. He may be really tuned in to smells so you might want to try playing games that use stinky treats to get his attention. (I use soft treats that I can cut up in small pieces like venison and even watermelon-flavored dog treats.) Using a snuffle mat is also a good way to serve meals because it works on your dog’s sense of smell. It’s a homemade toy that lets them use their noses to sniff for treats or their dinner.
A note on scents and devices
If you research blind dogs, you’ll find suggestions that you mark certain areas of your home with unique scents. Maybe the back door is marked with a drop of vanilla and your pet’s feeding area has a dash of peppermint. But your dog’s sense of smell is remarkable and he’ll be able to smell his water (and food!) and he’ll quickly figure out the back door and bed and toys. Everything already has its own special smell. One story I read suggested that an owner always wear the same body lotion or perfume, but as a rescue friend pointed out: We all have our own personal odor. Your dog isn’t going to get you confused with anyone else.
You will likely also hear about devices like halos — which are sturdy circular loops that hook onto a dog’s collar, encircling his head to keep him from bumping into things. Some people in the special-needs world say this keeps dogs from learning spacial recognition and some dogs just “freeze,” not wanting to move when this unwieldy device is attached to their heads.
I’ve found that Galen is actually pretty careful. He doesn’t go barreling full force in areas he doesn’t know. Occasionally when he’s playing hard with Brodie, he might lose his bearings and bump into the couch or forget that’s where the toybox is. But all puppies do that when they’re caught up in the heat of the moment. Dogs, and especially puppies, are incredibly resilient. He shakes it off and jumps back into the wrestling match.
But it all depends on the dog and the owner. If your dog is tentative in new places and doesn’t like to explore when he’s unsure, you may find that these aides help. You may decide that you like the idea of scent mapping and using a halo, but I’d suggest letting your dog figure it out by himself first.
If your dog has very limited vision, some vets suggests doggie sunglasses like Doggles. It helps with light sensitivity when they are out in bright sunlight. Plus, they can help protect your dog’s eyes if he bumps into things, and it just looks really cool. Like anything new — a collar, harness or even a leash — it will take a while for your dog to get used to wearing something new, so be patient.
Get ready to talk … a lot
Because your blind dog can’t see you, you’ll need to let him know where you are in different ways. The easiest way is by talking.
When we take a walk, Galen will bump into me every few feet to check in. He used to try to weave between my legs to keep track of me to make sure I was still there. My trainer friend suggested I carry a bell, but I found that it’s just as easy to keep up a running conversation with him. He seems to like it and has his ears constantly going back and forth as he’s listening to my reassuring stream of babble.
In addition to saying “watch!” I say “step up” and “step down” to navigate curbs. I tell people he is blind when they want to approach him and pet him so a strange hand doesn’t just come at him out of the blue. Then when he hears someone cooing to him, his tail and his whole rear ends starts wagging with joy.
Even if you’re not a chatty person, you’ll likely find yourself talking more with a blind dog in the house. When you leave the room, it’s a good idea to call out to your four-legged pal so he knows where you went. I’ve found that Galen listens much more intently to me than Brodie, who has definitely learned to tune me out unless I’m saying something about treats or dinner.
You might want to leave on some music or the TV for your blind dog when you’re not home. Also, try squeaky toys that make noise. In our house, the louder the toy, the more enticing it is
Size up your pets
If you have other pets in your home, consider their personalities and how accepting they’ll be to a new blind family member. My long-suffering dog Brodie doesn’t love that we have a parade of foster puppies in and out of the house, but he tolerates them with incredible patience.
A blind dog can’t pick up on warning signs like pinned-back ears from a fellow canine or a twitching cat tail that mean it’s a good idea to back off. How would your current pet feel if a blind dog bumps into him or stumbles upon his favorite toy or food dish? If he’s snapped at in those situations, a sight-impaired pup won’t have any idea what he did wrong.
Even if you have a laid-back pet, always keep an eye on him around your new addition. It can take a few weeks for everybody to figure out their spot in the family.
If you aren’t sure if your pets or your family are a good fit for a blind dog, check with a trainer or a vet you respect.
Sometimes, you’ll have to count to 10. For me, the laces of my new sneakers were mistaken for a chew toy and have lost their fancy tips. Searching for me in the yard, Galen came racing at me mouth open and collided with my shins, leaving a puppy-tooth puncture wound. He’s afraid to walk down stairs (imagine how scary it must be to take that step into nothingness) so I’m still carrying all 18 pounds of him down the steps many times each day. It’s a great workout but not so great for my lower back.
But man, is he awesome. I’m amazed every day how happy he is and how much he loves everything and everyone. Squeaky toy! Person! Snuggle! Grass! Just because he can’t see something doesn’t mean he doesn’t adore it. When you add a blind dog to your life, you’ll be amazed at how much it opens your eyes to the wonder in the world.
This was an excellent article, not only for blind dogs but also for the partially-sighted. So much better to care for them than the alternative!
We got home at 11:30 yesterday morning and it’s going to be a while before I get back into the swing of things. Not taking into account the nearly 200 high-definition photographs each of one has to be looked at carefully and post-processed where necessary.
However, this was released on September 26th and I didn’t want to delay it any longer.
FDA: Do Not Feed Performance Dog Raw Pet Food
September 26, 2019 — The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is cautioning pet owners not to feed their pets any Performance Dog frozen raw pet food after a sample tested positive for Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes (L. mono).
What Caused the Recall?
Two samples of different finished products collected during an inspection of Bravo Packing, Inc., the manufacturer of Performance Dog raw pet food, tested positive for Salmonella and/or Listeria monocytogenes.
One of the products sampled had not yet been distributed.
The product that entered the marketplace is Performance Dog raw pet food, lot code 072219, sold to customers frozen in two-pound pouches.
Lot codes are printed on the outside of the boxes used to distribute the product, but the lot codes are not printed on the individual sealed plastic pouches, also known as chubs.
Therefore, there are no unique identification numbers on the individual chubs that would allow customers to verify whether their product belongs to the affected lot.
The FDA is cautioning about all Performance Dog frozen raw pet food produced on or after July 22, 2019 because the products do not have lot codes printed on retail packaging.
If you have any Performance Dog product that you purchased after July 22, 2019, throw it away.
Why Is FDA Concerned?
FDA is issuing this alert because Performance Dog raw pet food represents a serious threat to human and animal health.
Because these products are sold and stored frozen, FDA is concerned that people may still have them in their possession.
This is the second time Bravo Packing, Inc. product has tested positive for pathogen contamination. In September 2018, Bravo Packing, Inc. recalled all Performance Dog frozen raw pet food due to Salmonella.
Also, during a 2016 inspection, the FDA collected samples of Bravo Packing, Inc. horse meat chunk animal food that tested positive for the drugs pentobarbital and phenytoin.
Pet foods and treats contaminated with Salmonella and Listeria mono are of particular public health importance because they can affect both human and animal health.
Pets can get sick from these pathogens and may also be carriers of the bacteria and pass it on to their human companions without appearing to be ill.
People can get sick from handling contaminated pet foods and treats or touching surfaces that have had contact with the contaminated pet foods and treats.
Additionally, if a person gets Salmonella or L. mono on their hands, they can spread the bacteria to other people, objects, and surfaces.
Additionally, if a person gets Salmonella or L. mono on their hands, they can spread the bacteria to other people, objects, and surfaces.
The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act requires that all animal food, like human food, be safe to eat, produced under sanitary conditions, contain no harmful substances, and be truthfully labeled.
Without an effective control for pathogens, such as cooking, animal food is more likely to contain pathogens such as Salmonella and L. mono.
Refrigeration or freezing does not kill the bacteria.
Salmonella is a bacterium that can cause illness and death in humans and animals, especially those who are very young, very old, or have weak immune systems.
According to CDC, people infected with Salmonella can develop diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps.
Most people recover without treatment, but in some people, the diarrhea may be so severe that they need to be hospitalized.
In some patients, the Salmonella infection may spread from the intestines to the blood stream and then to other body sites unless the person is treated promptly with antibiotics.
Consult your health care provider if you have symptoms of Salmonella infection.
Salmonella in Pets
Pets do not always display symptoms when infected with Salmonella, but signs can include vomiting, diarrhea (which may be bloody), fever, loss of appetite and/or decreased activity level.
If your pet has these symptoms, consult a veterinarian promptly.
You should also be aware that infected pets can shed the bacteria in their feces and saliva without showing signs of being sick, further contaminating the household environment.
About Listeria Monocytogenes
Listeria monocytogenes is a bacterium that can cause illness and death in humans and animals, especially those who are pregnant, very young, very old, or have weak immune systems.
According to CDC, listeriosis in humans can cause a variety of symptoms, depending on the person and the part of the body affected.
Symptoms can include headache, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance, and convulsions in addition to fever and muscle aches.
Pregnant women typically experience only fever and other flu-like symptoms, such as fatigue and muscle aches.
However, infections during pregnancy can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery, or life-threatening infection of the newborn.
Pregnant women and their newborns, adults age 65 and older, and people with weakened immune systems are more likely to get sick with listeriosis.
Anyone with symptoms of listeriosis should contact a health care provider.
Listeria in Pets
L. mono infections are uncommon in pets, but they are possible.
Symptoms may include mild to severe diarrhea; anorexia; fever; nervous, muscular and respiratory signs; abortion; depression; shock; and death.
Pets do not need to display symptoms to be able to pass L. mono on to their human companions.
As with Salmonella, infected pets can shed L. mono in their feces and saliva without showing signs of being sick, further contaminating the household environment.
What to Do?
If you have any of the affected product, stop feeding it to your pets and throw it away in a secure container where other animals, including wildlife, cannot access it.
Consumers who have had this product in their homes should clean refrigerators/freezers where the product was stored and clean and disinfect all bowls, utensils, food prep surfaces, pet bedding, toys, floors, and any other surfaces that the food or pet may have had contact with.
Because animals can shed the bacteria in the feces when they have bowel movements, it’s particularly important to clean up the animal’s feces in yards or parks where people or other animals may become exposed, in addition to cleaning items in the home.
Consumers should thoroughly wash their hands after handling the affected product or cleaning up potentially contaminated items and surfaces.
The Best Friends website has a useful article under their 2025 Goal aim.
It follows nicely yesterday’s post.
No-Kill for Cats and Dogs in America’s Shelters
You believe that animals deserve compassion and good quality of life. You also love your community and want to take action for the pets and people in it. Here’s how.
Last year, about 733,000 dogs and cats were killed in our nation’s animal shelters, simply because they didn’t have safe places to call home. Together, we can change that and achieve no-kill for dogs and cats nationwide by 2025.
Is your community no-kill?
Explore lifesaving nationwide using the interactive tool below and see which shelters in your community need your support. When every shelter in a community achieves a 90% save rate for all cats and dogs, that community is designated as no-kill. This provides a simple, effective benchmark for our lifesaving progress.
This dashboard presents a dynamic data set that is being updated regularly with the most current information available. We welcome your feedback to help ensure that our data is the latest and most accurate information.
Common elements of a no-kill community
All no-kill communities embrace and promote:
Collective responsibility: We hold ourselves accountable for the welfare of pets in our animal shelters and communities.
Individual community members are willing to participate in lifesaving programs.
State and local government are poised to support those programs.
A transparent shelter staff is working with their community to save more lives.
Progressive lifesaving: We value compassionate and responsible actions to save animals.
Decision-making is data-driven and anchored by best practices in the field.
Quality care is provided to every pet and quality of life is a priority.
Programs are designed to save the animals most at risk of being killed.
Programs are designed to tackle the root of the problem rather than the symptoms.
True euthanasia: We recognize that, for some animals, euthanasia is the most compassionate choice. This is why the no-kill benchmark for save rate is 90% and not 100%. In some cases, shelters may not meet the 90% benchmark, but do meet the philosophical principles of no-kill, which are:
Ending the life of an animal only to end irremediable suffering.
Ending the life of an animal when the animal is too dangerous to rehabilitate and place in the community safely.
End-of-life decisions are made by animal welfare professionals engaging in best practices and protocols.
These community maps are the first of their kind in animal welfare. They represent an enormous undertaking on the part of compassionate organizations and individuals throughout the country and a commitment to collaboration and transparency from more than 3,200 shelters across the country.
A deeply fascinating essay from an individual at the University of Oxford.
I have long read the daily output from The Conversation. It’s a very useful way of keeping one’s brain cells functioning in some sort of fashion.
Yesterday morning I read an essay put out by Thomas Moynihan, a PhD Candidate at the University of Oxford.
It was fascinating and I am republishing it here.
Now it’s not for everyone. It is also long and it also has a number of videos to watch. And there’s not a dog mentioned!
But if you are interested in where we, as in human beings, are ‘going’, so to speak, then this is for you.
And I’m ready to admit that it may be an age thing; something that is of much interest to me because I shall be 75 in November and one naturally wonders about the end of life. Both individually and of society!
The end of the world: a history of how a silent cosmos led humans to fear the worst.
It is 1950 and a group of scientists are walking to lunch against the majestic backdrop of the Rocky Mountains. They are about to have a conversation that will become scientific legend. The scientists are at the Los Alamos Ranch School, the site for the Manhattan Project, where each of the group has lately played their part in ushering in the atomic age.
They are laughing about a recent cartoon in the New Yorker offering an unlikely explanation for a slew of missing public trash cans across New York City. The cartoon had depicted “little green men” (complete with antenna and guileless smiles) having stolen the bins, assiduously unloading them from their flying saucer.
By the time the party of nuclear scientists sits down to lunch, within the mess hall of a grand log cabin, one of their number turns the conversation to matters more serious. “Where, then, is everybody?”, he asks. They all know that he is talking – sincerely – about extraterrestrials.
Bin-stealing UFOs notwithstanding, humanity still hasn’t found any evidence of intelligent activity among the stars. Not a single feat of “astro-engineering”, no visible superstructures, not one space-faring empire, not even a radio transmission. It has beenargued that the eerie silence from the sky above may well tell us something ominous about the future course of our own civilisation.
Such fears are ramping up. Last year, the astrophysicist Adam Frank implored an audience at Google that we see climate change – and the newly baptised geological age of the Anthropocene – against this cosmological backdrop. The Anthropocene refers to the effects of humanity’s energy-intensive activities upon Earth. Could it be that we do not see evidence of space-faring galactic civilisations because, due to resource exhaustion and subsequent climate collapse, none of them ever get that far? If so, why should we be any different?
A few months after Frank’s talk, in October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s update on global warming caused a stir. It predicted a sombre future if we do not decarbonise. And in May, amid Extinction Rebellion’s protests, a new climate report upped the ante, warning: “Human life on earth may be on the way to extinction.”
Meanwhile, NASA has been publishing press releases about an asteroid set to hit New York within a month. This is, of course, a dress rehearsal: part of a “stress test” designed to simulate responses to such a catastrophe. NASA is obviously fairly worried by the prospect of such a disaster event – such simulations are costly.
Space tech Elon Musk has also been relaying his fears about artificial intelligence to YouTube audiences of tens of millions. He and others worry that the ability for AI systems to rewrite and self-improve themselves may trigger a sudden runaway process, or “intelligence explosion”, that will leave us far behind – an artificial superintelligence need not even be intentionally malicious in order to accidentally wipe us out.
In 2015, Musk donated to Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, headed up by transhumanist Nick Bostrom. Nestled within the university’s medieval spires, Bostrom’s institute scrutinises the long-term fate of humanity and the perils we face at a truly cosmic scale, examining the risks of things such as climate, asteroids and AI. It also looks into less well-publicised issues. Universe destroying physics experiments, gamma-ray bursts, planet-consuming nanotechnology and exploding supernovae have all come under its gaze.
So it would seem that humanity is becoming more and more concerned with portents of human extinction. As a global community, we are increasingly conversant with increasingly severe futures. Something is in the air.
But this tendency is not actually exclusive to the post-atomic age: our growing concern about extinction has a history. We have been becoming more and more worried for our future for quite some time now. My PhD research tells the story of how this began. No one has yet told this story, yet I feel it is an important one for our present moment.
I wanted to find out how current projects, such as the Future of Humanity Institute, emerge as offshoots and continuations of an ongoing project of “enlightenment” that we first set ourselves over two centuries ago. Recalling how we first came to care for our future helps reaffirm why we should continue to care today.
Extinction, 200 years ago
In 1816, something was also in the air. It was a 100-megaton sulfate aerosol layer. Girdling the planet, it was made up of material thrown into the stratosphere by the eruption of Mount Tambora, in Indonesia, the previous year. It was one of the biggest volcanic eruptions since civilisation emerged during the Holocene.
Almost blotting out the sun, Tambora’s fallout caused a global cascade of harvest collapse, mass famine, cholera outbreak and geopolitical instability. And it also provoked the first popular fictional depictions of human extinction. These came from a troupe of writers including Lord Byron, Mary Shelley and Percy Shelley.
The group had been holidaying together in Switzerland when titanic thunderstorms, caused by Tambora’s climate perturbations, trapped them inside their villa. Here they discussed humanity’s long-term prospects.
Clearly inspired by these conversations and by 1816’s hellish weather, Byron immediately set to work on a poem entitled “Darkness”. It imagines what would happen if our sun died:
I had a dream, which was not all a dream
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air
Detailing the ensuing sterilisation of our biosphere, it caused a stir. And almost 150 years later, against the backdrop of escalating Cold War tensions, the Bulletin for Atomic Scientists again called upon Byron’s poem to illustrate the severity of nuclear winter.
Two years later, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (perhaps the first book on synthetic biology) refers to the potential for the lab-born monster to outbreed and exterminate Homo sapiens as a competing species. By 1826, Mary went on to publish The Last Man. This was the first full-length novel on human extinction, depicted here at the hands of pandemic pathogen.
Beyond these speculative fictions, other writers and thinkers had already discussed such threats. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in 1811, daydreamed in his private notebooks about our planet being “scorched by a close comet and still rolling on – cities men-less, channels riverless, five mile deep”. In 1798, Mary Shelley’s father, the political thinker William Godwin, queried whether our species would “continue forever”?
While just a few years earlier, Immanuel Kant had pessimistically proclaimed that global peace may be achieved “only in the vast graveyard of the human race”. He would, soon after, worry about a descendent offshoot of humanity becoming more intelligent and pushing us aside.
Earlier still, in 1754, philosopher David Hume had declared that “man, equally with every animal and vegetable, will partake” in extinction. Godwin noted that “some of the profoundest enquirers” had lately become concerned with “the extinction of our species”.
In 1816, against the backdrop of Tambora’s glowering skies, a newspaper article drew attention to this growing murmur. It listed numerous extinction threats. From global refrigeration to rising oceans to planetary conflagration, it spotlighted the new scientific concern for human extinction. The “probability of such a disaster is daily increasing”, the article glibly noted. Not without chagrin, it closed by stating: “Here, then, is a very rational end of the world!”
Before this, we thought the universe was busy
So if people first started worrying about human extinction in the 18th century, where was the notion beforehand? There is enough apocalypse in scripture to last until judgement day, surely. But extinction has nothing to do with apocalypse. The two ideas are utterly different, even contradictory.
For a start, apocalyptic prophecies are designed to reveal the ultimate moral meaning of things. It’s in the name: apocalypse means revelation. Extinction, by direct contrast, reveals precisely nothing and this is because it instead predicts the end of meaning and morality itself – if there are no humans, there is nothing humanly meaningful left.
And this is precisely why extinction matters. Judgement day allows us to feel comfortable knowing that, in the end, the universe is ultimately in tune with what we call “justice”. Nothing was ever truly at stake. On the other hand, extinction alerts us to the fact that everything we hold dear has always been in jeopardy. In other words, everything is at stake.
Extinction was not much discussed before 1700 due to a background assumption, widespread prior to the Enlightenment, that it is the nature of the cosmos to be as full as moral value and worth as is possible. This, in turn, led people to assume that all other planets are populated with “living and thinking beings” exactly like us.
Although it only became a truly widely accepted fact after Copernicus and Kepler in the 16th and 17th centuries, the idea of plural worlds certainly dates back to antiquity, with intellectuals from Epicurus to Nicholas of Cusa proposing them to be inhabited with lifeforms similar to our own. And, in a cosmos that is infinitely populated with humanoid beings, such beings – and their values – can never fully go extinct.
In the 1660s, Galileo confidently declared that an entirely uninhabited or unpopulated world is “naturally impossible” on account of it being “morally unjustifiable”. Gottfried Leibniz later pronounced that there simply cannot be anything entirely “fallow, sterile, or dead in the universe”.
Along the same lines, the trailblazing scientist Edmond Halley (after whom the famous comet is named) reasoned in 1753 that the interior of our planet must likewise be “inhabited”. It would be “unjust” for any part of nature to be left “unoccupied” by moral beings, he argued.
Around the same time Halley provided the first theory on a “mass extinction event”. He speculated that comets had previously wiped out entire “worlds” of species. Nonetheless, he also maintained that, after each previous cataclysm “human civilisation had reliably re-emerged”. And it would do so again. Only this, he said could make such an event morally justifiable.
Later, in the 1760s, the philosopher Denis Diderot was attending a dinner party when he was asked whether humans would go extinct. He answered “yes”, but immediately qualified this by saying that after several millions of years the “biped animal who carries the name man” would inevitably re-evolve.
This is what the contemporary planetary scientist Charles Lineweaver identifies as the “Planet of the Apes Hypothesis”. This refers to the misguided presumption that “human-like intelligence” is a recurrent feature of cosmic evolution: that alien biospheres will reliably produce beings like us. This is what is behind the wrong-headed assumption that, should we be wiped out today, something like us will inevitably return tomorrow.
Back in Diderot’s time, this assumption was pretty much the only game in town. It was why one British astronomer wrote, in 1750, that the destruction of our planet would matter as little as “Birth-Days or Mortalities” do down on Earth.
This was typical thinking at the time. Within the prevailing worldview of eternally returning humanoids throughout an infinitely populated universe, there was simply no pressure or need to care for the future. Human extinction simply couldn’t matter. It was trivialised to the point of being unthinkable.
For the same reasons, the idea of the “future” was also missing. People simply didn’t care about it in the way we do now. Without the urgency of a future riddled with risk, there was no motivation to be interested in it, let alone attempt to predict and preempt it.
It was the dismantling of such dogmas, beginning in the 1700s and ramping up in the 1800s, that set the stage for the enunciation of Fermi’s Paradox in the 1900s and leads to our growing appreciation for our cosmic precariousness today.
But then we realised the skies are silent
In order to truly care about our mutable position down here, we first had to notice that the cosmic skies above us are crushingly silent. Slowly at first, though soon after gaining momentum, this realisation began to take hold around the same time that Diderot had his dinner party.
One of the first examples of a different mode of thinking I’ve found is from 1750, when the French polymath Claude-Nicholas Le Cat wrote a history of the earth. Like Halley, he posited the now familiar cycles of “ruin and renovation”. Unlike Halley, he was conspicuously unclear as to whether humans would return after the next cataclysm. A shocked reviewer picked up on this, demanding to know whether “Earth shall be re-peopled with new inhabitants”. In reply, the author facetiously asserted that our fossil remains would “gratify the curiosity of the new inhabitants of the new world, if there be any”. The cycle of eternally returning humanoids was unwinding.
In line with this, the French encyclopaedist Baron d’Holbach ridiculed the “conjecture that other planets, like our own, are inhabited by beings resembling ourselves”. He noted that precisely this dogma – and the related belief that the cosmos is inherently full of moral value – had long obstructed appreciation that the human species could permanently “disappear” from existence. By 1830, the German philosopher F W J Schelling declared it utterly naive to go on presuming “that humanoid beings are found everywhere and are the ultimate end”.
And so, where Galileo had once spurned the idea of a dead world, the German astronomer Wilhelm Olbers proposed in 1802 that the Mars-Jupiter asteroid belt in fact constitutes the ruins of a shattered planet. Troubled by this, Godwin noted that this would mean that the creator had allowed part of “his creation” to become irremediably “unoccupied”. But scientists were soon computing the precise explosive force needed to crack a planet – assigning cold numbers where moral intuitions once prevailed. Olbers calculated a precise timeframe within which to expect such an event befalling Earth. Poets began writing of “bursten worlds”.
The cosmic fragility of life was becoming undeniable. If Earth happened to drift away from the sun, one 1780s Parisian diarist imagined that interstellar coldness would “annihilate the human race, and the earth rambling in the void space, would exhibit a barren, depopulated aspect”. Soon after, the Italian pessimist Giacomo Leopardi envisioned the same scenario. He said that, shorn of the sun’s radiance, humanity would “all die in the dark, frozen like pieces of rock crystal”.
Galileo’s inorganic world was now a chilling possibility. Life, finally, had become cosmically delicate. Ironically, this appreciation came not from scouring the skies above but from probing the ground below. Early geologists, during the later 1700s, realised that Earth has its own history and that organic life has not always been part of it. Biology hasn’t even been a permanent fixture down here on Earth – why should it be one elsewhere? Coupled with growing scientific proof that many species had previously become extinct, this slowly transformed our view of the cosmological position of life as the 19th century dawned.
Seeing death in the stars
And so, where people like Diderot looked up into the cosmos in the 1750s and saw a teeming petri dish of humanoids, writers such as Thomas de Quincey were, by 1854, gazing upon the Orion nebula and reporting that they saw only a gigantic inorganic “skull” and its lightyear-long rictus grin.
The astronomer William Herschel had, already in 1814, realised that looking out into the galaxy one is looking into a “kind of chronometer”. Fermi would spell it out a century after de Quincey, but people were already intuiting the basic notion: looking out into dead space, we may just be looking into our own future.
People were becoming aware that the appearance of intelligent activity on Earth should not be taken for granted. They began to see that it is something distinct – something that stands out against the silent depths of space. Only through realising that what we consider valuable is not the cosmological baseline did we come to grasp that such values are not necessarily part of the natural world. Realising this was also realising that they are entirely our own responsibility. And this, in turn, summoned us to the modern projects of prediction, preemption and strategising. It is how we came to care about our future.
As soon as people first started discussing human extinction, possible preventative measures were suggested. Bostrom now refers to this as “macrostrategy”. However, as early as the 1720s, the French diplomat Benoît de Maillet was suggesting gigantic feats of geoengineering that could be leveraged to buffer against climate collapse. The notion of humanity as a geological force has been around ever since we started thinking about the long-term – it is only recently that scientists have accepted this and given it a name: “Anthropocene”.
Will technology save us?
It wasn’t long before authors began conjuring up highly technologically advanced futures aimed at protecting against existential threat. The eccentric Russian futurologist Vladimir Odoevskii, writing in the 1830s and 1840s, imagined humanity engineering the global climate and installing gigantic machines to “repulse” comets and other threats, for example. Yet Odoevskii was also keenly aware that with self-responsibility comes risk: the risk of abortive failure. Accordingly, he was also the very first author to propose the possibility that humanity might destroy itself with its own technology.
Acknowledgement of this plausibility, however, is not necessarily an invitation to despair. And it remains so. It simply demonstrates appreciation of the fact that, ever since we realised that the universe is not teeming with humans, we have come to appreciate that the fate of humanity lies in our hands. We may yet prove unfit for this task, but – then as now – we cannot rest assured believing that humans, or something like us, will inevitably reappear – here or elsewhere.
Beginning in the late 1700s, appreciation of this has snowballed into our ongoing tendency to be swept up by concern for the deep future. Current initiatives, such as Bostrom’s Future of Humanity Institute, can be seen as emerging from this broad and edifying historical sweep. From ongoing demands for climate justice to dreams of space colonisation, all are continuations and offshoots of a tenacious task that we first began to set for ourselves two centuries ago during the Enlightenment when we first realised that, in an otherwise silent universe, we are responsible for the entire fate of human value.
It may be solemn, but becoming concerned for humanity’s extinction is nothing other than realising one’s obligation to strive for unceasing self-betterment. Indeed, ever since the Enlightenment, we have progressively realised that we must think and act ever better because, should we not, we may never think or act again. And that seems – to me at least – like a very rational end of the world.
I hope you have read it all. There’s much to engage one. And the message to me is very clear: We have to regard this race, correction: our race, as unique. As is put in the penultimate paragraph:
“Enlightenment when we first realised that, in an otherwise silent universe, we are responsible for the entire fate of human value.”
Now there’s a thought for an atheist on a Saturday morning!
The more we rely on technology to make us efficient, the fewer skills we have to confront the unexpected, says writer and entrepreneur Margaret Heffernan. She shares why we need less tech and more messy human skills — imagination, humility, bravery — to solve problems in business, government and life in an unpredictable age. “We are brave enough to invent things we’ve never seen before,” she says. “We can make any future we choose.”
Later on it explains: “The former CEO of five businesses, Margaret Heffernan explores the all-too-human thought patterns that lead organizations and managers astray.”
In doing more research I came upon this:
Margaret Heffernan was born in Texas, grew up in the Netherlands and was educated at Cambridge University. She produced drama and documentary programs for the BBC for 13 years, then moved back to the US where she became a serial entrepreneur and CEO in the early days of the internet.
All of Heffernan’s work challenges accepted wisdom about good lives and good work. Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril, named one of the most important business books of the decade by the Financial Times, looked at how our most cherished beliefs, behaviors and rules blind us to what matters most.
In 2015, she was awarded the Transmission Prize for A Bigger Prize: How We Can Do Better than the Competition, a book that upended the idea that competition forces the best to the top, arguing that it mostly proves wasteful and destructive where collaboration is more sustainable and creative.
Her forthcoming book, Uncharted: How to Map the Future will be published in February 2020 in the UK and May 2020 in the US. It addresses the fundamental unpredictability of life, challenges technological determinism and asks how we can find in ourselves the freedom and imagination to create the futures we want. An early reader called it “Karl Popper for the 21st century.”
As lead faculty for the Forward Institute’s Responsible Leadership Programme, Heffernan mentors CEOs and senior executives of major global organizations.
….. was OK in the morning but for some reason I was in a dark mood in the afternoon.
(And if you want to skip today’s post I don’t blame you at all. This is not my usual style albeit it is important.)
I was reflecting on the state of the world. Global population was well in excess of seven billion people. The longevity of those people was increasing. That’s good news. The health standards were increasing. That’s also good news.
However, the pressure on farming is intense. More and more land is required. The natural world is under supreme pressure. Extinction rates of many natural species are soaring.
Planet Earth has far too many people!
OK, maybe in time the population level will come down but right now it is too high.
Then in came Tom Engelhardt’s latest essay. I read it and reflected. Is it too dark to post? Then Jeannie said that if you really want to share it then publish it.
If Donald Trump Is the Symptom… Then What’s the Disease?
By Tom Engelhardt
Don’t try to deny it! The political temperature of this country is rising fast. Call it Trump change or Trump warming, if you want, but grasp one thing: increasingly, you’re in a different land and, whatever happens to Donald Trump, the results down the line are likely to be ever less pretty. Trump change isn’t just an American phenomenon, it’s distinctly global. After all, from Australia to India, the Philippines to Hungary, Donald Trumps and their supporters keep getting elected or reelected and, according to a recent CNN poll, a majority of Americans think Trump himself will win again in 2020 (though, at the moment, battleground-state polls look grim for him).
Still, whether or not he gets a second term in the White House, he only seems like the problem, partially because no president, no politician, no one in history has ever gotten such 24/7 media coverage of every twitch, tweet, bizarre statement, falsehood, or fantasy he expresses (or even the clothes he wears). Think of it this way: we’re in a moment in which the only thing the media can’t imagine saying about Donald Trump is: “You’re fired!” And believe me, that’s just one sign of a media — and a country — with a temperature that’s anything but 98.6.
Since you-know-who is always there, always being discussed, always @(un)realdonaldtrump, it’s easy enough to imagine that everything that’s going wrong — or, if you happen to be part of his famed base, right (even if that right isn’t so damned hot for you) — is due to him. When we’re gripped by such thinking and the temperature’s rising, it hardly matters that just about everything he’s “done” actually preceded him. That includes favoring the 1%, deporting record numbers of illegal immigrants, and making war (unsuccessfully) or threatening to do so across significant parts of the planet.
Here, then, is the question of the day, the sort you’d ask about any patient with a rising temperature: If Donald Trump is only the symptom, what’s the disease?
Let me say that the late Chalmers Johnson would have understood President Trump perfectly. The Donald clearly arrived on the scene as blowback — the CIA term of tradecraft Johnson first put into our everyday vocabulary — from at least two things: an American imperium gone wrong with its never-ending wars, ever-rising military budgets, and ever-expanding national security state, and a new “gilded age” in which three men (Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffett) have more wealth than the bottom half of society and the .01% have one of their own, a billionaire, in the Oval Office. (If you want to add a third blowback factor, try a media turned upside down by new ways of communicating and increasingly desperate to glue eyes to screens as ad revenues, budgets, and staffs shrank and the talking heads of cable news multiplied.)
Now, I don’t mean to sell Donald Trump short in any way. Give that former reality TV star credit. Unlike either Hillary Clinton or any of his Republican opponents in the 2016 election campaign, he sensed that there were voters in profusion in the American heartland who felt that things were not going well and were eager for a candidate just like the one he was ready to become. (There were, of course, other natural audiences for a disruptive, self-promoting billionaire as well, including various millionaires and billionaires ready to support him, the Russians, the Saudis… well, you know the list). His skill, however, never lay in what he could actually do (mainly, in these years, cut taxes for the wealthy, impose tariffs, and tweet his head off). It lay in his ability to catch the blowback mood of that moment in a single slogan — Make America Great Again, or MAGA — that he trademarked in November 2012, only days after Mitt Romney lost his bid for the presidency to Barack Obama.
Yes, four years later in the 2016 election, others began to notice the impact of that slogan. You couldn’t miss the multiplying MAGA hats, after all. Hillary Clinton’s advisers even briefly came up with the lamest response imaginable to it: Make America Whole Again, or MAWA. But what few at the time really noted was the crucial word in that phrase: “again.” Politically speaking, that single blowback word might then have been the most daring in the English language. In 2016, Donald Trump functionally said what no other candidate or politician of any significance in America dared to say: that the United States was no longer the greatest, most indispensable, most exceptionable nation or superpower or hyper-power ever to exist on Planet Earth.
That represented a groundbreaking recognition of reality. At the time, it didn’t matter whether you were Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, or Marco Rubio, you had to acknowledge some version of that formula of exceptionalism. Trump didn’t and, believe me, that rang a bell in the American heartland, where lots of people had felt, however indirectly, the blowback from all those years of taxpayer-funded fruitless war, while not benefitting from infrastructurebuilding or much of anything else. They experienced blowback from a country in which new billionaires were constantly being created, while the financial distance between CEO salaries and those of workers grew exponentially vaster by the year, and the financing of the political system became a 1% affair.
With that slogan, The Donald caught the spirit of a moment in which both imperial and economic decline, however unacknowledged by the Washington political elite, had indeed begun. In the process, as I wrote at that time, he crossed a psychologically taboo line and became America’s first declinist candidate for president. MAGA captured a feeling already at large that tomorrow would be worse than today, which was already worse than yesterday. As it turned out, it mattered not at all that the billionaire conman spouting that trademarked phrase had long been part of the problem, not the solution.
He caught the essence of the moment, in other words, but certainly didn’t faintly cause it in the years when he financed Trump Tower, watched his five Atlantic City casinos go bankrupt, and hosted The Apprentice. In that election campaign, he captured a previously forbidden reality of the twenty-first century. For example, I was already writing this in June 2016, five months before he was elected president:
“In its halcyon days, Washington could overthrow governments, install Shahs or other rulers, do more or less what it wanted across significant parts of the globe and reap rewards, while (as in the case of Iran) not paying any price, blowback-style, for decades, if at all. That was imperial power in the blaze of the noonday sun. These days, in case you hadn’t noticed, blowback for our imperial actions seems to arrive as if by high-speed rail (of which by the way, the greatest power on the planet has yet to build a single mile, if you want a quick measure of decline).
“Despite having a more massive, technologically advanced, and better funded military than any other power or even group of powers on the planet, in the last decade and a half of constant war across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa, the U.S. has won nothing, nada, zilch. Its unending wars have, in fact, led nowhere in a world growing more chaotic by the second.”
Mind you, three years later the United States remains a staggeringly powerful imperial force, with hundreds of military bases still scattered across the globe, while its economic clout — its corporations control about half the planet’s wealth — similarly remains beyond compare. Yet, even in 2016, it shouldn’t have been hard to see that the American Century was indeed ending well before its 100 years were up. It shouldn’t have been hard to grasp, as Donald Trump intuitively did, that this country, however powerful, was already both a declining empire — thank you, George W. Bush for invading Iraq! Mission Accomplished! — and a declining economic system (both of which still looked great indeed, if you happened to be profiting from them). That intuition and that slogan gave Trump his moment in… well, dare I call it “the afternoon sun”? They made him president.
In a sense, all of this should have been expectable enough. Despite the oddity of Donald Trump himself, there was little new in it, even for the imperial power that its enthusiasts once thought stood at “the end of history.” You don’t need to look far, after all, for evidence of the decline of empires. You don’t even have to think back to the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, almost three decades ago in what now seems like the Stone Age. (Admittedly, Russian President Vladimir Putin, a brilliant imagineer, has brought back a facsimile of the old Soviet Union, even if, in reality, Russia is now a rickety, fraying petro-state.)
Just take a glance across the Atlantic at Great Britain at this moment. And imagine that three-quarters of a century ago, that modest-sized island nation still controlled all of India, colonies across the planet, and an impressive military and colonial service. Go back even further and you’ll find yourself in a time when it was the true superpower of planet Earth. What a force it was — industrially, militarily, colonially — until, of course, it wasn’t.
If you happen to be looking for imperial lessons, you could perhaps say that some empires end not with a bang but with a Brexit. Despite all the pomp and circumstance (tweeting and insults) during the visit of the Trump royal family (Donald, Melania, Ivanka, Jared, Donald Jr., Eric, and Tiffany) to the British royals, led by a queen who, at 93, can remember better days, here’s something hard to deny: with Brexit (no matter how it turns out), the Earth’s former superpower has landed in the sub-basement of history. Great Britain? Obviously that adjective has to change.
In the meantime, across the planet, China, another once great imperial power, perhaps the greatest in the long history of this planet, is clearly on the rise again from another kind of sub-basement. That, in turn, is deeply worrying the leadership, civilian and military, of the planet’s “lone superpower.” Its president, in response, is wielding his weapon of choice — tariffs — while the U.S. military prepares for an almost unimaginable future war with that upstart nation, possibly starting in the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, the still-dominant power on the planet is, however incrementally, heading down. It’s nowhere near that sub-basement, of course — anything but. It’s still a rich, immensely powerful land. Its unsuccessful wars, however, go on without surcease, the political temperature rises, and democratic institutions continue to fray — all of which began well before Donald Trump entered the Oval Office and, in fact, helped ensure that he would make it there in the first place.
And yet none of this, not even imperial decline itself, quite captures the “disease” of which The Donald is now such an obvious symptom. After all, while the rise and fall of imperial powers has been an essential part of history, the planetary context for that process is now changing in an unprecedented way. And that’s not just because, since the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, growing numbers of countries have come to possess the power to take the planet down in a cataclysm of fire and ice (as in nuclear winter). It’s also because history, as we’ve known it, including the rise and fall of empires, is now, in a sense, melting away.
Trump change, the rising political temperature stirred by the growing populist right, is taking place in the context of (and, worse yet, aiding and abetting) record global temperatures, the melting of ice across the planet, the rise of sea levels and the future drowning of coastlines (and cities), the creation of yet more refugees, the increasing fierceness of fires and droughts, and the intensification of storms. In the midst of it all, an almost unimaginable wave of extinctions is occurring, with a possible million plant and animal species, some crucial to human existence, already on the verge of departure.
Never before in history has the rise and decline of imperial powers taken place in the context of the decline of the planet itself. Try, for instance, to imagine what a “risen” China will look like in an age in which one of its most populous regions, the north China plain, may by century’s end be next to uninhabitable, given the killing heat waves of the future.
In the context of both Trump change and climate change, we’re obviously still awaiting our true transformative president, the one who is not a symptom of decline, but a factor in trying to right this country and the Earth before it’s too late. You know, the one who will take as his or her slogan, MTPGA (Make The Planet Great Again).
Part of me wants to live for a long time. That’s why I am vegan and trying to stay as fit as I can. (I’m also aware that Jeannie’s Parkinson’s Disease is a terminal disease and that in the latter stages she will need me to look after her.)
But then again I’m not sure I want to live in a world that continues to degrade especially continues to degrade in natural ways.
What’s the answer?
What do others who are on or around my age think about it?
Assistant Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Wesleyan University
June 6th, 2019.
April 26, 1803 was an unusual day in the small town of L’Aigle in Normandy, France – it rained rocks.
Over 3,000 of them fell out of the sky. Fortunately no one was injured. The French Academy of Sciences investigated and proclaimed, based on many eyewitness stories and the unusual look of the rocks, that they had come from space.
The Earth is pummeled with rocks incessantly as it orbits the Sun, adding around 50 tons to our planet’s mass every day. Meteorites, as these rocks are called, are easy to find in deserts and on the ice plains of Antarctica, where they stick out like a sore thumb. They can even land in backyards, treasures hidden among ordinary terrestrial rocks. Amateurs and professionals collect meteorites, and the more interesting ones make it to museums and laboratories around the world for display and study. They are also bought and sold on eBay.
Despite decades of intense study by thousands of scientists, there is no general consensus on how most meteorites formed. As an astronomer and a geologist, we have recently developed a new theory of what happened during the formation of the solar system to create these valuable relics of our past. Since planets form out of collisions of these first rocks, this is an important part of the history of the Earth.
The mysterious chondrules
About 10% of meteorites are pure iron. These form through a multi-step process in which a large molten asteroid has enough gravity to cause iron to sink to its center. This builds an iron core just like the Earth’s. After this asteroid solidifies, it can be shattered into meteorites by collisions with other objects. Iron meteorites are as old as the solar system itself, proving that large asteroids formed quickly and fully molten ones were once abundant.
The other 90% of meteorites are called “chondrites” because they are full of mysterious, tiny spheres of rock known as “chondrules.” No terrestrial rock has anything like a chondrule inside it. It is clear that chondrules formed in space during a brief period of intense heating when temperatures reached the melting point of rock, around 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, for less than an hour. What could possibly account for that?
Researchers have come up with many hypotheses through the last 40 years. But no consensus has been reached on how this brief flash of heating happened.
The chondrule problem is so famously difficult and contentious that when we announced to colleagues a few years ago that we were working on it, their reaction was to smile, shake their heads and offer their condolences. Now that we have proposed a solution we are preparing for a more critical response, which is fine, because that’s the way science advances.
The flyby model
Our idea is quite simple. Radioactive dating of hundreds of chondrules shows that they formed between 1.8 and 4 million years after the beginning of the solar system – some 4.6 billion years ago. During this time, fully molten asteroids, the parent bodies of the iron meteorites, were abundant. Volcanic eruptions on these asteroids released tremendous amounts of heat into the space around them. Any smaller objects passing by during an eruption would experience a short, intense blast of heat.
To test our hypothesis, we split up the challenge. The astronomer, Herbst, crunched the numbers to determine how much heating was necessary and for how long to create chondrules. Then the geologist, Greenwood, used a furnace in our lab at Wesleyan to recreate the predicted conditions and see if we could make our own chondrules.
The experiments turned out to be quite successful.
We put some fine dust from Earth rocks with compositions resembling space dust into a small capsule, placed it in our furnace and cycled the temperature through the predicted range. Out came a nice-looking synthetic chondrule. Case closed? Not so fast.
Two problems emerged with our model. In the first place, we had ignored the bigger issue of how chondrules came to be part of the whole meteorite. What is their relationship to the stuff between chondrules – called matrix? In addition, our model seemed a bit too chancy to us. Only a small fraction of primitive matter will be heated in the way we proposed. Would it be enough to account for all those chondrule-packed meteorites hitting the Earth?
Making whole meteorites
To address these issues, we extended our initial model to consider flyby heating of a larger object, up to a few miles across. As this material approaches a hot asteroid, parts of it will vaporize like a comet, resulting in an atmosphere rich in oxygen and other volatile elements. This turns out to be just the kind of atmosphere in which chondrules form, based on previous detailed chemical studies.
We also expect the heat and gas pressure to harden the flyby object into a whole meteorite through a process known as hot isostatic pressing, which is used commercially to make metal alloys. As the chondrules melt into little spheres, they will release gas to the matrix, which traps those elements as the meteorite hardens. If chondrules and chondrites form together in this manner, we expect the matrix to be enhanced in exactly the same elements that the chondrules are depleted. This phenomenon, known as complementarity, has, in fact, been observed for decades, and our model provides a plausible explanation for it.
Perhaps the most novel feature of our model is that it links chondrule formation directly to the hardening of meteorites. Since only well-hardened objects from space can make it through the Earth’s atmosphere, we would expect the meteorites in our museums to be full of chondrules, as they are. But hardened meteorites full of chondrules would be the exception, not the rule, in space, since they form by a relatively chancy process – the hot flyby. We should know soon enough if this idea holds water, since it predicts that chondrules will be rare on asteroids. Both Japan and the United States have ongoing missions to nearby asteroids that will return samples over the next few years.
If those asteroids are full of chondrules, like the hardened meteorites that make it to the Earth’s surface, then our model can be discarded and the search for a solution to the famous chondrule problem can go on. If, on the other hand, chondrules are rare on asteroids, then the flyby model will have passed an important test.
“Mud ball” meteorites – full of clays, organics and water – are unique among space rocks. And a lot of them fell in April 2019 on a small town in Costa Rica, much to the delight of scientists.
Meteorite falls on Earth are fairly common, but not all meteorites are the same. Some of them are “mud balls,” rich in clays, organic compounds and water-bearing minerals, called carbonaceous chondrites. They are of great interest to scientists, due to their unique composition, and now a bunch more prime specimens have been found, which rained down after a large fireball was seen over Aguas Zarcas, a small town in Costa Rica, on April 23, 2019.
The fireball was a meteor, or space rock, entering the Earth’s atmosphere that broke apart into hundreds of smaller pieces. When the pieces of this rock hit the ground, their name changed to meteorite. One meteorite fragment weighed about two pounds and smashed through the roof of a house, destroying the owner’s dining table. Another one crashed through the roof of a dog house, narrowly missing a sleeping dog. Close calls!
Several of the meteorites were collected and sent to Arizona State University (ASU) for study, donated by meteorite collector Michael Farmer. ASU will also be able to purchase additional meteorites from the fall, thanks to a private donor. This is the first time in 50 years that the university has had a chance to analyze such pristine samples of extraterrestrial mud balls. As Laurence Garvie, a research professor at ASU and a curator for its Center for Meteorite Studies, said:
Many carbonaceous chondrites are mud balls that are between 80 and 95 percent clay. Clays are important because water is an integral part of their structure. These had to be collected quickly and before they got rained on. Because they are mostly clay, as soon as these types of meteorites get wet, they fall apart.
Luckily, the researchers were able to collect their samples before it rained again, and they got a nice little haul, too, about 55 pounds (25 kilograms) of the precious space rocks.
Analysis of the meteorites was carried out at ASU’s campus in Tempe, Arizona. According to Garvie:
I was in the lab by 5 a.m. the next morning after picking up the samples to get them ready for the initial analyses. Classification of new meteorites can be like a race with other institutions, and I needed ASU to be first so that we’ll have the recognition of being the collection that holds and curates the type specimen material.
Air-sensitive meteorites like these are kept in special nitrogen cabinets. The nitrogen gas helps to preserve the meteorites, which can degrade easily due to their composition. As Garvie explained:
If you left this carbonaceous chondrite in the air, it would lose some of its extraterrestrial affinities. These meteorites have to be curated in a way that they can be used for current and future research, and we have that ability here at ASU.
The classification of these meteorites is part of a broader international classification effort. Garvie is also working with Karen Ziegler from the Institute of Meteoritics at the University of New Mexico. They studied the oxygen isotopes of the meteorites, to determine how similar they are to other carbonaceous chondrites.
Sandra Pizzarello, an organic chemist from ASU’s School of Molecular Sciences, is also involved in the studies, focusing on the organic content of the meteorites. These kinds of organics could have provided the material needed for life to begin on Earth.
Additional scientific analysis will follow later, but first the meteorites need to be approved, classified and named by The Meteoritical Society‘s nomenclature committee. This group of 12 scientists is responsible for approving all meteorite samples for study.
These new meteorite samples are currently on display at ASU’s Tempe campus in the Center for Meteorite Studies collection.
So, why are mud ball carbonaceous chondrite meteorites so significant?
They are thought to originate from asteroids that are leftovers from early planetesimals, planets that started to form in the early solar system billions of years ago but now no longer exist. Those planets had organic materials and water, making them places where the chemical precursors to life could have started. In the case of the asteroid that these new meteorites originated from, Garvie said:
It formed in an environment free of life, then was preserved in the cold and vacuum of space for 4.56 billion years, and then dropped in Costa Rica last week.
Carbonaceous chondrites are relatively rare among meteorites but are some of the most sought-after by researchers because they contain the best-preserved clues to the origin of the solar system. This new meteorite represents one of the most scientifically significant additions to our wonderful collection in recent years.
Because these meteorites contain so much mineral-bound water, they could also be useful in learning how water can be extracted from asteroids, a great resource for future astronauts. According to Garvie:
Having this meteorite in our lab gives us the ability, with further analysis, to ultimately develop technologies to extract water from asteroids in space.
The last time a carbonaceous chondrite meteorite fall similar to this one occurred was in 1969 near Murchison, Australia. Those meteorites were curated by another ASU professor and founding director of ASU’s Center for Meteorite Studies, Carleton Moore.
The meteorites in Aguas Zarcas have also been found to be similar in composition to asteroid Bennu, now being explored by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. Bennu is thought to be a remnant carbonaceous chondrite planetesimal. OSIRIS-REx is carrying ASU’s Phil Christensen-designed Thermal Emissions Spectrometer (OTES) instrument, which is being used to make mineral and temperature maps of the asteroid.
Garvie and other scientists will be studying these mud ball meteorites for years to come, unlocking more secrets as to how our solar system formed and evolved, and how the ingredients of life originated and were spread throughout the solar system, including to Earth.
Bottom line: This new meteorite fall in Costa Rica has provided scientists with a great opportunity to study multiple mud ball meteorites, one of the most unusual kinds of meteorites known to exist, and one that could help answer the question of how life started on Earth.
I don’t know about you but I found this very interesting indeed. I guess I hadn’t looked at meteorites as different entities, depending on the source, before.
Must repeat that closing paragraph again: “Garvie and other scientists will be studying these mud ball meteorites for years to come, unlocking more secrets as to how our solar system formed and evolved, and how the ingredients of life originated and were spread throughout the solar system, including to Earth.”