Bug Eyed Creatures of the Deep

I’ve been thinking a lot about eyes lately. Mostly that’s because of my best friend, editor, business associate, and fellow Cuthbert Burbage enthusiast, Maygen. She’s having LASIK this week, which has led to a lot of conversations like:

So needless to say, eyes and vision and lasers were all on my mind when I spent a rainy weekend binge watching Blue Planet. The Deep Ocean episode caught my attention with its slew of bizarre creatures that inhabit the depths of the ocean where only a very small amount of sunlight trickles down from the surface. The animals there live in a sort of perpetual twilight and as a result, many have developed enormous eyes to capitalize on what little light there is. But that isn’t all. The dim lighting has done some serious tinkering with these animals’ visual systems--and it doesn’t just affect their eyes.

The mesopelagic zone covers waters from 200 to 1000m deep. At those depths, there’s just enough light to be able to distinguish night from day, but just barely. It’s an alien world to be sure. Even the light there is much different than the light on the surface. As it travels through water, the longer wavelengths of light, reds and oranges, are absorbed. Only slower wavelengths make it down to the mesopelagic. It is a blue and black world.

Bioluminescence for everyone! Clockwise from the top: the underside of a hatchetfish, warning display of a jelly, a lanternfish, and a dragon fish (Photo from Johnsen Lab at Duke)

Bioluminescence for everyone! Clockwise from the top: the underside of a hatchetfish, warning display of a jelly, a lanternfish, and a dragon fish (Photo from Johnsen Lab at Duke)

But the sun isn’t the only source of light there. Evolution was feeling rather glow-happy when it created mesopelagic fish: over 95% of fish species in the twilight zone bioluminescence. And they are definitely not alone: there are light up squid, psychedelic jellyfish, flashy shrimp, and glow in the dark sharks. (I couldn’t work lasers into this post, but I made it to glow in the goddamn dark sharks, so I think that’s worth something.)

Let’s talk about those sharks. The cookie cutter shark (Isistius brasilensis), like many mesopelagic creatures, is covered in light-emitting organs called photophores--more on those in a bit. Well, it’s covered except for a distinct patch under its chin. (Glow in the dark shark with a soul patch!) From below, the patch looks like a fish. Would be predators swim up from the depths thinking they’ve got a nice meal in sight only to become prey themselves. Sneaky!

Lots of fish and other carnivorous creatures spend their time lurking in the darker depths, watching for the silhouettes of potential meals swimming above. As you may imagine, this has led to lots of prey organisms evolving methods to mask their silhouettes. Some have become razor thin. (The better to disappear from sight, my dear.) Others have gone as transparent as possible--which is probably more impressive than you’re giving them credit for. Building transparent tissues is incredibly difficult--it involves a lot of very accurate crystal alignment and a whole host of other logistics--but it’s not impossible. Just think about the lenses and corneas of your eyes, you silly human.

But, not content with just being transparent and therefore badass, the Solmissus incisa jellyfish, like many of its brethren, has gone so far as to absorb sea water into its tissues. The less difference in density from its flesh to the surrounding water, the less light will refract off of it and thus give it away to predators.

Imagine if every time you ate something, everyone could see your meal inside you. Mostly I think you'd be shocked at the sheer amount of ice cream and doughnuts I consume. (Image from mbari.org)

Imagine if every time you ate something, everyone could see your meal inside you. Mostly I think you'd be shocked at the sheer amount of ice cream and doughnuts I consume. (Image from mbari.org)

Photophores play a big role in the silhouette camouflaging game as well. It isn’t just our cookie cutter friend glowing by himself down there. Many mesopelagic animals have photophores lining their undersides. They use sensors on their topsides to detect the intensity and scattering of sunlight and then mimic it with their photophores.

The two types of light--the down-welling light from the surface and the light generated by bioluminescence--have driven the evolution of some pretty funky eyes. Generally speaking, as one goes deeper in the ocean, the eyes of the creatures get bigger and bigger, until they just aren’t necessary anymore. Since the mesopelagic is the last depth that has sunlight, it represents the peak in eye-size shenanigans. Huge eyes work like drag nets to haul in every photon of light possible.

Yellow lenses, like on the larger eye of the cock-eyed squid, are fairly common as well. They have the disadvantage of filtering out nearly all the blue light (which, if you recall is most of the available light), but they also have one huge advantage. Photophores mimic down-welling light, which means their light is blue. But they don’t mimic it perfectly, so the light has a greenish tinge that becomes easily detectable when the rest of the ambient blue light is filtered out. Find the photophore, find a meal.

Who me? I'm just chilling, you know, using my yellow lenses to filter out ambient light and hone in on bioluminescence.The usual. No biggie.

Who me? I'm just chilling, you know, using my yellow lenses to filter out ambient light and hone in on bioluminescence.The usual. No biggie.

Then there are the tube eyes. Oh god, the tube eyes. Where our eyes are spheres, some mesopelagic creatures have eyes that are, well, tubes. Tubular eyes aren’t very good at precision vision, but they are great at collecting and focusing small amounts of light--think of a telescope. These eyes are favored by ‘lie in wait’ predators like the telescope fish (Gigantura chuni).

Tubular eyes are great at collecting light, but they leave creatures with a very narrow field of vision. To counter that, many tube-eyed creatures have developed ‘accessory retinas’ on the sides of their tubes. These extra retinas can’t necessarily form images--vision the way you and I think about it--but they can detect light and movement, alerting the fish where to direct its better equipped tubular eyes. I’d advise buying your accessory retinas now, once the press gets a hold of this it’s really going to take off.

I found this image on  an ebay site  selling build your own telescope fish 3D model kits. Tragically, they were sold out when I got there. But it makes me happy that there are at least four people in the world who had a need for a 3D telescope fish model.

I found this image on an ebay site selling build your own telescope fish 3D model kits. Tragically, they were sold out when I got there. But it makes me happy that there are at least four people in the world who had a need for a 3D telescope fish model.

There are lots of tube-eyed creatures, but I’m going to go ahead and give the award for “Best Dressed/ Most Evolutionary Effort” to Macropinna microstoma, aka the barreleye fish. Known since 1939, a specimen had never been found intact, much less alive and swimming until 2009. Their corpses had always washed up covered in a goopy slime where their heads should have been, but the 2009 video showed something else. That goopy slime was its head. The fish has a translucent skull.

I'll just leave this here... (Thanks for photo  MBARI )

I'll just leave this here... (Thanks for photo MBARI)

But wait, there’s more. The dark spots on the front of its mouth are not eyes, they’re nostrils. Its tubular eyes are actually the green orbs perched on top of its head. Those eyes, by the way, can swivel to the front of its head so that it can see not only the jellyfish it eats, but also the tiny creatures it snatches away from other jellyfishes’ tentacles. To quote Stephen Colbert, “that’s the craziest f#?king thing I’ve ever heard.”


Decomposing Rocks and Discarded Exoskeletons

However improbable it may sound, deep inside this pale as a lily, born and bred midwesterner beats the heart of beach bum. I may never have what people will call a "tan," but good luck getting me out of the water or away from the shore once I’m there. I will gladly haul my beach gear on the subway. I regularly try to talk my family into moving our Christmas celebration from St. Louis to St. Lucia. I actively track real estate prices in the Caribbean. You get the idea.

Like virtually everyone with a pulse, I seem to be unable to resist the urge to collect seashells while I’m frittering the day away on the sand. Recently though, while getting ready for a trip to Cocoa Beach, Florida (where I was meeting my parents so they could see my work at Kennedy Space Center) I realized that I knew practically nothing about the creatures that had made those shells. And, come to think of it, I didn’t know much about a lot of what I see at the beach. The only thing left to do was buy some books, repack my suitcase to accommodate said books, nearly miss my plane (classic Emme), and get ready to be the nerdiest beach bum there ever was.

Here’s some of what I found:

Sand Ok, obviously I found sand. That in and of itself may not sound terribly exciting, but think of it like this: those inconvenient grains that invariably get stuck in every conceivable crevice of your flip flops and cling to your beach towel despite several rounds of vigorous shaking, are actually bits of decomposed rock. Sand is mostly made up of the remains of rocks that have been weathered down for an average of a couple hundred thousand years. There’s also a small amount of shelled sea critter bits and the hardened remains of other animals and plants thrown in for good measure.

The sand along each stretch of beach is unique—the result of the rock composition at its source (for beaches in Florida, that’s by and large the Appalachian Mountains) and the coastal conditions where it ended up. The daily action of waves and tides, the occasional large storm, and longer-term events like sea level change all play a role in a beach’s sand profile. The sand on most beaches in the eastern US is made predominantly of quartz with a little feldspar thrown in. Those minerals are not only abundant in the Earth’s crust, they’re also hard enough to stick around long after others have dissolved or been pulverized into dust.

Seashells Seashells are the exoskeletons of sea critters. They are made mostly of calcium carbonate (aka TUMS) with just a dash of protein, the same recipe that the first shelled organisms used when they evolved some 500 millions years ago. Animals build their shells by pulling calcium out of the seawater. It’s a pretty cool process that we still don’t fully understand, but it has some interesting possibilities for the world of biomimetics. Many of the shells that wash up on shore contain clues about how their former residents met their end—holes where predators drilled through the shell or long grooves made by parasitic worms are fairly common sights.

  • Arks I found shells from at least three species of these clams, including a few blood arks (Anadara ovalis). Unlike most clams, which have blood that is clear or bluish, blood arks have red blood. The color comes from hemoglobin, the same molecule that carries oxygen in our blood.
  • Lightning whelk (Busycon sinistrum) There are few phrases I enjoy typing more than ‘large predatory sea snail,’ so I was excited to find a few fragments of these guys. Lightning whelks are the southpaws of the sea; the leftward opening on their shells distinguishes them from most other marine animals.
  • Eastern white slippersnails (Crepidula atrasolea) These snazzy creatures start life as males, then change to female when conditions are right, i.e. when there are other slippersnails nearby to mate with. (An ability that I am sure would make dating in New York so much simpler.) Their shells are easy to spot because they have a shelf-like projection on the inside.
Slurp, slurp "Tasty!"- The creature that ate these guys. (Image via  Verobeachgal  on Flickr)

Slurp, slurp "Tasty!"- The creature that ate these guys. (Image via Verobeachgal on Flickr)

Salle’s auger (Hastula cinera) Despite some pretty solid search attempts, I wasn’t able to capture all that many live shelled critters. But one morning my dad dug up this small sea snail from the surf zone. It’s a shame it wasn’t auger mating season because according to my guide book “their summer mating swarms are in the style portrayed by Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity, with embracing pairs rolling in the swash zone" and that seems like something you don’t want to miss.

Looks similar to me.

Looks similar to me.

Ghost crabs (Ocypode quadrata) The ghost crab lived up to its name and stealthy reputation during my visit. I saw quite a few of their characteristic burrow holes in the dry sand of the dunes, but only ever spotted one as it scurried under our deck and out of sight. They live so very close to the water and need to stay moist in order to breathe, and yet they can’t swim. This leads me to wonder if there is an untapped market for ghost crab-sized life preservers.

I'm fairly certain one is not supposed to go digging around in the dunes, but Poppers and I couldn't resist trying to excavate a ghost crab burrow. It was highly unsuccessful in my opinion because we didn't find a single crab. Poppers, however, got to throw shovels full of sand on me, so it was mission accomplished for him.

I'm fairly certain one is not supposed to go digging around in the dunes, but Poppers and I couldn't resist trying to excavate a ghost crab burrow. It was highly unsuccessful in my opinion because we didn't find a single crab. Poppers, however, got to throw shovels full of sand on me, so it was mission accomplished for him.

Red Mangrove (Rhizophora mangle): These guys look more like a crazed shrub than your garden variety tree (HA), but despite their haphazard appearance, they know exactly what they’re doing. Red mangroves are incredibly well adapted to their environment. They grow in the soft muck that builds up along coasts and estuaries, needing very little fresh water or even stable ground to survive. I found a seed pod floating in the waves, which it turns out, it can do for over a year. The pods drift out from their parent tree and then drift off. The tip of the pod eventually becomes waterlogged, which pulls it toward the bottom where it can take root.

Skate egg cases Skates are related to sharks and rays, and like those creatures they have bodies made of cartilage. Unlike some sharks and all rays who have live babies, skates lay eggs encased in a capsule that looks like a seed from an alien tree. The embryo inside is pretty crafty—when it senses another creature’s electrical field, it can shut down all of its functions—including its heartbeat and respiration—until the would-be predator moves on. I also hear they’re quite tasty. I ordered a skate taco during a recent taco expedition to Queens, but they were out. I guess I’ll have to go back.

Not my hand.  Or my picture , for that matter.

Not my hand. Or my picture, for that matter.

There was a multitude of other creatures and plants as well. Bottlenose dolphins, two different kinds of seagulls (one of which—the royal tern—my mom nicknamed “The Danny Devito Bird”), brown pelicans, and mullets (both the fish and the haircut) all made an appearance during my five days of beach basking. There were sea oats, seashore dropseed, and railroad vine growing in the dunes. And there were boatloads of green algae—which I initially mistook for a weird kind of seaweed—covered in tiny air-filled bladders that help the bunches float in water.

Unfortunately, despite Cocoa Beach being fairly clean and really pretty healthy, I also found a good deal of trash in the sand—bottle caps, small bits of plastic, cigarette butts. Part of appreciating the beach is taking care of it. So please, pick up your trash and be a responsible beachgoer. Some of us are trying to buy beachfront property and between the litter, the hurricanes, and the sea level rise, you all are really harshing my property-buying buzz.

Farewell for now Cocoa Beach. I shall think of you often in the cold, dark, slushy months ahead...

Farewell for now Cocoa Beach. I shall think of you often in the cold, dark, slushy months ahead...


A Nightshade Grows in Brooklyn

I have a backyard. It’s no palatial green lawn and there are, regrettably, no topiaries. (Note to self: inquire with roommates about purchasing some topiaries.) But it’s my own little green space in the midst of this concrete jungle.

About a week ago, some brightly colored berries growing in one corner of the yard caught my eye. The small, multicolored berries were attached to a vine growing some pretty funny looking leaves. When I cut one of the berries open, it looked and sort of smelled like a tiny, tiny tomato. Naturally, I had to know what they were, so I tupperwared ‘em and brought ‘em to work.

I really was going to write about something besides poison this time, but the universe had other ideas.


Those berries and funny-shaped leaves are the hallmark of Solanum dulcamara, or bittersweet nightshade, a climbing vine originally from Eurasia. It was invited to the US to be a pretty face in the crowd, but now it’s classified as a noxious weed or invasive species in at least 35 states. Like a lot of non-native species it has the very unpleasant habit of running amok, smothering native species, and being downright impervious to attempts to eradicate it.

As far as structure goes, bittersweet nightshade has what you might call a ‘devil may care’ attitude. Its berries don’t ripen all at once, so immature green berries, semi-mature orange berries, and fully mature red berries all hang out together and even rub elbows (seeds?) with the small purple flowers that will eventually turn into berries.

The leaves too seem to have decided to throw regularity to the wind and are a mix of shapes and sizes. Smaller leaves are more or less arrowhead shaped, while large ones are more heart shaped. Most, but not all, of the larger leaves have a set of double, irregular-shaped lobes on their bases. Bittersweet nightshade does its own thing, ok?

Attention hipsters: you may collect this vintage bittersweet nightshade print at on Amazon. Oh, and look at those leaves...there all different!

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the nightshade family, technically known as the Solanaceae (so-lan-AY-see-ee) family, it’s full of charmingly poisonous plants like henbane, mandrake, jimsonweed, and belladonna (also known by the oh-so-creative name of deadly nightshade). Before you go rushing the exits, you should know that, depending on who’s counting, there are between 2,000 and 4,000 plants in the Solanaceae family and not all of them are terrifying; some are probably in your pantry or your backyard right now: tomato, eggplant, tobacco, potato, husk apple, chili pepper, sweet (or capsicum) pepper, petunias….they’re all nightshades.

The Solanaceae are a well travelled, highly influential family to say the least. There are mandrakes carved on the side of an ivory casket of Tutankhamun. There’s archaeological evidence that capsicum peppers were being eaten 9,000 years ago in Peru. There are frescoes of eggplants in Roman villas and pre-Columbian potato-shaped ceramic vessels from the Americas. Both King Hamlet of Shakespearean fame and Ulysses of Greek fame ran into henbane: it worked out somewhat more favorably for Ulysses who just had to deal with his crew being transformed into pigs. King Hamlet, meanwhile, had to deal with being dead and haunting his son. (A father’s work is never done.) There are larger historical echoes as well. The Irish Potato Famine, anyone? The transatlantic tobacco trade?

Try saying "Pre-Columbian potato pot" three times fast. (Image via Purdue University)

Try saying "Pre-Columbian potato pot" three times fast. (Image via Purdue University)

Bittersweet nightshade has led a quiet life in comparison to many of its relatives. It is poisonous, but you, as a normal-sized human, would have to eat an awful lot of it to do anything other than sour your stomach. Its poison, like most poison in nature, isn’t about us. It’s about repelling insects and browsing animals, so just get over yourself.

Like a lot of nightshades, bittersweet nightshade contains a toxin called solanine. Also like a lot of nightshades, the poison isn’t concentrated in just one place; it’s in the berries, it’s in the leaves, the stems, the roots...everywhere. Nightshades, let me reiterate, are not fucking around.

Chances are actually pretty good that you’ve ingested some solanine in the past day or two. It’s in peppers, tomatoes, and potatoes (to name a few), though its concentration in those foods is much, much too low to have an impact on the average person.

In higher concentrations than a dish of salsa, pizza, or poutine, solanine is trouble. It has a really neat, but really nasty ability to shut down the effects of a certain neurotransmitter called acetylcholine (a-see-till-KO-leen). Solanine blocks a chemical whose normal function is to break down acetylcholine, letting the neuron know it’s time to stop firing.

Think of the neuron like a light switch—acetylcholine flips the light switch on, the other chemical flips it off. Except, when solanine gets involved the light switch just stays on and soon the bulb burns out, the neuron dies. Then, like those strings of christmas lights where one burnt out bulb causes all the others to go out, the other neurons nearby start shutting off too.

Hemlock, which did Socrates in, contains a highly toxic alkaloid known as coniine. (If my fellow New Yorkers are in search of a place to go contemplate alkaloids, I highly recommend David's "The Death of Socrates"  at the Met. )

Hemlock, which did Socrates in, contains a highly toxic alkaloid known as coniine. (If my fellow New Yorkers are in search of a place to go contemplate alkaloids, I highly recommend David's "The Death of Socrates" at the Met.)

Solanine is part of a class of molecules called alkaloids, nifty nitrogen-containing compounds made primarily by plants. They might not be about us, per se, but they do have some very pronounced effects on us and our nervous systems. Morphine was the first identified alkaloid, but that’s not all. Cocaine, caffeine, nicotine, strychnine, and quinine are all alkaloids. Do you have sudafed in your medicine cabinet? Take a close look at it’s active ingredient: pseudoephedrine! A certified alkaloid derived from an Asian plant called Ephedra sinica.

I still haven’t decided if I’m going to try to remove the bittersweet nightshade plant in my backyard. Yes, it’s weedy, non-native, and slightly poisonous. But it’s beautiful and it’s given me a great excuse to stop and examine every leaf, vine, and berry I come across. Now when I’m late to happy hour it isn’t because I decided to change my entire outfit at the last minute, it’s because I was crawling around someone’s front garden to see if that green berry is a sibling to ones in my backyard. My friends, as you might imagine, are very patient people. 

You Don't Know Sero

I’m going to preface this post by pointing out that while I have my mischievous side, I’m no super villainess, no Viper, no disillusioned jazz age heiress… but I do know an awful lot about poisons, venoms, and toxins.

Those molecular cocktails, which are admittedly not great to serve at happy hour, are worth knowing a lot about. Besides being downright fascinating, they hold the promise of new medicines, important physiological discoveries, and a deeper understanding of this crazy evolutionary ride we’re all on.

I’ve had the pleasure of working on two different poison and venom exhibits, most recently on The Power of Poison at the American Museum of Natural History. During that project, I kept coming across a word I’d seen many times before and assumed I understood: serotonin.

Doesn’t serotonin just hang out in your brain and make you happy? What the heck is it doing in venom? Why is it listed as a pain causing component?? I asked no one in particular. “Serotonin does so much more” came the reply…

Serotonin, or 5-HT (5-Hydroxytryptamine), is a crazy molecule. Its prevalence in our bodies and life processes is probably best illustrated by the fact that serotonin was discovered not once, not twice, but three times. First, it was found in the blood, where it was determined to help with clotting. Then it was identified as a neurotransmitter--a chemical substance that carries signals from one nerve to another. Finally, a whopping amount of it was found to be essentially running the show in your digestive tract, the alimentary canal to those of you partial to digestive slang.

It’s the serotonin in your brain that you’re likely most familiar with. But that accounts for less than 10% of all the serotonin you have in your body--a small but mighty percentage to be sure. Much of the brain is still a mystery, but at this point it seems clear that the serotonin there has a hand in determining everything from whether you’re a happy blob or a sad blob, to memory and learning, to the regulation of your sex drive.

Apparently serotonin tattoos are all the rage.For those of you who want to test drive one before committing, there's an  Etsy shop  that sells temporary versions. (Image from  reddit )

Apparently serotonin tattoos are all the rage.For those of you who want to test drive one before committing, there's an Etsy shop that sells temporary versions. (Image from reddit)

A small percentage of serotonin hangs out in your blood doing it’s clotting thing, but the other 90% is mostly found in your gastrointestinal tract. This time instead of shuttling information between neurons in your brain, it’s keeping a network of over 100 million neurons focused on moving along the digestive process from your esophagus to your anus.

Known as the enteric nervous system, this “second brain” has more neurons than your spinal cord, but won’t help you contemplate a Monet, build a better mousetrap, or finish writing that awful love poem you’ve been meaning to send to your sweetie. (Seriously, it’s terrible.) But by running the show down below, serotonin keeps the brain from having to get its hands dirty. (Deduct five points for the awful mixed metaphor there). Without having to worry about digestion, your brain is free to engage in much loftier pursuits.

It’s important to remember that serotonin isn’t the only neurotransmitter at work in your gut, but it’s an obviously important one. It’s specialty, you see, is causing smooth muscles to contract. Smooth muscles are primarily found in your hollow organs--your stomach, your intestines, your bladder, your lungs… you know, the not very important parts of you. Smooth muscle contractions push food through your intestines; enable you to cough, throw up, and poo (hopefully not all at once); and are even responsible for the nervous feeling of butterflies in your stomach.

His belly is smiling from all the serotonin! (Disclaimer: that's definitely not true. Also, don't let your asshat friends apply your sunscreen, folks.) (Image found  here )

His belly is smiling from all the serotonin! (Disclaimer: that's definitely not true. Also, don't let your asshat friends apply your sunscreen, folks.) (Image found here)

Ok, so what about venom?

Venoms are incredibly complex concoctions that contain a whole slew of chemicals, many of which are very precisely targeted to certain systems or organs. (By and large, they are much more precise than human-developed drugs.) Many venoms do their work by either disabling communication between nerves or speeding it up so quickly as to overwhelm the system. As a neurotransmitter, ie a substance that carries signals from one nerve to another, serotonin is a logical vehicle with which to accomplish that goal.

It appears as one component in many, but not all venoms. Bees have it. So do gila monsters and sting rays. Certain species of scorpions, vipers, centipedes, and bunches of spiders, including the Brazilian wandering spider, do too.

Serotonin in your brain probably helps keep you happy, hungry, and sexually active. Serotonin in your blood helps constrict blood vessels and stem bleeding. Serotonin in your gut pushes your last meal along and then helps expel it. But serotonin in venom is there to cause pain. It does this by co-opting serotonin’s normal functions and sending them into overdrive. Serotonin’s role in clotting is exploited to cut off blood flow. (In small prey, like mice, that can be lethal.) If you’ve ever inadvertently cut off blood flow to a finger, foot, or some other body part, you know a fraction of how painful that oxygen deprivation can be. Serotonin’s role in smooth muscle contractions is even more mightily abused as normal contractions go haywire. Lung contractions (breathing) become spasms (coughing and gasping). Normal gut contractions (you can’t even feel those) become nausea and cramping (you can definitely feel those). Ow ow and more ow.

Subway Shark is just trying to get to work like the rest of us. (Photo Credit: Juan D. Cano via BBC)

Subway Shark is just trying to get to work like the rest of us. (Photo Credit: Juan D. Cano via BBC)

Even if most of these serotonin-laden venomous creatures don’t live where you do (though I don’t think anyone would be that surprised to hear about a scorpion on the subway), and even if you stubbornly refuse to be excited by a wasp sting, maybe, just maybe, you’ll feel a little pang of nerdy scientific knowledge excitement the next time you’re expertly removing a bee stinger from your arm. That’s serotonin, bro.

JoAnn and Martha and Me

Today (April 21st) is a  very special day in my life. It’s my mom’s birthday! Most of the time I call her Mama Llama. When I have to get real with her, it’s JoAnn. I look just like her. I sound just like her. And if, in my life, I can be a fraction of the woman she is, I will consider myself a raging success.

Llama is made of some the strongest stuff I’ve ever encountered. But she’s also so incredibly kind and gentle. At almost 28, I still love to hold her hand When I have bad days, I still find myself wishing I could curl up in her arms. When she has bad days, I wish I could be there with a hug and a glass of white wine. 

She is the one responsible for my baseball obsession (Go Cards!) and my love of the outdoors. She taught me how to make some of the best banana bread on either side of the Mississippi and maybe one day she’ll share her summertime grilling secrets with me. Perhaps more to the point, she instilled in me both the knowledge that the world is not a fair or kind place all the time and that I have the power to do something about that. 

She is my hero and I know her heroes include all the women that fought so hard to ensure that brilliant, kind, compassionate people like her could be recognized for their talents and not belittled or neglected because of their gender. So, Llama, here’s a bit about a woman almost as amazing as you. Happy Birthday!

Martha Coffin Wright may not be as well known as Elizabeth Cady Stanton (ECS, if you will) or Lucretia Mott (who is actually Martha’s sister) but, frankly, she should be. Her place among the founding members of the Seneca Falls Convention—and therefore the organized women’s rights movement in America—is enough to secure her a spot in History-with-a-capital-H, but there is so much more to her story than that.

Martha had personality to spare. She’s one of those figures who jump off the page of a book, life size and ready to chat. (Yes, I actually read a real book from an honest to gawd library while researching this piece.) Born in 1806, she was every politically active, fiercely independent, kind, good natured, witty, mischievous woman I have ever met.

She fought for women’s rights, for an end to capital punishment, for the abolition of slavery; when she wasn’t conversing with Harriet Tubman (a personal friend), she was defying gender stereotypes by teaching her sons how to knit or writing satirical editorials that wrapped the message of equality in humor and intelligent prodding. Even when she personally couldn’t get on board with an idea—such as somewhat scandalous Bloomer dresses or women not taking their husbands’ names—she defended personal freedoms saying “I believe in people doing as they please, when there is no law agin it."

Maybe not the best with one liners, but an amazing person nonetheless. (Image from Smith College Library)

Maybe not the best with one liners, but an amazing person nonetheless. (Image from Smith College Library)

Martha wasn’t much on public speaking, so she used her gift for writing and her warm personality to enable those around her to see beyond the limitations of their own prejudices.

No doubt inspired by her mother’s entrepreneurial spirit (Anna Folger Coffin ran several successful businesses both before and after her husband’s death) and her sister’s zeal, Martha left her impression on the world in subtle, often unappreciated ways. While busy changing the world and raising seven children, Martha also cared for a pet flying squirrel name Puss. If she was a teetotaler, at least she wasn’t boring.

Here was a woman who once described being shipwrecked for two weeks off the coast of Florida (as a new bride, nonetheless*) as appealing to her spirit of adventure. In later years, she would recall Florida as “that dismal spider and scorpion country,” but remarked that she “enjoyed the escape from conventionalities that continually interfere with one’s course of action.”

(I think we can all agree that the spiders, and indeed most forms of insect life, in Florida are absurd. If I’m correct in my assumption that when she said ‘scorpions,’ she meant retired New Yorkers who should no longer be allowed to operate motor vehicles, then she and I are on the exact same page about Florida.)

After her first husband’s untimely death in the frontier town of Tampa Bay (population: 500 people, a goat, and a whole lot of malaria), Martha moved to upstate New York to work as a teacher at a school her mother was running. She evidently wasn’t very fond of the the task, once describing her job in very much the same way I imagine my mom might describe the job of raising my brother and me: “instilling knowledge into those heads whose thickness renders an over abundance of patience necessary.”

She didn’t last long as a teacher, but after meeting and marrying a young law student named David Wright, Martha would go on to make upstate New York her home for the rest of her life. It was there that she began to grow more and more involved in the abolition movement.

The Wright family home around 1875 (Syracuse University Library)

The Wright family home around 1875 (Syracuse University Library)

At the Wright family home in Aurora and, later Auburn, NY, you would have been just as likely to encounter Harriet Tubman—whom Martha described as warm, sincere, and proud— or Frederick Douglass—who frequently dined and stayed with the Wrights while in town, as you were Susan. B. Anthony or Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The home was a hub of revolutionary free thinking and, as was often the case with such locales in the mid 1800s, it was also a station on the underground railroad.

Like many women in the abolition movement, Martha and Lucretia found that using their voices for one cause emboldened them to use it for others. One afternoon both women found themselves at tea at the Warerloo, NY home of Jane Hunt. Jane, a devoted abolitionist had invited Lucretia, ECS, another staunch abolitionist with the delightful name of Mary M’Clintock, and our hero Martha to come socialize and exchange ideas on the hot topics of the day. (One gets the feeling that hot topics abounded in Martha’s presence.)

Not long into the afternoon, the women decided that the time had come to make a stand for women's rights. Working quickly, they drafted a statement announcing their plans to hold “A Convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women” the following week in ECS’ town of Seneca Falls. At 41 years old, twice a grandmother, and pregnant with her seventh child, Martha worked with the other women to draft A Declaration of Sentiments which would be ratified and signed by the delegates to the convention.

Can we just repeat the fact that Martha had seven children and still managed to change the world? I have no children and can’t even get my laundry done on a regular basis.

The women’s Declaration was no less revolutionary than the Declaration of Independence, on which it was modeled. After listing the wrongs inflicted on women by men, it made the shocking demand that women be given “immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States.”

Though Martha, like all but one of the 68 women whose names appear on the document, would not live to see the ratification of the 19th Amendment, such a momentous piece of legislation would not have been possible without the efforts of Martha and all those who proudly declared the value and necessity of women’s contributions to society.

Today, the Declaration of Sentiments and the names of its signatories are inscribed on the water wall of the visitor center at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park. As a child, my family vacations revolved around baseball stadiums and National Parks. As an adult, I’d love to continue that tradition. So what do you say, mom? Want to take a trip with me to Seneca Falls?


*This story, like most stories about Martha, is so much better than I could possibly fit in this one post. Martha is a wealth of anecdotes, quips, and amazing encounters. I had to cut so much of it out that I wish I could have told you. It’s a rare occasion that I laugh out loud while reading a historical biography, but I did just that while working on this post.

Dispatches from the Slush

It’s snowing again.

That seems to happen a lot here—after all nyc is mired in one of the snowiest winters on record. But the weather here, much like the citizenry, seems to have a flair for the dramatic and the indecisive.

It rarely just snows. Often it snows, then rains, then snows again. Maybe there’s some sleet mixed in for good measure. Perhaps some freezing rain if it’s really a party. Then back to snow. All of which leads to a weather (and pavement) phenomenon I’ve taken to calling “aggressive slush.”

 the epic, unending battle of New Yorker vs. Slush Puddle there can be only one winner. Spoiler alert: it's always Slush Puddle (Photo Credit: Robert Sabo/New York Daily News)

Between dodging epic icy puddles and navigating around mountains of frozen garbage (winter wonderland, nyc style), I started to wonder why it sometimes snows, sometimes sleets, sometimes rains, and sometimes slesnorains (working title). Here’s what I found out:

The type of precipitation that falls during any winter storm depends on temperature.

Ok duh, you might say to yourself.

But wait! I say. There’s more!

The temperature that you and I feel while cowering in a bus shelter during a sleet storm is not the same temperature that all those little ice pellets experience as they come racing out of the clouds. Those pellets, like the rest of Earth’s weather for the most part, originate in the lowest level of the Earth’s atmosphere, called the troposphere. The troposphere starts at the surface of our planet and continues up for several miles.

If you were to superhero jump to the top of the troposphere and/or the cloud level, you would notice that the temperature was actually rising as you got higher and higher. But as you approached the clouds, the temperature would drop once more.

Those in the know (which is about to be you!) call those temperature swings ‘vertical temperature distribution.’ There are several layers involved in vertical temperature distribution: the air right below the clouds, a middle layer of air below that, and the air directly above the surface.

You know I didn't take this picture because if I were in Times Square, there's no way I'd pause my escape attempt to take a picture. (Photo copyright: RPAPG)

Like we learned during our superhero leap, those layers are different temperatures. The width and temperature variation within those layers are essentially what determines whether you need rain boots, snow boots, ski goggles and a sturdy umbrella, or another day curled up on the couch.

Up towards the top of the clouds, all of the precipitation is snow. If all of the layers that the precip passes through are below freezing, then the precipitation remains snow.

Likewise, if the temperature between the clouds and the ground is entirely above freezing, then the precipitation will just be boring old rain and you will totally have to go to school tomorrow.

If the middle layer of air is above freezing, but is not very wide, the precip will fall as sleet. Those tiny ice pellets that hit and bounce off the ground are actually snowflakes that partially melted in the warmer layer, then refroze in the bottom layer of air.

The process of thawing and refreezing demolishes the crystal structure that makes snowflakes what they are, then the below freezing temperatures closer to the ground turn them into the tiny, violent little ice pellets we were hiding from before.

The process of partially melting and refreezing will turn this beautiful snowflake into a mean, rude ice pellet. Thanks for always crushing our dreams, nature. [Photo courtesy of snowcrystals.com, a service of CalTech)

If, on the other hand, there is a big, fat layer of warmer (above freezing) air between the clouds and the ground, then the precip fully melts during its fall. But if the temperature near, and most importantly, on the ground is well below freezing, the newly melted raindrops will freeze upon contact with a surface, such as my bangs, your car, and the sidewalks, rather than in the air… presto! Freezing rain!

It’s important to remember scale here. It isn’t as if precipitation is doing some wild and crazy dance. See the amazing precipitation shape shift from snow to rain to snow in fractions of a second! That isn’t really it. A trip of several miles is quite a journey for a tiny ball of moisture and dust less than a few millimeters across.

One final point: sleet and hail are not the same thing. Sleet, if you recall, is made of tiny ice pellets—the kind that bounce off the ground when they hit. Hail is also made of ice, but much, much larger bits of ice. The National Weather Service, one of the great loves of my life and
the place you should absolutely be getting your weather information, defines hail as a “ball of ice more than 5mm in diameter” that falls from a cumulonimbus cloud. Warm updrafts of air keep the hail in the clouds, thus ensuring that it has enough time to grow big and dangerous.

Now, go and find out what makes a cumulonimbus cloud so cululonumbus-y and please make sure to work ‘troposphere’ into your next cocktail party conversation. I, on the other hand, will be researching what kind of heathen god I can bribe into bringing spring a little faster.


Let the Great World Funambulate

On a cold, rainy day I was perusing the bookshelf in my living room, when a book called Let the Great World Spin caught my eye.

Photo credit: Jean Louis Blondeau/Polaris/eyevine)

The story centers around a fictional account of Philippe Petit’s very nonfictional August 1974 tightrope walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. It was just after 7am on August 7, 1974 when Petit stepped onto a steel cable that he and several friends had spent all night surreptitiously stringing between the towers. For 45 minutes he held lower Manhattan spellbound as he walked, ran, jumped, knelt, and somersaulted across the cable.

The whole book is a masterpiece of storytelling and like any great story, it worked like magic on my senses. I found myself terrified to look down for fear that Manhattan would be splayed out 110 stories beneath me, even though I was safely ensconced on my couch.

Then the PHYSICS alert sounded in my brain. Other than nerves of titanium, what does it take to stay balanced on a tightrope?

As soon as I dove into the PHYSICS though, I hit linguistic gold.

If you’re ever bored, feel free to google English conjugations of funambulate. As it turns out, ‘I had been fumabulating’ is a legitimate sentence. Who knew?

Back to the PHYSICS!

Humans are top heavy creatures. Two thirds of our body mass is concentrated in the top one third of our bodies. Apple, Pear, Surfboard Flat—whatever your body type—you are an inverted pyramid.

On the ground, we stand with our feet apart, broadening the base of our pyramid and providing more stability. A funambulist on a tightrope, however, must balance with one in front of the other, decreasing the base of support and exaggerating her human endowed top heavy nature.

Think of the tightrope wire as an axis and the funambulist as an inverted pyramid-shaped mass trying to remain balanced on said axis. If the center of mass of the pyramid isn’t balanced correctly on the axis, it will be begin to rotate. If that rotation isn’t corrected, gravity (ruiner of all things fun) will cause what I would like to term a funambufail.

The long, weighted poles that funambulists carry help to lower their center of mass. A lower center of mass increases the tightrope walker’s moment of inertia—aka her resistance to rotation. Increased resistance to rotation gives the walker more time to shift her center of mass back to the center of the wire.  

Knowing when to readjust one’s center of mass, of course, depends on a performer’s own internal sense of balance. Humans use three different systems, working together in concert, to get sensory information related to balance.

The first is our visual system—that one is pretty self explanatory. If the world looks off-kilter, then it is probably YOU who are off kilter. (Long distances distort our visual sense of balance however, so this is probably the least helpful balance component for tightrope walkers. Hello, vertigo.)

The second system is our trusty vestibular system, which is centered around those fluid-filled cavities in our inner ear. Those cavities give us feedback about movement (up/down, horizontal) and spatial orientation. Getting sea sick or car sick is the result of information from vestibular system conflicting with information from your eyes.

Finally, there is the proprioceptive system— a network of sensors in our joints and muscles that give us information about where our limbs are in relation to each other. Clap your hands behind back. You can’t see your hands, but your brain knows where they are—that’s your proprioceptive system at work.

This is what happens when you google image search proprioceptive system. I have no idea what's going on in this picture (segway ballet?), but these people clearly have finely tuned senses of balance and thus, strong proprioceptive systems. (I don’t know who owns this image, but I found it  here .)

This is what happens when you google image search proprioceptive system. I have no idea what's going on in this picture (segway ballet?), but these people clearly have finely tuned senses of balance and thus, strong proprioceptive systems. (I don’t know who owns this image, but I found it here.)

Visual cues combined with information from the vestibular and proprioceptive systems form a constant feedback loop that gives the funambulist information about where she is in space and where her center of gravity is in relation to the wire.

That little ‘relation to the wire’ bit is what makes funambulating so difficult. Not only is the performer balancing her weight on a very narrow point, the surface she is balancing on sways in response to natural factors, like wind, in addition to responding to her movements. What that means it that a funambulist must constantly make minute adjustments to her center of mass in order to stay balanced.

It’s the kind of feedback loop in which “small errors can be amplified very easily,” according to L. Mahadevan. He’s an applied mathematician at Harvard and recently, he and a few colleagues did some scientific funambulation investigation...because why wouldn’t they?

They created a computer model of a person balancing on a rope while being acted upon by all of the forces, masses, and velocities that a real tightrope walker encounters. Clearly they did this for fun, but also because it was part of a broader investigation of the ways our brains and bodies work together to perform complicated tasks.

Ultimately, Mahadevan and his team figured out two key points. The first was that the rapid fire information about falling being pumped to the brain via the vestibular system is the key component in helping tightrope walkers maintain balance.

The second is a mathematical equation proving what funambulists have known for ages: the easiest rope to balance on has a sway of about three feet at the midpoint. At that point, so say the scientists, the time that it takes the balancer to react is almost exactly the same as the time it takes the rope to oscillate, meaning that funambulists can tune all their balancing senses to the rope rather than trying to integrate sensory information from multiple sources.

If you want a better explanation of funambulation, you’re just going to have to try it yourself.

A Badass Called Cecilia

A few months ago, I got wind of an exhibit about women in science at the Grolier Club on the Upper East Side. The exhibit was of the old-school-glass-case variety, but the subject matter was tailor-made for me. Women scientists from the middle ages through our modern era? Yes, I’ll have some of that please.

I have an intellectual crush on the field of astrophysics as a whole and that crush got a lot more serious when I learned in the exhibit that a woman had been responsible for discovering an elemental fact about stars. To be honest, I had been looking for an excuse to write about stars, so I dashed home and started reading.

This was the intro panel for the exhibit and also a great example of why no one reads labels in museum exhibits. I didn't even read it and not only was I interested in the subject, I write these for a living!

This was the intro panel for the exhibit and also a great example of why no one reads labels in museum exhibits. I didn't even read it and not only was I interested in the subject, I write these for a living!

Allow me to introduce you to a woman of imposing stature and impossible genius. Her name is Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin-- a chain smoking, groundbreaking lady astronomer and astrophysicist who started her work in the 1920s. A pack of cigarettes and a single match were her constant lecture companions, so in her honor, I suggest you light up and keep reading.

Cecilia was brilliant, definitely the girl you both respected and hated in every class. While doing her undergrad in England she fell in love with astronomy and physics. But silly woman, said the Brits, we can’t have you traipsing about studying the cosmos and what have you.

She wasn’t allowed to get an advanced degree anywhere in England, so she headed for America. Your tired, your poor, your badass, brilliant astronomers...as I think the saying goes.

She ended up with a fellowship at Harvard where she wrote a thesis that changed the field of astronomy and astrophysics forever

Strap in for some science:

Stars emit light. Now, imagine holding a giant prism up to a star. When you hold a prism up to a white light, it breaks down into a rainbow. All those stripes of colors (What up, ROY G BIV?) are caused by light waves traveling at different speeds.

Go back to that prism in front of a star. When you look at the way light from a star breaks down, you can learn some really interesting things. Science types call this kind of study spectroscopy. By studying how wide certain parts (colors) of the spectrum are along with the location and width of any disruptions in the spectrum we can learn how big a star is, how far away it is, how hot it is, and what it’s made of.

Cecilia was the one that figured out how the ‘how hot it is, and what it’s made of’ part of that. Before her, the prevailing theory was that every type of body in the universe was made of the same basic materials. Earth, we knew, was mostly iron. So are the meteorites that come crashing down on it. It made sense to think of stars as slowly cooling balls of molten iron.

But enter Cecilia. Her dissertation showed that the different spectral readings astronomers were getting from stars were due to the stars’ temperatures, not their chemical composition as had been assumed. Not content to rest there, she went on to calculate the relative amounts of 18 elements found in stars. Here’s where this gets crazy: her results showed that all stars, regardless of size or temperature, were made of virtually the same thing: helium and hydrogen. 

Think about that: stars, as massive as they are, are mostly composed of the two lightest elements in the universe. The heavier elements, including metals like iron, make up only about 2% of a star’s mass.

Our Sun has a mass about 333,000 times greater than Earth. And yet, it is made almost entirely of the two lightest elements in the universe. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

That information was nothing short of mindblowing and therefore a bit controversial. Cecilia’s advisor, Henry Norris Russell concluded that the results were “clearly impossible” and convinced her to walk her conclusions back a bit. She ended up issuing a statement that said the abundance of hydrogen and helium she had calculated was almost certainly erroneous.

Only it wasn’t erroneous at all. Within a few years, most astronomers were on board the helium and hydrogen train.

Cecilia knows you don't believe her. She doesn't care. (Photo courtesy of: Smithsonian Institution Archives)

Cecilia knows you don't believe her. She doesn't care. (Photo courtesy of: Smithsonian Institution Archives)

The turning point for the acceptance of her findings was, of course, a short paper published by none other than Henry “Clearly Impossible” Russell himself. Four years after poo-pooing her results, he published a paper essentially confirming his student’s findings. In fairness to Henry, he arrived at the same conclusion through different means, but he arrived nonetheless. He acknowledged her in the paper, but who do you think got the credit? Womp womp.

It seems worthwhile to mention that three years later, in 1931, another pioneering astrophysicist would use Henry/ Cecilia’s findings to figure out that stars’ energy comes from nuclear fusion. That, my friends, is a Big Deal.

Cecilia went on to be the first person ever to get a PhD in Astronomy from Harvard. She was also the first female professor and the first female department chair.

Despite her obvious astrophysical prowess, she had to fight to be recognized for the genius she was. Cecilia, however, did more than just keep it in perspective: "I simply went on plodding,” she said, “rewarded by the beauty of the scenery towards an unexpected goal."

She firmly believed that whatever she discovered would ultimately further science and thus would be worth it, whether she got the credit or not. She maintained that in a successful scientific career, the “reward will be the widening of the horizon as you climb. And if you achieve that reward you will ask no other."


Rocket Powered Falafel

Falafel is everywhere in this city. Along with asking when someone moved here and what they pay in rent, arguing over where to grab the best bite for any given occasion and location is a time-honored conversation.

My friend, Jason (who moved here a long time ago and pays far too little for his lovely one bedroom), and I were recently having just such a conversation. He was singing the praises of Cafe Rakka in the East Village.

Their falafel, he said, isn’t anything special in terms of price or flavor, but it is the perfect bite to counteract an evening spent having ‘just one more drink’ in any one of the poorly lit bars in the neighborhood. What does make them special is that they poke holes in the middle of their falafel. Those holes, according to Jason, give each piece “the perfect crisp to innard ratio.”

Naturally, this reminded of the Space Shuttle.

Take a moment to soak in the beauty that is Atlantis on its way to the launchpad.

Are you soaking in all this beauty? Are you? (Photo courtesy of NASA)

The Space Shuttle flew as part of the 30 year long Space Transportation System Program—NASA's ambitious program to build the world's first reusable manned spacecraft.

The whole thing is amazing, but that siren-song of nerdy admiration will have to wait for another time. For now, let’s focus on the two white towers on either side of the orange External Tank. Those are the Solid Rocket Boosters or—because no one appreciates a good acronym like the folks at NASA—SRBs.

Their name, as you may have guessed, alludes to the fact that the SRBs were filled with solid rocket fuel. The explosive bit of the fuel was powdered aluminum, not entirely unlike the foil on those leftovers you brought for lunch. Said aluminum was mixed with ammonium perchlorate, a compound only too happy to donate some oxygen to that whole combustion thing. Those two things were mixed with a catalyst (to get the party started), a binding agent, and a curing agent that gave the fuel its characteristic look and feel said to be reminiscent of a hardened eraser.

Each booster was filled with more than a million pounds of this stuff, in addition to structural elements, instrumentation, and parachutes. The parachutes were there so that they could safely land in the ocean and be recovered once they had been jettisoned from the Shuttle.

NASA had two recovery ships  and several trained crews of divers whose job it was to retrieve the rockets and send them back to Utah to be refurbished and refilled.  (Photo courtesy of NASA)

The SRBs were a big part of what got the Shuttle going fast enough—ahem, 17,500 miles per hour—to be able to bust free from the gravity that keeps mere mortals like you and me firmly attached to the planet.

Even though they only burned for two minutes, they provided  over 70% of the thrust needed for liftoff. They did that by burning nine tons of fuel every second. Nine tons of fuel every second.

Here's where the falafel comes in. Burning that much propellant that quickly is no easy feat. Engineers needed to come up with a way to ignite as much of it at once as possible (while remaining within the structural abilities of the vehicle).

Their solution was simple, elegant, and, though they didn’t know it, falafel-like. They cut a core through the fuel—it's an 11-point star at the tip, a straight cylinder lower down.

Just like creating a hole mid-falafel allows the East Village joint to increase the crispy to innard ratio, cutting a core through the propellant inside the SRBs increased the amount of surface area that could be burned at any given time.

One section of an SRB meets another section during processing. Go ahead and admire that simple geometry. I'll wait. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

Just like creating a hole mid-falafel allows the East Village joint to increase the crispy to innard ratio, cutting a core through the propellant inside the SRBs increased the amount of surface area that could be burned at any given time.  

The star at the top of the rocket, by the way, created even more surface area than the cylinder below, allowing more fuel to burn, and more thrust to be generated in the critical first moments of a launch.

There’s so much that is so complicated about rocketry and spaceflight, but I love the SRBs because they are a reminder that sometimes even the most complicated machines can

The star at the top of the rocket, by the way, created even more surface area than the cylinder below, allowing more fuel to burn, and more thrust to be generated in the critical first moments of a launch.

There’s so much that is so complicated about rocketry and spaceflight, but I love the SRBs because they are a reminder that sometimes even the most complicated machines can benefit from some clean, elementary geometry.

Soggy Egypt or How Armored Amobeas Built the Pryamids

Sometimes you have to clean your apartment. And sometimes you want to turn on a show on Netflix about Ancient Egypt to help you get in the mood to Swiffer. But then your brain makes a sudden connection and you end up reading about about evolution, prehistoric seas, amoebas, and Greek historians well into the night...

Looking at the pyramids, it’s easy to feel a sense of awe and an appreciation for the vastness of human history. But just beneath the surface of those huge blocks of limestone--well actually right on the surface--is another story that is more ancient, more vast than the tale of human monument building that took place 4500 years ago.

This is the story of how modest, single celled organisms were the ones that actually built the pyramids.

Forget thousands of years, let’s talk about millions of years--sixty million years to be relatively precise. During that time Egypt (didn’t exist, but you catch my drift) was covered in a shallow tropical sea. While India was gearing up to ram into Eurasia and form a little something called the Himalayas, the Tethys Sea was sea-ing over most of north Africa, the Arabian peninsula, and a huge swath of Europe.

Earth as it was about 60 million years ago. (Map copyright Ron Blakey and Colorado Plateau Geosystems)

Life loves nothing more than a not-too-hot, not-too-cold, not-too-deep, not-too-shallow expanse of water. Swimming among the evolutionary free for all that was the Tethys were creatures called nummulites.

They weren’t much to look at: single celled organisms wrapped in shells shaped like flat discs--what one biologist referred to as ‘amoebas with armor.’
Taking advantage of their resources, nummies grew to huge numbers and sizes. While remaining a single cell, some of them grew to be seven or eight inches across. By all accounts, the Tethys was swarming with these guys and gals.

Nummies! Just in case you forgot: those are single-celled creatures. (Photo by Lorraine Casazza

Shortly after the heyday of nummies, the Tethys shrank considerably. Today's Mediterranean Sea is the last, watery vestige of the Tethys. After the virtual disappearance of the TS, Egypt (which still didn’t exist) dried out into the desert it is today. But the nummies were not to be so easily relegated to the dustbin of history.

As nummies died, their bodies drifted to the bottom of the sea. Over millions of years, layer upon layer of sediment, other sea creatures, but most of all millions upon millions of nummies accumulated on the ocean floor and were compacted down.

Same planet, just a bit more recent. "Recent" here is a relative term meaning anywhere from 5 to 20 million years ago. (Map copyright Ron Blakey and Colorado Plateau Geosystems)

Layers of sediment that experience high heat and pressure become rock. Layers of sediment containing the remains of shelled sea critters that experience high heat and pressure become limestone.

Millions of years later, Egyptian workers quarried huge blocks of nummulistic limestone and shaped them into the engineering and artistic marvels that are the great pyramids. Limestone in general is great for fossils, and the limestone used to build the pyramids is no exception--nummie fossils are everywhere.

If you squint, you should be able to see all the nummie fossils embedded in this pyramid stone. If you're unwilling to squint you are just going to have to trust me. (Photo courtesy of WLU via wikipedia)

The Egyptians didn’t leave us a record of what they thought of all the little coin-shaped indentations in their pyramid stones. Regardless of whether they loved them (adds so much character!) or hated them (why can’t these stones just be smooth?!), they almost certainly noticed them.

More than 2500 years after the last chisel left its mark on the pyramids, a Greek historian and intellectual called Strabo wandered by. He noticed the nummies and even posited an explanation for them:

One extraordinary thing which I saw at the pyramids must not be omitted. Heaps of stones from the quarries lie in front of the pyramids. Among these are found pieces which in shape and size resemble lentils. Some contain substances like grains half peeled. These, it is said, are the remnants of the workmen’s food converted into stone...

To be honest, I have never wandered by the pyramids. I have several friends that have--though, admittedly, none were wielding chisels and very few were Greek intellectuals. Not one person has mentioned the nummies. If I had to posit a reason, I’d guess that it had less to do with a lack of perception and much more to do with being overwhelmed by the spectacle of the pyramids.

It’s easy to see them as ancient, unyielding blocks of stone that tell one specific human-centric narrative. What is much more difficult to grasp is that the pyramids can tell us about life not just thousands of years ago, but Life that existed long before you, me, and/or Greek intellectuals were even a glimmer on the surface of an ancient sea.