Trees of Life

When I said that I would be spending last week in a little cabin in the big woods, I meant really big woods.

We helped our daughter and her family move to California, and then we did something that I have always wanted to do.  We went to Sequoia National Park, home of the giant redwoods.  How big are they?  Well, the one named “General Sherman” is the largest living thing in the world.  It’s 35 feet in diameter and is as tall as a football field.  And, even more astounding to me, is that it’s 2,200 years old.  It was a sapling two centuries before Jesus was born.  And it’s still alive, still growing.  It adds the equivalent mass of a regular 60 foot tree every year.

And there are whole groves of these giant trees up in the Sierra Nevada mountains.  I treasure things that are sublime–overwhelming, awe-inspiring, so vast that you can’t take them all in–like the Grand Canyon, Niagra Falls, and these trees.

What intrigues me most about them is that they are virtually immortal.  They can be killed, of course, cut down as many stupidly have been and sometimes they get so tall that they topple, but they don’t die of old age.  I wonder how that can be.   Every other earthly creature, whether plant or animal or human,  lives for awhile but eventually its cells get exhausted, entropy sets in, aging manifests its symptoms, and eventually the organism dies.

Why don’t the giant redwoods?  General Sherman is not even the oldest of these trees.  Some are 3,000 years old, from the time of the Trojan War and King David.  And redwoods are not even the oldest species.  A bristlewood pine in the White Mountains of California–somewhere else I want to go–is 4,700 years old.  A young earth creationist would put that as being right after the Flood!  Perhaps these evergreen trees are somehow not implicated in the Fall.  Perhaps they are some kind of remnant or sign of the Tree of Life.

What are some other sublime sights and experiences?  A tornado, the ocean, the Rocky Mountains–I’ve seen those.  I’ve seen Mt. St. Helens, but I think I need to see an active volcano.  Outer Space.  And God, of course, and the things of God.  The sublimities of nature and of art–Paradise Lost, Bach’s music, Michaelangelo’s paintings and sculptures–give us pleasure, according to Ruskin, because they point to Him.

We are a little world made cunningly

The ancients talked about the human body as a microcosm, as a little world.  Now scientists have shown just how true that is, how each of us is a world with millions of inhabitants:

They live on your skin, up your nose, in your gut – enough bacteria, fungi and other microbes that collected together could weigh, amazingly, a few pounds.

Now scientists have mapped just which critters normally live in or on us and where, calculating that healthy people can share their bodies with more than 10,000 species of microbes.

Don’t say “eeew” just yet. Many of these organisms work to keep humans healthy, and results reported Wednesday from the government’s Human Microbiome Project define what’s normal in this mysterious netherworld.

One surprise: It turns out that nearly everybody harbors low levels of some harmful types of bacteria, pathogens that are known for causing specific infections. But when a person is healthy – like the 242 U.S. adults who volunteered to be tested for the project – those bugs simply quietly coexist with benign or helpful microbes, perhaps kept in check by them. . . .

Already the findings are reshaping scientists’ views of how people stay healthy, or not.

“This is a whole new way of looking at human biology and human disease, and it’s awe-inspiring,” said Dr. Phillip Tarr of Washington University at St. Louis, one of the lead researchers in the $173 million project, funded by the National Institutes of Health.

“These bacteria are not passengers,” Tarr stressed. “They are metabolically active. As a community, we now have to reckon with them like we have to reckon with the ecosystem in a forest or a body of water.”

And like environmental ecosystems, your microbial makeup varies widely by body part. Your skin could be like a rainforest, your intestines teeming with different species like an ocean.

Scientists have long known that the human body coexists with trillions of individual germs, what they call the microbiome. Until now, they’ve mostly studied those that cause disease: You may recall health officials saying about a third of the population carries Staphylococcus aureus harmlessly in their noses or on their skin but can infect others.

But no one knew all the types of microbes that live in healthy people or where, and what they do. Some 200 scientists from nearly 80 research institutions worked together for five years on this first-ever census to begin answering those questions by unraveling the DNA of these microbes, with some of the same methods used to decode human genetics. The results were published Wednesday in a series of reports in the journals Nature and the Public Library of Science. . . .

Our bodies are thought to be home to about 10 bacterial cells for every human cell, but they’re so small that together microbes make up about 1 percent to 3 percent of someone’s body mass, explained Dr. Eric Green, director of NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute. That means a 200-pound person could harbor as much as 6 pounds of bacteria.

There are about 22,000 human genes. But the microbes add to our bodies the power of many, many more – about 8 million genes, the new project estimated.

Those bacterial genes produce substances that perform specific jobs, some of which play critical roles in the health and development of their human hosts, said Dr. Bruce Birren of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, another of the project’s investigators. Genes from gut bacteria, for example, lead to digestion of certain proteins and fats. They also produce certain beneficial compounds, like inflammation-fighting chemicals.

Another surprise: There isn’t one core set of bacteria that perform those functions. A wide variety can do the same jobs, the researchers found.

That’s fortunate considering people carry a customized set of microbes, one that varies dramatically depending on where you live, your diet and a host of other factors. Your microbial zoos also can change, such as when taking antibiotics that kill infection-causing germs as well as good intestinal bacteria that may be replaced with different but equally effective bugs.

“We don’t all have the same bacteria although they all seem to have been organized to do the same things,” Birren said. It may be that our lifestyle and environment “induces each of us to have arrived at a solution that works for us.”

With this first snapshot of what normal looks like, studies now are under way to see how the microbes differ in people with certain diseases, in hopes of learning how to prevent or treat the illnesses.

via News from The Associated Press.

Yes, this could be considered disgusting, but I agree with the researcher who finds it awe-inspiring.  So even individual human beings are actually a community of separate creatures.  Reminds me of the co-inherence of the Trinity.

P.S.:  Who can identify the allusion in the title to this post?  Without Googling it?

The weird science of Light

More mind-blowing discoveries from quantum physics:

In the quantum optical laboratories at the Niels Bohr Institute, researchers have conducted experiments that show that light breaks with the classical physical principles. The studies show that light can have both an electrical and a magnetic field, but not at the same time. That is to say, light has quantum mechanical properties.

via Breaking the limits of classical physics.

 

Obeying the cosmic speed limit

Scientists have determined that neutrinos do not travel faster than the speed of light after all.  Last year, as we posted here and discussed here, an experiment indicated that they did, which would upend much of modern physics.  But apparently a timing device was malfunctioning.  Multiple replications of the experiment show that neutrinos do, in fact, obey the speed limit.  Modern physics is safe, for now.

Neutrinos totally do not travel faster than light, say scientists (+video) – CSMonitor.com.

Transit of Venus

A rare event will take place today, something that won’t happen again this century:  Venus will cross over the face of the Sun.

After Tuesday evening we sink into history’s pages, having witnessed a rare astronomical event: the Transit of Venus across the sun. This won’t repeat for 105 years.

Look to the west Tuesday evening, June 5, Venus begins to cross the sun at 6:04 p.m. EDT Tuesday evening, as a notch in the sun. By 6:22 p.m., from our perspective, Venus becomes a black dot moving across the solar disc.

On this transit, it’s a 6-hour, 40-minute trek for our neighboring, interior planet – and because the sun sets – we only see a few hours of this cosmic memory.

Venus transits occur in pairs, eight years apart, alternating between 105.5 years and 121.5 years apart. Tuesday’s transit is paired with the crossing that last occurred in June, 2004.

Here are the several preceding (and present) pairings, as documented by astronomer Roy Bishop, in the Observer’s Handbook 2012:

* 1631/1639 (each in December)

* 1761/1769 (June);

* 1874/1882 (December);

* none in the 20th century;

* 2004/2012 (June).

Looking ahead, the next pair won’t occur until Dec. 11, 2117 and Dec. 8, 2125.

For many cities in the eastern U.S., including Washington, the transit starts at 6:04 p.m. on Tuesday. The central and western time zones can see more of the transit, while Hawaii can see the whole event.

via Transit of Venus 2012: the last trip across the sun for 105 years – Capital Weather Gang – The Washington Post.

Don’t look at it with your bare eyes or you might burn your optic nerve.  You can watch it here.

I would add that when this happened in 1769, Captain James Cook was sent from England to the Western Hemisphere to study this event.  That voyage led to the “discovery” of Australia.  Capt. Cook would go on to “discover” Hawaii and Alaska.  (The quotation marks mean that I know that human beings already lived in these places, but Capt. Cook was the first European to find them and to open them up for colonization.)

 

Cross-species contagious yawning

You know how when you are in a group of people and somebody yawns, and then other people start yawning, and then you too feel the irresistible impulse to do likewise?  Well, if there are dogs in the room, they too very likely will start yawning.

Scientists have studied the phenomenon of dogs yawning when people do.  Furthermore, dogs don’t have to see someone yawn; they apparently hear humans yawning, which makes them want to yawn too.  Researchers speculate whether this is evidence that dogs can actually empathize with human beings.  See  Dogs yawn when they hear people yawn, suggesting they empathize with humans – The Washington Post.

Now looking at this phenomenologically, I don’t recall empathy as a cause of my own yawning.  I don’t notice someone yawning, feeling his boredom, and expressing that by yawning in an act of emotional solidarity.  My theory is that in a group in which one person is bored or sleepy, the chances are good, since everyone is sharing the same experience, that other people are also feeling bored or sleepy.  When a person yawns, that reduces the social pressure to repress the outward expression of what one feels, an inhibition that disintegrates completely when more and more people do it.

Now that dogs can also share in this collective experience is intriguing.  Dogs are social animals.  They demonstrate pack behavior.  And, as we know from the Dog Whisperer, they consider human beings to be leaders of their pack.  If the group of people were to all of a sudden start running, I’m sure the dogs would join them.  Maybe it’s the same for yawning, although the meaning and the communication mechanisms for dogs remain mysterious.

Then again, it’s also mysterious why people yawn, what the connection is between feeling bored or sleepy and opening your mouth really wide.  Does anyone have any theories about all of this?


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X