From London to Rome

“The process, known as natural organic reduction, turns a corpse into two wheelbarrows’ worth of soil in four to six weeks. The body is placed in a reusable hexagonal steel container along with wood chips, alfalfa and straw. By carefully controlling the humidity and ratio of carbon dioxide, nitrogen and oxygen, the system creates the perfect conditions for a class of heat-loving (thermophilic) microbes that dramatically accelerate the normal rate of decomposition.

“It’s a bit of a surprise that when the microbial activity starts up and there’s enough feedstock, a whole different class of organisms, called thermophilic organisms, become active,” said Carpenter-Boggs.

“The pilot found that everything, including bones and teeth, is reliably transformed into compost (non-organic materials such as pacemakers and artificial hips are screened for and recycled). The soil was also found to contain low levels of coliform bacteria, an indicator of biological safety, meaning that relatives could safely scatter their loved ones’ remains like ashes, or use them to plant a rose bush or fertilise a vegetable patch.

“The process reportedly uses an eighth of the energy of cremation. According to Carpenter-Bogg, cremation in the US produces as much CO2 as burning 800,000 barrels of oil – for an individual, that is equivalent to taking a flight from London to Rome.”

Text: Hannah Devlin, Human composting could be the future of deathcare, Guardian UK.

Pic: Ricky Swallow, Younger Than Yesterday, 2006

Moving away from its home star…

“Maybe that’s why we’ve never heard a peep from anywhere. It’s not just that the universe is too big. Which it is. That’s the main reason. But then also, life is a planetary thing. It begins on a planet and is part of that planet. It’s something that water planets do, maybe. But it develops to live where it is. So it can only live there, because it evolved to live there. That’s its home. So, you know, Fermi’s paradox has its answer, which is this: by the time life gets smart enough to leave its planet, it’s too smart to want to go. Because it knows it won’t work. So it stays home. It enjoys its home. As why wouldn’t you? It doesn’t even bother to try to contact anyone else. Why would you? You’ll never hear back. So that’s my answer to the paradox. You can call it Euan’s Answer.” Later: “So, of course, every once in a while some particularly stupid form of life will try to break out and move away from its home star. I’m sure it happens. I mean, here we are. We did it ourselves. But it doesn’t work, and the life left living learns the lesson, and stops trying such a stupid thing.” Later: “Maybe some of them even make it back home. Hey—if I were you, Freya? I would try to get back home.” Later: “Maybe.” 

 Kim Stanley Robinson, Aurora.

“We do not know what the future will be…”

“It is a truism that we do not know what the future will be. But we can see trends. We do not know if the power of human ingenuity will help sufficiently to change the environmental trajectory we are on. Unfortunately, the recent years of innovation, investment and patenting indicate how human ingenuity has increasingly been channelled into consumerism and financial engineering. We might pray for time. But the evidence before us suggests that we are set for disruptive and uncontrollable levels of climate change, bringing starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war.

“We do not know for certain how disruptive the impacts of climate change will be or where will be most affected, especially as economic and social systems will respond in complex ways. But the evidence is mounting that the impacts will be catastrophic to our livelihoods and the societies that we live within. Our norms of behaviour, that we call our “civilisation,” may also degrade. When we contemplate this possibility, it can seem abstract. The words I ended the previous paragraph with may seem, subconsciously at least, to be describing a situation to feel sorry about as we witness scenes on TV or online.

But when I say starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war, I mean in your own life. With the power down, soon you wouldn’t have water coming out of your tap. You will depend on your neighbours for food and some warmth. You will become malnourished. You won’t know whether to stay or go. You will fear being violently killed before starving to death.

“These descriptions may seem overly dramatic. Some readers might consider them an unacademic form of writing. Which would be an interesting comment on why we even write at all. I chose the words above as an attempt to cut through the sense that this topic is purely theoretical. As we are considering here a situation where the publishers of this journal would no longer exist, the electricity to read its outputs won’t exist, and a profession to educate won’t exist, I think it time we break some of the conventions of this format. However, some of us may take pride in upholding the norms of the current society, even amidst collapse. Even though some of us might believe in the importance of maintaining norms of behaviour, as indicators of shared values, others will consider that the probability of collapse means that effort at reforming our current system is no longer the pragmatic choice. My conclusion to this situation has been that we need to expand our work on “sustainability” to consider how communities, countries and humanity can adapt to the coming troubles…”

Text: Jem Bendell, Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy

Image: Depiction of Hell, by Hieronymus Bosch

The Border Between Life & Non Life

“According to two papers published in Cell on January 11, 2018, the making of memories and the processes of learning resemble, of all things, a viral infection. It works like this: The shells that transport information between neurons are assembled by a gene called Arc. Experiments conducted by two research teams revealed that the Arc protein that forms a shell, functions much like a Gag, a gene that transports a virus’s genetic material between cells during an infection. For example, the retrovirus HIV uses a Gag in exactly this manner.

“We already know, thanks to the work of Lynn Margulis, that a number of organelles that power the cells of plants and animals descended from bacteria. This is called the endosymbiotic hypothesis. It’s now widely accepted as a fact of life. Margulis, who passed away in the winter of 2011, also believed that spiral bacteria evolved into the cilia and flagella that animal cells, such as sperm, use for mobility. (She went as far to suggest that the processes of animal thought or cognition were connected with cilia.) The spiral theory is still controversial. But now that scientists have basically concluded that the processes of memory and learning are closely related to innovations independently developed by viruses and adopted by animals deep in time (“Arc works in a similar fashion right across the tree of life, from flies to humans”), it seems foolish to not seriously re-envision animal and plant biology along Margulian lines.


“There is more to think about. Most scientists consider viruses to be non-living. In fact, popular science writer Ed Yong recently made a statement in his piece, “The Viruses That Eavesdrop on Their Hosts,” that concerned a new discovery made by another brilliant scientist, Bonnie Bassler, and her student, Justin Silpe (that viruses can listen to the language bacteria uses for what’s called quorum sensing): “Viruses are not even technically alive! They’re entirely different entities from bacteria, yet they are intercepting and interpreting the same molecular messages. It’s like a rock eavesdropping on a bird.”

“If we can compare a rock to a virus—which appears to come alive when infecting a cell, and appears to be dead when doing nothing—then we must begin to suspect that there’s something life-like in non-biological things like clouds and hills. Are viruses really the border between life and non-life? Is there a border? A break? The 20th century Russian biochemist, Alexander Oparin, maintained there was a continuum from the inorganic to the organic. This is clearly the case from the stand point of the chemical elements. There is nothing in life that cannot be found in non-living things. We have known this since the 19th century, which experienced the demise of vitalism. But life appears to be not like a rock. And a virus appears to be more like life than a rock. Also life is weird. Viruses are weird. A rock is not. Lastly, it seems that animals and trees are wholly Margulisian—meaning, they are chimerical, or monsters that emerged from and are not separate from the ambiance of microganisms…”

Text: Charles Mudede, By Far the Strangest Scientific Discovery of 2018: Your Memories Are a Viral Infection,

Image: Rene Magritte, A Sense of Reality. 1963.

Troxler Effect

“This is called the Troxler effect, after the man who discovered it: Ignaz Paul Vital Troxler, in 1804.

“What happens here is that your visual system constantly adapts to all the external stimuli. This is why after spending a few moments in the dark, you start to see a little better. This capability allows you to be in different lighting conditions, while still maintaining a pretty accurate estimate of the lightness and colour of objects.

“So if you fixate on a certain point, after approximately 20 seconds, stimuli which fit in your peripheral vision will fade away and disappear. The effect is most powerful for some colours and patterns, and is more powerful the farther the object is from your center of fixation…”


Text & Pic: Stare at this picture. It will disappear. ZMEScience.

Signs of Life

“If alien astronomers are out there searching for signs of life on Earth, they might just find it in the telltale pattern of light reflected by our plants, from redwood forests to desert cacti to grass-covered plains. That reflected fingerprint has been visible since vegetation first began carpeting our rocky terrestrial landscape about half a billion years ago. And as Earth aged and evolution marched onward, the reflected signal strengthened.

“Now, two astronomers are suggesting that plants could leave similar fingerprint-like patterns on distant exoplanets, and perhaps the first signs of life beyond our solar system could come from light reflected by forests covering an alien moon like Endor or cacti living in Tatooine’s deserts.


“We’re trying to figure out—with all the planets we’re finding—what are the signatures that could indicate habitability?” says Cornell University’s Lisa Kaltenegger, who recently described Earth’s leafy signature in a study published in the journal Astrobiology.

“We really want to identify the handful, or two or three, that give us the best chance to pick up signs of life.”

“While this isn’t the first time scientists have suggested looking for life in a far-off planet’s light, Kaltenegger’s team adds a twist: Such reflections can also offer a good estimate for an alien planet’s evolutionary advancement, based on our knowledge of how things work on Earth.

“This idea that you could find vegetation on another planet has been around. But nobody ever used Earth’s own geological history as an archive,” Kaltenegger says. “We don’t have a second planet with habitability, but we do have our Earth through time, and it would be really smart to study it.”

“Several decades ago, the Galileo spacecraft, which was headed for Jupiter, swiveled to stare at Earth’s reflected light. It spied the signs of biology at work in the presence of atmospheric gases such as ozone and methane. More recently, astronomers have teased apart Earthshine, or the bit of Earth-light that sometimes dimly illuminates the darker part of a crescent moon’s face. They found life’s fingerprints there, too.

“Now, scientists searching for life beyond Earth are debating how biology might leave molecular marks in alien atmospheres, either by producing particular compounds or by shifting the mix of gases swaddling a planet.”

Text: “Want to Find Alien Life? Look at Older, Hotter Earths”, National Geographic.
Image: L’occhio di Shui (The Eye of Shui) by Shui Mao.

The Local Standard of Rest

“Whereas all the planets, asteroids and meteors that originate within the solar system more or less circle what is called the Ecliptic plane, that of our sun, since they were formed from the same disc of gas and dust that rotated around itself, Oumuamua entered the solar system north of the plane, in an extreme hyperbolic orbit and at a speed of 26.3 kilometers per second faster relative to the motion of the sun.

“A reconstruction of its trajectory shows that Oumuamua traversed the ecliptic plane on September 6, 2017, when the sun’s gravity accelerated the object to a velocity of 87.8 kilometers per second. On September 9, the object passed closer to the sun than the orbit of Mercury. And on October 14, five days before it was discovered in Hawaii, the object passed 24.18 million kilometers away from Earth, or 62 times the distance from here to the moon.


“I wrote above that Oumuamua originated at Vega, but that’s not completely accurate: The universe is a vast place, and even at Oumuamua’s velocity – a velocity that no human spaceship has achieved – a voyage from Vega to the solar system would take 600,000 years. But in the meantime, Vega is orbiting the center of the Milky Way, like the sun and all the other stars, and it wasn’t in that region of the heavens 600,000 years ago.

“If you average the velocities of all the stars in the region, you get a system that’s called the ‘local standard of rest.’ Oumuamua was at rest relative to that system. It didn’t come to us. It waited in place, like a buoy on the surface of the ocean, until the ‘ship’ of the solar system ran into it. To make things clear, only one of 500 stars in the system is as much at rest as Oumuamua. The probability of that is very low. After all, if it were a stone that was simply hurled from a different solar system, we would expect it to have the velocity of its star system, not the average velocity of all the thousands of stars in the vicinity.”

Text: “If True, This Could Be One of the Greatest Discoveries in Human History”, Haaretz.

Image: Augsburger Wunderzeichenbuch, Comet mit einem grosen Schwantz, 1401