‘Stranger’ in a Strange Place

by Jordan Pennells

A high-pitched note, dulling. Blinding white light, fading away to reveal a room. A room without easily discernible walls, but without any noticeable features out in the distance either. As I reached the edge of my field of vision, I began turning neck to realise I had no neck to turn. What was this? A hallucination? I’d heard of the brain doing strange things, releasing a cocktail of chemicals when it was dying. People say they had walked up the bright tunnel to St Peter’s Pearly Gates, had witnessed God. They were sure of it. But isn’t belief part of the hallucinatory experience. So, I asked myself again.

“Is this a hallucination? Is this heaven?”

Materialising out of the light from my right was a voice, accompanied by a man strolling my way.

“Hello John. Hallucination, no. Heaven, somewhat… This is your Judgement Day.”

I looked this mystical stranger up and down a few times, my forehead straining from the height my eyebrows were reaching up my face. He was attired in a well-fitting suit and sharp tie, a picture of fitness that I always regretted never achieving.

“Who are you?” is all I could produce amongst my bewilderment.

“I’m your conscience, John. Are you starting to piece it together? This is the review of your life. You better prepare yourself for this.”

Before I had a chance to reply, my childhood began flashing before my eyes on a giant projector without a backing screen.

“There’s something I better show you, before things get too interesting,” my conscience said as he moved across the room to stand in front of a machine I hadn’t noticed initially. The gold-plated device showed a semi-circular scale between positive and negative, with the pin currently fluctuating around neutral like an oversized Geiger counter as my childhood passed by.

“This old thing tracks your net worth to society over your lifetime. So far so good, but here come your teenage years.”

A cringe plastered itself on my face and I threw my hand over my eyes, only allowing a thin slit between my fingers to view through. My eyes darted around the screen as I was forced to relive these forgotten, or more likely repressed, memories. The counter had shifted below neutral.

“Now,” my conscience interrupted, “time for your point of no return from net positivity. Remember that man up there standing on the ledge. He was about to jump, but a crowd had formed and were beginning to talk him down. And there you are, supporting a man in his darkest days, but what are your encouraging words? ‘DO A FLIP!’ And he does, flipping all the way until his face mashed against the pavement. I’m calling that basically manslaughter.”

My face went slack as the screen highlighted the shock and disgust on each crowd member’s face after I had run away from the scene. Then the victim’s mother learning the news, then the victim’s daughter crying with incomprehensible confusion.

“Anyway, you improved as life from that point onwards, what with the African sponsor child and your partial liver donation, but there was no counteracting that event.

So you were born into a middle class American family for this life, but it says here you’re being downgraded to be born into a ‘Low socioeconomic family, struggling with their fifth child and no work.’ Damn, what a shame. I’ll be around again for you to ignore less this time, hopefully. Good luck!”

Lucky

by Jordan Pennells

Today had been a miracle out on the open ocean. Not a cloud could spoil the seamless transition between water and sky on the horizon. Sitting on his surfboard behind the break, Max ran his hands back and forth through the water in time with the oscillating current. The cold water gripped his fingertips, but this day there had been a connection much deeper than this. The surf seemed to have sensed Max’s proficiency, his presence in the water, and tailored the waves for him perfectly. Likewise, he could sense which waves were a dud, which waves were conspiring to dump him, as intuitively as any professional surfer could. And when a dorsal fin threatened in his peripheral vision, he was oddly calm as it approached. Coming menacingly close, it had actually been a dolphin, amicably bopping him on the leg with an ultrasonic laugh.

Max walked up the path to his front door, his salt-parched mouth satiated by a free tub of ice cream that had been given away at the right place, at the right time. Through the front door and before he had a chance to look up, Jack had started at him.

“Are you sure you had nothing to do with this, Max?’

“I don’t even know what’s happened. I was at the beach until ten minutes ago.”

“And you’ve touched nothing?”

“Not since I left, no, I just got back.”

“But isn’t that your wallet there on the table. Didn’t you take it with you?”

“I… I must have forgotten it.”

“So nothing to eat, nothing to drink all morning, not even an ice cream on such a hot day, while surfing for hours and hours…”

“Look whatever you’ve got to say—”

“I’ll say. Max, you killed her. She’s in the bathroom. And the stash, that gone. How much did you get for it all?”

‘What?… and… put that gun away, Jack, what are you doing?”

“Only what you deserve.”

Time slowed down as Max’s vision tunnelled in to Jack’s shaking hands with a finger over the trigger, depressing it slowly. Max instinctively shifted his weight a fraction to the left, milliseconds before there was a simultaneous clap of gunpowder and a rush of air against his right cheek. An applause of steel-on-steel followed unexpectedly as the bullet ricocheted around the room, before Jack slumped to the ground, motionless. Max’s body was momentarily paralysed, eyes locked wide open, as the sheer luck of the incident sunk in.

After a minute, he stepped forward and began to descend towards his friend, hesitated for a moment, then continued forward, stepping over Jack’s body. As Jack had correctly identified, the stash had been taken, and it was now sitting safely in Max’s back pocket. Taking the stairs three at a time, Max flung open the bathroom door to reveal a scene that wrenched at his gut, tore it out of his body and threw it against the tiled floor below. The surface was covered in a sheen of pink water, with blood pooling in the dint that Sherry’s head had made in the ceramic floor. Not helping the issue at foot, tears spilled out of Max’s eyes against his control, adding a minute amount more liquid to the already slippery floor. His mind swirled like the blood perfusing through the water below, simultaneously trying to digest his guilt and the personal consequences that this episode destined for himself.

Jack was right. The side effects when you ceased taking the stash were real and very severe. What had started out as a Chemist’s pipe-dream to create a luck-bringing pill was quickly turning into a nightmare. There was a month’s worth of the stash remaining, a deadline on which to perfect the recipe, and on Max’s life. Intense motivation sparked within him. He knew he couldn’t die wondering.

 

*This post is the next installment in my attempt at doing a Creative Writing course throughout an Engineering degree 😂

The Epicurean Life

by Jordan Pennells

“A World Of Luxury… For Those With Discerning Taste”.

Pick up an issue of Epicurean Life magazine, and their advocated lifestyle involves diamond-studded clothes, voluptuous women and even sexier cars. Epicurus, the magazine’s ironically misguided namesake, would be turning in his grave. His philosophy insists pleasure does not materialise by basking in the aesthetics of material goods, but in the appreciation of an ascetic life. Serenity does not transpire in the presence of luxury, but within living in the present moment.

The pursuit of happiness doesn’t require a detailed plan or extravagant activity to precipitate itself. In fact, the best recipe is a tranquil location, fine friends and embracing the frugality of a natural life. And we were willing to go to the extreme.

In an attempt to renunciate ourselves from the worldly distractions that wrenches one out of the conceptual ‘moment’, a camping escape was planned to the far reaches of Noosa North Shore. The smooth sailing of highway driving was abruptly interrupted when we hit beach access, with the 4 wheels driving themselves in and out of pre-ploughed tracks in the sand. As we careered parallel to the shoreline, campsites began to dwindle until the portrait out the window faded into an untouched landscape. Our site was far from a 5-star vista, but a patch of beach secluded from the salty ocean mist spraying from the mouth of the waves. This was our home base. A steep yet sandy hill sectioned off the back of our patch, with a rolling sand dune at the front hiding us from any other adventurers. Looking up and down the stretch of beach, the landscape perpetuated into a salty haze in both directions, with no signs of life, excepting the heaving respiration of waves.

If the key to happiness was abstinence from all forms of indulgence, then we were on the path to ecstasy. As a group, the four of us had made a ritual of watching the weekly instalments of Survivor, immodestly attesting to our ability to withstand any and every challenge thrown at us. It was time to walk the walk, as we individually trekked outside of eyesight, to set up our abode for the next 24 hours.

Hours in, with the extent of my provisions comprising a Bic lighter, frypan and axe, I had a fire broiling a substantial collection of pipis within a seawater broth. The grittiness of this sand filtering crustacean was not enough to deter from the most satisfyingly sourced meal of my life. I was thriving in this ascetic environment, and with a sudden appreciation of Epicurus’ philosophy, happiness crashed over me in time with the waves on the beach.

Regrouping at base camp the following day, my friends told horror stories of 3-inch horsefly attacks and food poisoning from ill-cooked seafood. Although I had experienced these to an extent, realisation told me that happiness was kindred in the ability to deflect adversity and continue in the ‘moment’.

At the very least, stepping under the shower at home was unadulterated euphoria.

 

Note: This post makes up an assessment piece for a Creative Writing course, with the general topic of Happiness, in case you were wondering why I was getting all sentimental.

Fountain of Youth 

by Jordan Pennells

You know how it feels like the powerful intensity of sunlight is burning your retinas when you first step outside? This painful experience forcing your eyes into a sly squint is caused from interesting physiology involving photoreceptor cells of the retina. They contain membrane-situated proteins called Rhodopsin, which are capable of detecting light. Following exposure to bright light, enzymes are released within these cells, which cause the internalisation and recycling of Rhodopsin molecules, regulating the cell’s sensitivity to light. When walking back inside, your vision shimmers as your eyes adjust to the lower visual intensity. The delay in the adjustment of yours eyes is the time taken to re-synthesize and transport the Rhodopsin proteins back to the surface of the cell.

This is the feeling I experienced every time I walked into the exclusively bright pink room of my daughter, Lucy.

The grind of the work day was over, a grind of pepper had seasoned my homemade meal, and the last job for the day was the deceptively difficult task of soothing the overly active mind of a child, to a state where sleep becomes possible. This task had gradually become more achievable, night by night, through the development of my storytelling abilities.

Armed only with my typically analytical mind, without the crutch of a colourful storybook in my hands, I sat down at the foot of the bed to continue my fancifully concocted tale. Lucy’s eyes were wide with wonder and anticipation, wholeheartedly believing I was the greatest storyteller in the history of mankind; albeit naïvely. She clutched at her mainstay pink unicorn toy, providing invaluable character inspiration which could be used to invoke the emotional response to the rhetoric I intended of posing at the end of the story; a concept of complexity beyond her years which I was curious to glean from her innocent mind.

“Okay Lucy, last night the Strawberry Princess found the jittery Jelly Wizard in his underground home, but the moment the Princess mentioned the Fountain of Youth, the Wizard fainted with shock and went into a long slumber, just like you. After sleepily waking up, he noticed the Princess was still waiting patiently, her strawberry pink hair glowing slightly despite the dimly-lit chamber they were standing in. Fighting back his anxiety about the question she had asked last night, the Wizard delved deep into his scholastic mind to recall the history and whereabouts of the long-forgotten Fountain of Youth. The Princess listened eagerly as the Jelly Wizard, with his eyes glazed over and his stare seemingly in another realm, recounted all his knowledge about the Fountain of Youth.

“I know not of a creature in history to bathe in the water of the fountain. An ancient scroll once told me that whomever comes in contact with the liquid of the fountain will not age a day from that day onward. Sickness will not touch them, their lifespan will be greatly increased and their beauty will stay perennially pristine.”

The Princess’ eyes sparkled with desire, not daring to utter a word in fear of disrupting this recount.

“Rumour has it, a series of great challenges faces any adventurer seeking this prize; this involves interconnected tests of knowledge, invention and morality. If I am correct, the first test is simply the knowledge of the whereabouts of its sacred ground. Only after many years of research of ancient scrolls in dingy libraries have I acquired this discovery. I shall spare you the details of my deduction, but whispers have it that one must venture to the edge of the Rainbow Forest, which holds many dangers, and perform the following dance.”

I proceeded to flail my arms around widely without any sense of pattern or rhythm, which was greeted by a beautiful peal of laughter from Lucy.

“But of course, I would never recommend seeking out the Fountain of Youth; it has been known to corrupt even the purest of hearts, such as your own, that contains even a drop envy circulating within it…..”

However, as the Jelly Wizard finished his story and drifted back to reality, he looked up to see an empty room with the door slowly closing after itself. The Princess didn’t need to entertain the warnings of a conservative old man.

Travelling around the kingdom is made easy when you’re a princess, especially when you have open access to the Royal Flying-Pig Drawn Carriage. Despite its name, the edge of the Rainbow Forest had an ironic dullness to it, like a greyscale filter applied to whoever sets their eyes upon it. This was most likely a defense mechanism to deter inexperienced adventurers from the secrets hidden within. The Princess perfectly reenacted the Wizard’s dance, prompting the trees to part ways and reveal a narrow path snaking into the forest.

Envisioning the mirage of a grandiose fountain, a watermark now fixed in her sights, the Princess strode forward with the overconfidence and oversight of youth. A gradient of beauty was before her, with colours concentrating every step she took towards the heart of the forest. Time flashed by in an aesthetic blur and before too long, she broke into a circlet of trees surrounding a very purposeful clearing. The encircling of trees was too perfect to be unintentional.

The Princess’ focus shifted to the second challenge, with the Wizard’s hints still echoing in her ears. Her ruminating mind questioned what the connection between knowledge and invention could possibly be. The place she had been led to was the Rainbow Forest, but how could one invent a rainbow? What even was a rainbow?

In a stroke of genius, the Princess reached for a book that every child in the kingdom is given during their learning years, and an item she would never be caught without. Her Wholly Sci-ble. This book contained an explanation for the entirety of magical phenomena within the world.

“A Rainbow is formed when sunlight hits many droplets of water in the sky. Sunlight is naturally made up of all the colours of the rainbow, but all these mixed together form the white light that we are used to. Different colours look that way because they move differently, depending on the frequency of their wavelength. So when the sunlight mixture hits a droplet of water in the sky, each colour reflects off it at different angles, allowing for the separation of colours to be noticed by us in the form of a rainbow”.

The Princess allowed a moment for this information to sink in…. A moment later, she yelled “Shuemly flumly”, which was of course this world’s version of ‘Eureka’. She looked around the clearing to find a series of objects she could use to mistify water without mystifying herself in the process. In the middle, there shimmered a collection of silvery, silken hair-like threads next to a crystal clear pool of water. The Princess wove a tight mesh out of the silken fibers, connected it with a straw-like appendage fashioned out of the leaves of the surrounding trees. Taking in water for the pool to the full capacity of her mouth, she blew with all her force through her mistifying invention.

The sky filled with a blinding array of liquid diamonds, constricting her pupils and forcing her eyelids shut. As her eyes drifted opened and the visual aura subsided, she realised a new object had materialised underneath a dazzling rainbow. As the Fountain of Youth had materialised in front of her, so had a range of possibilities within her mind. Contrasting the purity of the garden that her adventure had led her to, her psyche had instantly twisted into a grievous, impatient force hungry for everlasting beauty.

As she began to approach, airborne droplet of water from the fountain settled on her face, noticeably soothing every spot they touched. The only apparent blemish on this otherwise pristine monument was a grimy plaque; which was, however, being slowly reconsecrated by the magical liquid. An irregular, seemingly purposeful jet of water exited the top of the fountain and splashed over the plaque, revealing its message:

Congratulations, fair adventurer. Here lies the long prophesied Fountain of Youth. Bathe in these waters and you will be clad with unwavering beauty and longevity. To reach this point, you have shown great feats of intellectual strength, but the last challenge will test a different kind of strength. This forest is the home of the only known band of unicorns in this realm; they rely on the fountain’s water as sustenance for their life force. Bacteria living on mortal creatures will taint these waters, sending the brains of unicorns that drink here to mush. You must now answer a question rooted in morality; are you willing to sacrifice the existence of this rare, majestic creature for your own personal enhancement?

Angels and demons were rioting within the Princess’ mind. The plaque certainly wasn’t lying about the existence of unicorns, the silken hair woven in her invention proved that to be genuine. It was shocking to all at once discover the serenity, and subsequently the fragility, that marred the existance of this creatute. All the while, the seed of envy was growing within her.

Her body subconsciously edged closer, closer, closer to the edge of the fountain. She stood on the edge of a precipice in her mind, knowing what she could miss with not taking action, not know where the slippery slope down the figurative cliff face led. The Princess closed her eyes and slowly reached out her hand…

I took a pause in this moment of suspense to register Lucy’s reaction at the climax of the story. However, despite my magnificent storytelling abilities, she had fallen into a peaceful sleep that was quite at odds to the nature of the tale. The poor girl, she mustn’t have understood half the words that I used.

Tucking in the sheets around her, I decided it was about time I retired to the study and started on the real world story that was being featured in my company’s scientific magazine next month. This bedtime story had been a very effective catalyst for thought on the topic I had being tasked to write about; the bioethical issues for the use of biotechnology towards human enhancement in the future. I sat down at my desk and began writing the introduction to this piece.

For many years, an undeveloped technological climate has instilled a myopic view upon genetics; where genes have historically been characterised by their pathological counterpart. BRCA1 is ubiquitously known as the primary Breast Cancer causing gene, not the DNA damage remediating gene as is its function in the normal state. Taking the completion of the Human Genome Project as the starting point for this inversion of thinking, we now know the sequence of the ‘normal’ human genome, which gives us the opportunity to not only provide therapy to genetic ailments, but potentially bestow genetic enhancement in the form of beauty, personality, intelligence and longevity.

In the field of Biotechnology, and ultimately for life in general, we are standing upon a recently materialised precipice. Racing advances with respect to genetic knowledge has opened the world up to a range of new possibilities, but it is time to briefly step outside of the realm of science and assess the moral implications that could be steaming our way. The debate continues as to whether or not we should exercise our new-found knowledge.

Proponents of genetic technologies (Bostrom 2008) have philosophically advocated that there are no compelling reasons, blurring the moral line of genetic enhancement by drawing parallels between current and potential enhancement techniques; we attend school and tutoring for intellectual enhancement, exercise at the gym for physical enhancement and have the freedom to choose a sexual partner to ultimately select the genetic composition of our children. Bostrom even goes as far as to say that depriving children of adequate access to enhancements that are central to the improvement of their life can be deemed morally negligent.

However, bioconservatives (Pijnenburg, Leget 2007) argue that developing life enhancement technologies is morally unjust, when there is already such a significant divide between life expectancies in the 1st world (70-80 years), and that of 3rd world countries (~40 years). How can we morally afford to invest in research to extend the lives of those who have more already?

The human race is currently standing on the edge of the metaphorical Fountain of Youth. But by no means do humans have hearts pure enough to evade the corruption that this leap of power could provide.

So, should we bathe in the waters of genetic technology?

 

Sources:

Bostrom, Nick and Rebecca Roache. “Ethical Issues In Human Enhancement”. New Waves in Applied Ethics (2008): 120-152.

“How Do Our Eyes Adjust To Changing Light? – Life’s Building Blocks”. Medium. N.p., 2017.

Pijnenburg, M. A M and C. Leget. “Who Wants To Live Forever? Three Arguments Against Extending The Human Lifespan”. Journal of Medical Ethics 33.10 (2007): 585-587.

Bee Aware

by Jordan Pennells

In the same way that cows are considered sacred in the Hinduist faith and the Dothraki worship their horse companions, the Australian Honey Bee is worthy of this honour! Not only is it one of my favourite animals, their presence contributes significantly to the sustainability of the environment and the global community in a range of ways. The importance of the Honey Bee to our daily lives is not to be underestimated!

So what function does the Honey Bee have within the web of nature, and how does this role disseminate throughout the world? Certainly, the introduction or removal of any animal from its ecosystem will result in a significant disruption. This is evidenced firstly by the introduction and domination of cane toads within Australia in an attempt to eradicate the destructive cane beetles, or the removal of apex predators causing a host of negative, and sometimes unforeseen, flow-on effects. It has been theorised that the (predominantly) Japanese whaling industry in the 20th century has led to such a loss in great whale numbers, that an estimated 105 million tonnes of sequestered Carbon, that would have settled to the bottom of the ocean in the form of whale faeces, is instead now present in the atmosphere as CO2, contributing to climate change.

However, the effect from the disappearance of bees would be arguably more dramatic. Not only do they produce between 20,000-30,000 tonnes of honey in Australia annually, they are the most indispensable pollinators in a world in which one third of all food consumed by humans is pollination dependent. The key features that allow a colony of up to 50,000 bees to produce up to 27kg of honey per season (on top of for their own personal use) include their amazing flying ability, highly organised behaviour and keen sense of smell.

The cult classic Bee Movie opens with:

According to all known laws of aviation, there is no way a bee should be able to fly. It’s wings are too small to get its fat little body off the ground.

Despite being taken as gospel by many people, it has been proven as a myth that bees shouldn’t be able to fly. The misconception is speculated to have began at a ‘raging’ party attended by scientists and engineers. An entomologist quizzed drunk engineers about the fluid dynamics involved in insect flight. The engineers took the chance to show off their mathematical abilities, formulating a series of equations with assumptions that counter-intuitively revealed that, according to physics, bees shouldn’t be able to fly. As confident as drunk engineers can be, it had multiple flawed assumptions that led to this conclusion.

The most important of these incorrect assumptions was that bees employ the same flight technique as airplanes, which create a lift force by pushing air downwards. In fact, bees beat their wings, which are slightly tilted at an angle as to catch the wind, in a similar fashion to a helicopter propeller. This technique forms eddies of low pressure air above their wings, creating an upward force allowing for them to remain in flight.

honeybee-streamline-model

Computational flow-field model of the Honeybee flight technique

This flying ability allows bees to travel up to a 10 km radius from their hive to source their honey-producing nectar, but this is not the only feature that contributes to their success.

As if from a feminist’s pipedream, worker bees are solely female with specialised physiology that allow them to collect nectar and pollen, while the male drone bees linger in the hive without providing any useful work for the colony, with exception to occasionally mating with a queen of another colony. Female worker bees recognise this discrepancy in contribution towards the success of the hive between genders, which is exacerbated by the fact that drone bees eat three times as much food as the worker bees. At a time when stress is placed on food supply for the colony, such as nectar and pollen resources dropping when winter is coming, the drone bees are expelled from the hive and left outside to starve. This organisation lends itself to the construction and maintenance of a complex nest structure, a coordinated defense when the hive is under threat and inter-bee communication.

Bee communication includes both behavioural traits and pheromone signalling. The Waggle dance is not a new hit song from The Wiggles. Instead, it is an ingenious form of communication that the forager bees use to explain to the rest of the colony where new food sources can be found. The dance is performed in a figure-8 manner, with the angle at which the bee doubles back corresponding to the position of the food source relative to the ultra-violet light of the sun (the YouTube hyperlink gives a much better explanation, or if you just want to see a bee twerking).

bee-dance

The Waggle dance as communication between forager and recruit bees

Concurrently, dancing bees release a profile of 4 semiochemical pheromones (signalling chemicals), that motivate the recruitment of other bees to leave the hive.

Pheromones are an imperative communication device that bees have adapted to alert others within their vast community of changes in environmental conditions or imminent threats to the hive. Bee’s antennae,  are so sensitive that they can detect volatile chemicals in the air at a concentration in the range of parts per trillion. Upon identification of this fact, researchers attempted to harness this ability to train bees to become the next explosives-detection animals.

bee antenna.PNG

Microscopic image of a Honeybee antennae magnified 150x

If you aren’t yet convinced by how cool bees are, just have a look at the food they produce for us. Honey can legitimately be called a superfood. It is assumed to be able to be preserved forever, after it was discovered in a 3,500 year old Egyptian tomb and was found by paleontologists (with much risk) to be perfectly edible. The science behind the amazing preservation properties of honey can be attributed to its low pH of around 3-4.5, and the maintenance of its naturally low moisture content when stored in an airtight container. These conditions prevent the survival and proliferation of bacteria, through the acidic condition stripping microorganisms of their electrons, whilst low moisture content leaches water from the bacteria through osmosis. Past civilisations, such as the Ancient Egyptians, recognised these seemingly magical properties of honey and used it as an antiseptic ointment for skin and eye conditions.

The case for the classification of honey as a superfood comes in the form of a swathe of research evidence. Ajibola et al compiled a review of this evidence, highlighting that honey has a range of health benefits that include:

  1. Haematology – enhance blood profile; increased haemoglobin concentration erythrocyte count and haematocrit levels.
  2. Immune – enhanced immune response; higher lymphocyte and neutrophil count.
  3. Oral Health – prevention of dental plaque, gingivitis and periodontitis.
  4. Gastroenterology – Honey contains prebiotics (substances that facilitate the enhanced growth and biological activity of beneficial bacteria in the gut). It has been shown to be a gastroprotective agent, with anecdotal evidence suggesting treatment of ulcers, gastritis and gastroenteritis.
  5. Ophthalmology – success of human clinical trials using natural honey for patients with eye disorders not responding to conventional treatment confirms the well documented practises of ancient societies using honey remedies for eye problems.
  6. Cardiovascular – ameliorates risk factors of metabolic and cardiovascular diseases.
  7. Wound Healing – due to antiseptic properties of honey.
  8. Antimicrobial activity – potent broad spectrum antibiotic.

(Note: predominantly based on rat model studies)

Despite bees best efforts with their advanced communication techniques, a threat to Australian Honey Bee colonies that is causing conniptions amongst apiarists is the Varroa mite (with the apt scientific name of Varroa destructor). This parasite hitches a ride on their host, the Asian Honey Bee, which are immune to its devastating effects through their synergistic evolutionary history.

Upon infestation, mites feed on larvae and also increase the rate of deformity in maturing bees, causing the colony to collapse and die within 3-4 years. Whilst the Varroa mite has previously wreaked havoc upon bees and the honey community in parts of Europe, it has not been sighted within Australia.

…. Until very recently.

Biosecurity Queensland has put the Far North under lockdown after the discovery of Varroa-supporting Asian Honeybees in the Port of Townsville mid way through 2016, with the culprit bees assumed to have been accidentally imported into the country in a shipping container.

The spread of the Varroa mite would not only devastate bee and honey lovers everywhere, but would spell widespread economic disaster for pollination-dependent food stocks and all related industries.

The message that the Government Department of Agriculture and Fisheries is sending the general public to stop the spread of the deadly Varroa mite:

“Bee aware”.

The (mon)Keys of Evolution

by Jordan Pennells

The human evolutionary timeline is a contentious topic within academia, repeatedly being revised with the development of genetic technologies. A common misconception is that we evolved from Chimpanzees. This idea is somewhat incorrect in the sense that (it is theorised that) both species evolved from a common ancestor between 6.5-7 million years ago, according to calibration of genetic mutation rates. The Chimpanzee is human’s closest relative, sharing 98% genetic similarity (note: when considering the genome sequence as is without including regulatory elements). This value may seem disconcertingly high, but considering the 3 billion plus base pairs in our genome, there still is scope for the significant degree of variation between species that we are accustomed to.

Conserved regions confer the proteins for vital biochemical processes, general structural elements and organ development; essentially preserving the similarities that we see between great apes and ourselves. Varied regions, however, are an evolutionary device that have allowed us to all but disentwine ourselves from the predacious web of nature. The human race has developed towards an advanced global civilization, capable of feats such as releasing specialised objects into our planet’s orbit that track our precise geographical location, and creating a virtual community containing the entirety of human knowledge, which we undoubtedly couldn’t live without.

But what makes us human? What are our features that have defined our cognizance and propelled us to the apex of the food chain? The evolutionary development that has allowed for our speciation from apes has occurred in a multitude of genetic steps over a millennial timescale. Looking back at the culmination of the major physical traits (phenotypes) that have emerged since the speciation of ancestral humans, the main features include:

  1. Bipedalism – evidence of the shift from 4-limb locomotion to upright walking has been seen to originate in paleontological findings of the prehistoric species S. tchadensis, which existed approximately 6-7 million years ago. Compared to previously classified primordial apes, a shift in the location of the foramen magnum (the hole in the base of the skull through which the spinal cord passes) further towards the underside of the cranium indicates that anatomically, this species would have held its head on an upright body.
    s_tchadensis-reconstruction

    Reconstruction estimate of Sahelanthropus tchadensis based on cranial fossil evidence

    Evolutionists, pioneered by Charles Darwin in his book The Descent of Man, have theorised that bipedalism was driven by the selective desire of freeing up the arms during walking, and has been linked to the establishment of monogamy. As a result of climate change, African jungles became seasonal ecosystems, which necessitated the use of unoccupied arms to carry a bounty of food back to an abode. A mutually beneficial deal was struck between males and their female partner, who was tasked to care for their offspring. If the male provided food, collected with their free arms, the females would mate solely with their provider. Although this notion is difficult to confirm, a recent study into Chimpanzee behaviour concluded that they would walk upright to carry valuable resources away from competitors. If you aren’t convinced, take a look at this Chimpanzee carry 12 oranges at once!

  2. Cranial volume – the next phase of human evolution comes in the form of the ‘explosive’ growth (termed as such if you’re in a conversation with an evolutionist) of the skull volume, scientifically known as encephalization. Skull volume, and therefore brain size, has as much as quadrupled from the prehistoric S. tchadensis to us Homo sapiens, as is evident from Paleoanthropology discoveries.
    brain-size-graph

    The evolution of prehistoric human’s skull volume

    Brain development allowed for improved cognitive ability (although it should be noted that brain size does not directly indicate improved cognition, with subsequent spatial specialisation within the brain playing an important role). A distinctive difference between apes and humans that allowed for the increase in brain size is the loss of excess body hair. The vast amounts of proteins fixed in creating abundant hair follicles and keratinised hair fibres could be recycled and put to better use within the brain. Although there is an extensive amount of research that delves into evolutionary-based neuroanatomical development, one of the conclusions is that the vast number of polygenic mutations developing the brain resulted in advanced tool-making capabilities and the emergence of language.

  3. Language – the development of communication in prehistoric humans provided an immense selective advantageous towards the hunting and gathering of edible food, warning of impending danger and creating interpersonal connections that provides a glimpse into the beginnings of society. The predominant physical trait that allowed for the creation of sound within a favourable vocal range to form communication is theorised to be the descent of the larynx over time (however, this theory is difficult to confirm without fossilised evidence).Of course, the evolution of language consists of more than physiological change, with the neurological ability to use this evolved vocal tract being an extremely complicated subject that still in large remains a mystery to us.

Stay tuned for a dive into the evolutionary genetics of spoken word, and how this can relate to us in the modern day.

 

Sources:

Carroll, Sean B. “Genetics And The Making Of Homo Sapiens”. Nature 422.6934 (2003): 849-857. Web.

Jobling, Mark A, Matthew Hurles, and Chris Tyler-Smith. Human Evolutionary Genetics. 1st ed. New York: Garland Science, 2004. Print.

“Sahelanthropus Tchadensis | The Smithsonian Institution’s Human Origins Program”. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. N.p., 2017. Web. 10 Jan. 2017.

Wayman, Erin. “Becoming Human: The Evolution Of Walking Upright”. Smithsonian. N.p., 2017. Web. 10 Jan. 2017.

 

 

Groundbreaking year of earthquakes

by Jordan Pennells

If I were to ask you how many of the Top 50 highest mountains in the world are located in Asia, what would it be?

You could be forgiven for considering the vast landmass of the 7 continents on earth and taking a conservative estimate of 50% (25) within Asia, but you would be wrong. Try higher. In actual fact, Asia monopolises the global geographic market, registering every one of the Top 50 highest mountain peaks.

In hindsight, however, this answer may be intuitive through what constitutes a mountain of its own regard. The slight alteration to the question by substituting ‘mountains’ with ‘mountain ranges’ would turn the answer on its head, with the Andes in South America, the Rockies in North America and the Great Dividing Range in Australia making the cut in the Top 12. So it makes sense looking over the Himalayan landscape that the compilation of these peaks would make up the majority of the breathtakingly tall mountains. You get a peak, you get a peak and you get a peak.

himalayan-mountain-range

Peak of Ama Dablam within the Himalayan Mountain Range

However, mountain classification isn’t quite that simple. A system was originally devised to avoid the semantics of labeling between countryside hills and mountains, but has been subsequently applied to mountainous regions in the order of the Himalayas to provide a quantitative assessment for the serrated landscape. The term Topographic Prominence has devised a relative height threshold for a peak in relation to the surrounding peaks, for which they can be considered their own free-standing mountain. The prominence threshold of 2000ft (~600m), established by Thompson (1964), is calculated through the height of the peak’s summit above the lowest contour line encircling itself and no higher summit.

topographic-prominence

Simplified illustration of Topographical Prominence; peak’s prominence decrease from A -> B

This classification system lays further claim to the exalted nature of Asia’s mountain ranges, in particular the Himalayas, which contributes the most peaks within the Top 50. Although the Himalayas and Mount Everest are deeply entrenched in human lore, seen as the pinnacle of personal endurance and triumph when conquered, they are still a young geological feature in the 100 million year scale timeline of the earth.

In fact, they are the most recently formed mountain range, emerging approximately 45-60 million years ago. Estimations for this range have been an onerous archaeological task involving Carbon dating  and genetic linkage analysis of mammal and marine fossils respectively. For the upper bound of the range, the collection of marine sedimentation by Powell & Conaghan (1973) within the region where the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates now overlap, dated back 55-60 million years, infer the presence of an ocean between landmasses at this time. Correspondingly, mammal fossils originating from Mongolia discovered by Sahni & Kumar (1974), being no older than 45 millions years, indicate that the landmasses had converged by this time.

Tectonic theory suggests that, due to the difference in crust thickness and density between landmasses, subduction of the Indian subcontinental plate occurred.

subduction

Subduction of India’s oceanic lithosphere beneath Southern Tibet

The immense shearing force upon collision, attributed to the relatively extreme rate of movement of India’s landmass (up to 15-20 cm/yr), causing the shaving off and protrusion of India’s lithospheric crust surface. This now spectacularly comprises the Himalayan mountain range.

Unfortunately, spectacular landscapes are not the only consequences of collision and suturing of tectonic plates. Seismic and volcanic activity are significantly heightened parallel to the fault line produced by lithosphere subduction. The Ring of Fire, lining the outskirts of the Pacific Ocean for 40,000 km, consists of such activity.

Ring of Fire.jpg

The entire New Zealand landmass perilously lies on the Ring of Fire fault line. Although early warning systems for earthquake magnitude and epicenter detection are under development, warning time for state-of-the-art systems are still only up to 10 seconds before strong shaking occurs. However, countries adjacent to fault lines such as New Zealand are aware of the peril and can implement arresting controls prior to the event (such as constructing damage-minimising buildings that are designed to sway with the movement of the earth without crumbling), as well as mitigating controls in response to the event that lessen the effects of the disaster (such as increased funding towards emergency procedures).

A portrayal of New Zealand’s seismic dread comes in the form of a most unwanted broken record for the country. 2016 felt the most recorded earthquakes for this country, amassing a total of 32,828 seismic events, including a magnitude 7.8 earthquake in November resulting in 2 casualties. This number was significantly above the still amazing average of 20,000 events per year. No wonder seismologists dubbed 2016 a groundbreaking year in New Zealand history.

Genesis

Who says Scientists and Engineers can’t communicate their ideas. Identifying as a little from Column A and a little for Column B, I intend to amend this trend. This is what it looks like for a New Year’s resolution to come into fruition!

If anyone has a burning topic that they’d love to hear about, let me know at jordan_pennells@live.com.au.

Yours in science,

Jordan