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Lobsters, jellyfish, and the foolish quest for immortality
Being mortal makes life so much sweeter.
- Since the beginning of time, humans have fantasized over and quested for "eternal life."
- Lobsters and a kind of jellyfish offer us clues about what immortality might look like in the natural world.
- Evolution does not lend itself easily to longevity, and philosophy might suggest that life is more precious without immortality.
One of the oldest pieces of epic literature we have is known as the Epic of Gilgamesh. It's easy to get lost in all the ancient mythology — talking animals and heroic battles — but at its heart lies one of the most fundamental and universal quests of all time: the search for immortality. It's all about Gilgamesh wanting to live forever.
From Mesopotamian poetry to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, from golden apples to the philosopher's stone, humans, everywhere, have wanted and sought after eternal life.
And yet, perhaps the secret to immortality is not as elusive as we might think. Rather than holy objects or science fiction, we need only look to the animal world to see how nature, that most magical of places, might be able to answer one of the oldest questions there is.
If you ever find yourself at Red Lobster or about to munch into a lobster roll, take a moment to consider that you might just be eating a clue to perpetual youth. To see why, we have to know a tiny bit about aging.
As you get older, it's impossible not to notice how everything creaks a little more, how easy jobs now require great effort, and how hangovers are no longer a laughing matter. Our bodies are designed to degrade and wear away. This deterioration, known as "senescence" in biology, occurs at the cellular level. It's when the cells in our body stop dividing, yet remain in our body, active and alive. We need our cells to divide so that we can grow and repair. For instance, when we cut ourselves or lift weights in the gym, it is cell division that replaces and rebuilds the damage done. But, over time, our cells just stop dividing. They stay around to do the best they can, but like the macroscopic humans they make up, cells get slower and more error-prone — and so, we age.
But not lobsters. In normal cases of cell division, the shields at the end of our chromosomes — called telomeres — are remade a bit smaller, and so a bit less effective after each subsequent cell division at protecting our DNA. When this reaches a certain point, the cell enters senescence and will stop dividing. It won't self-destruct but will just carry on and wallow as it is. Lobsters, though, have a special enzyme (unsurprisingly, called telomerase) which makes sure that their cells' telomeres remain as long and brilliant as they've always been. Their cells will never enter senescence, and so a lobster just won't age.
However, what evolution giveth with one hand, it taketh with another. As crustaceans, their skeleton is on the outside, and having a constantly growing body means they are always outgrowing their exoskeletal homes. They need to abandon their old shells and regrow a new one all the time. This, of course, requires huge reserves of energy, and as the lobster reaches a certain size, it simply cannot consume enough calories to build the shell equivalent of a mansion. Lobsters do not die from old age but exhaustion (as well as disease and New England fisherman).
The jellyfish that reverses its life cycle
Although lobsters might not have perfected immortality, perhaps there's something to learn.
But there's another animal that does even better than the lobster, and it's the only creature recognized to be properly immortal. That's the jellyfish known as Turritopsis dohrnii. These jellyfish are tiny — about the size of a fly at their biggest — but they've mastered one ridiculous trick: they can reverse their life cycle.
An embryonic jellyfish starts as a fertilized egg before hooking onto some kind of surface to then grow up. In this stage, they will stretch out to look like any other jellyfish. Eventually, they will break away from this surface to become a mature, fully developed jellyfish, which is in turn ready to reproduce. So far, so normal.
Yet Turritopsis dohrnii does something remarkable. When things get tough — like the environment becomes hostile or there's a conspicuous absence of food — they can change back to one of the earlier stages in their lifecycle. It's like a frog becoming a tadpole or a fly becoming a maggot. It's the human equivalent of a mature adult saying, "Right, I've had enough of this job, that mortgage, this stress, and that anxiety, so I'm going to turn back into a toddler.". Or, it's like an old man deciding to become a fetus again, for one more round.
Obviously, a fingernail sized jellyfish is not immortal as we'd probably want the word to mean. They're as squishable and digestible as any animal. But, their ability to change back to earlier forms of life, ones which are better adapted to certain environments or where there are fewer food sources, means that they could, in theory, go on forever.
Why do we want to live forever?
Although the quest for immortality is as old as humanity itself, it's surprisingly hard to find across the diverse natural world. Truth be told, evolution doesn't care about how long we live, so long as we live long enough to pass on our genes and to make sure our children are vaguely looked after. Anything more than that is redundant, and evolution doesn't have much time for needless longevity.
The more philosophical question, though, is why do we want to live forever? We're all prone to existential anguish, and we all, at least some of the time, fear death. We don't want to leave our loved ones behind, we want to finish our projects, and we much prefer the known life to an unknown afterlife. Yet, death serves a purpose. As the German philosopher Martin Heidegger argued, death is what gives meaning to life.
Having the end makes the journey worthwhile. It's fair to say that playing a game is only fun because it doesn't go on forever, a play will always need its curtain call, and a word only makes sense at its last letter. As philosophy and religion has repeated throughout the ages: memento mori, or "remember you'll die."
Being mortal in this world makes life so much sweeter, which is surely why lobsters and tiny jellyfish have such ennui.Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy in Oxford. He runs a popular Instagram account called Mini Philosophy (@philosophyminis). His first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas
Geologists discover a rhythm to major geologic events.
- It appears that Earth has a geologic "pulse," with clusters of major events occurring every 27.5 million years.
- Working with the most accurate dating methods available, the authors of the study constructed a new history of the last 260 million years.
- Exactly why these cycles occur remains unknown, but there are some interesting theories.
Our hearts beat at a resting rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute. Lots of other things pulse, too. The colors we see and the pitches we hear, for example, are due to the different wave frequencies ("pulses") of light and sound waves.
Now, a study in the journal Geoscience Frontiers finds that Earth itself has a pulse, with one "beat" every 27.5 million years. That's the rate at which major geological events have been occurring as far back as geologists can tell.
A planetary calendar has 10 dates in red
Credit: Jagoush / Adobe Stock
According to lead author and geologist Michael Rampino of New York University's Department of Biology, "Many geologists believe that geological events are random over time. But our study provides statistical evidence for a common cycle, suggesting that these geologic events are correlated and not random."
The new study is not the first time that there's been a suggestion of a planetary geologic cycle, but it's only with recent refinements in radioisotopic dating techniques that there's evidence supporting the theory. The authors of the study collected the latest, best dating for 89 known geologic events over the last 260 million years:
- 29 sea level fluctuations
- 12 marine extinctions
- 9 land-based extinctions
- 10 periods of low ocean oxygenation
- 13 gigantic flood basalt volcanic eruptions
- 8 changes in the rate of seafloor spread
- 8 times there were global pulsations in interplate magmatism
The dates provided the scientists a new timetable of Earth's geologic history.
Tick, tick, boom
Credit: New York University
Putting all the events together, the scientists performed a series of statistical analyses that revealed that events tend to cluster around 10 different dates, with peak activity occurring every 27.5 million years. Between the ten busy periods, the number of events dropped sharply, approaching zero.
Perhaps the most fascinating question that remains unanswered for now is exactly why this is happening. The authors of the study suggest two possibilities:
"The correlations and cyclicity seen in the geologic episodes may be entirely a function of global internal Earth dynamics affecting global tectonics and climate, but similar cycles in the Earth's orbit in the Solar System and in the Galaxy might be pacing these events. Whatever the origins of these cyclical episodes, their occurrences support the case for a largely periodic, coordinated, and intermittently catastrophic geologic record, which is quite different from the views held by most geologists."
Assuming the researchers' calculations are at least roughly correct — the authors note that different statistical formulas may result in further refinement of their conclusions — there's no need to worry that we're about to be thumped by another planetary heartbeat. The last occurred some seven million years ago, meaning the next won't happen for about another 20 million years.
Research shows that those who spend more time speaking tend to emerge as the leaders of groups, regardless of their intelligence.
If you want to become a leader, start yammering. It doesn't even necessarily matter what you say. New research shows that groups without a leader can find one if somebody starts talking a lot.
This phenomenon, described by the "babble hypothesis" of leadership, depends neither on group member intelligence nor personality. Leaders emerge based on the quantity of speaking, not quality.
Researcher Neil G. MacLaren, lead author of the study published in The Leadership Quarterly, believes his team's work may improve how groups are organized and how individuals within them are trained and evaluated.
"It turns out that early attempts to assess leadership quality were found to be highly confounded with a simple quantity: the amount of time that group members spoke during a discussion," shared MacLaren, who is a research fellow at Binghamton University.
While we tend to think of leaders as people who share important ideas, leadership may boil down to whoever "babbles" the most. Understanding the connection between how much people speak and how they become perceived as leaders is key to growing our knowledge of group dynamics.
The power of babble
The research involved 256 college students, divided into 33 groups of four to ten people each. They were asked to collaborate on either a military computer simulation game (BCT Commander) or a business-oriented game (CleanStart). The players had ten minutes to plan how they would carry out a task and 60 minutes to accomplish it as a group. One person in the group was randomly designated as the "operator," whose job was to control the user interface of the game.
To determine who became the leader of each group, the researchers asked the participants both before and after the game to nominate one to five people for this distinction. The scientists found that those who talked more were also more likely to be nominated. This remained true after controlling for a number of variables, such as previous knowledge of the game, various personality traits, or intelligence.
How leaders influence people to believe | Michael Dowling | Big Think www.youtube.com
In an interview with PsyPost, MacLaren shared that "the evidence does seem consistent that people who speak more are more likely to be viewed as leaders."
Another find was that gender bias seemed to have a strong effect on who was considered a leader. "In our data, men receive on average an extra vote just for being a man," explained MacLaren. "The effect is more extreme for the individual with the most votes."
The great theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg passed away on July 23. This is our tribute.
- The recent passing of the great theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg brought back memories of how his book got me into the study of cosmology.
- Going back in time, toward the cosmic infancy, is a spectacular effort that combines experimental and theoretical ingenuity. Modern cosmology is an experimental science.
- The cosmic story is, ultimately, our own. Our roots reach down to the earliest moments after creation.
When I was a junior in college, my electromagnetism professor had an awesome idea. Apart from the usual homework and exams, we were to give a seminar to the class on a topic of our choosing. The idea was to gauge which area of physics we would be interested in following professionally.
Professor Gilson Carneiro knew I was interested in cosmology and suggested a book by Nobel Prize Laureate Steven Weinberg: The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe. I still have my original copy in Portuguese, from 1979, that emanates a musty tropical smell, sitting on my bookshelf side-by-side with the American version, a Bantam edition from 1979.
Inspired by Steven Weinberg
Books can change lives. They can illuminate the path ahead. In my case, there is no question that Weinberg's book blew my teenage mind. I decided, then and there, that I would become a cosmologist working on the physics of the early universe. The first three minutes of cosmic existence — what could be more exciting for a young physicist than trying to uncover the mystery of creation itself and the origin of the universe, matter, and stars? Weinberg quickly became my modern physics hero, the one I wanted to emulate professionally. Sadly, he passed away July 23rd, leaving a huge void for a generation of physicists.
What excited my young imagination was that science could actually make sense of the very early universe, meaning that theories could be validated and ideas could be tested against real data. Cosmology, as a science, only really took off after Einstein published his paper on the shape of the universe in 1917, two years after his groundbreaking paper on the theory of general relativity, the one explaining how we can interpret gravity as the curvature of spacetime. Matter doesn't "bend" time, but it affects how quickly it flows. (See last week's essay on what happens when you fall into a black hole).
The Big Bang Theory
For most of the 20th century, cosmology lived in the realm of theoretical speculation. One model proposed that the universe started from a small, hot, dense plasma billions of years ago and has been expanding ever since — the Big Bang model; another suggested that the cosmos stands still and that the changes astronomers see are mostly local — the steady state model.
Competing models are essential to science but so is data to help us discriminate among them. In the mid 1960s, a decisive discovery changed the game forever. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson accidentally discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB), a fossil from the early universe predicted to exist by George Gamow, Ralph Alpher, and Robert Herman in their Big Bang model. (Alpher and Herman published a lovely account of the history here.) The CMB is a bath of microwave photons that permeates the whole of space, a remnant from the epoch when the first hydrogen atoms were forged, some 400,000 years after the bang.
The existence of the CMB was the smoking gun confirming the Big Bang model. From that moment on, a series of spectacular observatories and detectors, both on land and in space, have extracted huge amounts of information from the properties of the CMB, a bit like paleontologists that excavate the remains of dinosaurs and dig for more bones to get details of a past long gone.
How far back can we go?
Confirming the general outline of the Big Bang model changed our cosmic view. The universe, like you and me, has a history, a past waiting to be explored. How far back in time could we dig? Was there some ultimate wall we cannot pass?
Because matter gets hot as it gets squeezed, going back in time meant looking at matter and radiation at higher and higher temperatures. There is a simple relation that connects the age of the universe and its temperature, measured in terms of the temperature of photons (the particles of visible light and other forms of invisible radiation). The fun thing is that matter breaks down as the temperature increases. So, going back in time means looking at matter at more and more primitive states of organization. After the CMB formed 400,000 years after the bang, there were hydrogen atoms. Before, there weren't. The universe was filled with a primordial soup of particles: protons, neutrons, electrons, photons, and neutrinos, the ghostly particles that cross planets and people unscathed. Also, there were very light atomic nuclei, such as deuterium and tritium (both heavier cousins of hydrogen), helium, and lithium.
So, to study the universe after 400,000 years, we need to use atomic physics, at least until large clumps of matter aggregate due to gravity and start to collapse to form the first stars, a few millions of years after. What about earlier on? The cosmic history is broken down into chunks of time, each the realm of different kinds of physics. Before atoms form, all the way to about a second after the Big Bang, it's nuclear physics time. That's why Weinberg brilliantly titled his book The First Three Minutes. It is during the interval between one-hundredth of a second and three minutes that the light atomic nuclei (made of protons and neutrons) formed, a process called, with poetic flair, primordial nucleosynthesis. Protons collided with neutrons and, sometimes, stuck together due to the attractive strong nuclear force. Why did only a few light nuclei form then? Because the expansion of the universe made it hard for the particles to find each other.
What about the nuclei of heavier elements, like carbon, oxygen, calcium, gold? The answer is beautiful: all the elements of the periodic table after lithium were made and continue to be made in stars, the true cosmic alchemists. Hydrogen eventually becomes people if you wait long enough. At least in this universe.
In this article, we got all the way up to nucleosynthesis, the forging of the first atomic nuclei when the universe was a minute old. What about earlier on? How close to the beginning, to t = 0, can science get? Stay tuned, and we will continue next week.
To Steven Weinberg, with gratitude, for all that you taught us about the universe.
Long before Alexandria became the center of Egyptian trade, there was Thônis-Heracleion. But then it sank.