May 2011

There are parts of the Amazon Rainforest in South America where you’ll find only one type of plant, and no other … and it’s all because of ants, in particular, lemon ants.

Lemon ants create these special forest areas — called devil’s gardens — by injecting a poison into the leaves of all the other kinds of plants. The poison, called formic acid, starts killing the plants within one day. Why? Because the trees the ants don’t kill have hollow stems that make perfect nests for their colonies.

The largest devil’s garden scientists have found so far has more than 300 trees in it and is around 800 years old.

(By the way, the ants that make those gardens are called lemon ants because that’s kind of what they taste like: lemons.)


“Mother Nature doesn’t do bailouts.” That’s become a common saying among climate change activists in recent years, but the observation doesn’t go far enough.

The accurate sentiment should be something more along the lines of, “Reality doesn’t negotiate.”

However far advanced we’ve become technologically, however closely some might believe we’re approaching “the singularity,” the fact remains that the physical world remains ruled by the basic rules of physics. We can’t create energy out of nothing. No one will ever build a perpetual motion machine. The laws of thermodynamics can’t be “glamored.”

For those who would try, though, those rules don’t apply.

Remember the Bush Jr. advisor’s disdain for the “reality-based community” back in the early 2000s? Their GOP successors don’t even acknowledge such a community anymore: today’s Republicans and tea-baggers essentially believe they can legislate away any reality or truth they find inconvenient. “Reality-based” scientists these days can present as many facts, graphs, charts and models as they like, but if the right-wing doesn’t like the implications, it’s shown itself more than ready to vote the truth out of existence, as far as as laws of the land are concerned. The result, in a split Congress, is, as Democratic Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts recently put it, a “legislative Schrödinger’s cat” … alive in the House while “simultaneously being dead in the Senate.”

That might work for a while, maybe even into the next election cycle or two. But, sooner or later, reality-based reality will make its presence known. No matter how vehemently the anti-reality crowd might make its case, sooner or later, someone will eventually open Schrödinger’s box to see whether the cat inside is alive or dead.

“People are very open-minded about new things. As long as they are exactly like the old ones.” – Charles Franklin Kettering, inventor, engineer and GM’s head of research from 1920 to 1947

Years ago, some comedian had a bit about middle-aged closed-mindedness that I can’t remember much about now … except that he illustrated his point with a very dramatic, vivid “thud” noise when describing how most people stop considering new ideas at “a certain age.” “Thud!” (or something like that), he said. “Down comes the wall.”

It’s such a crying shame when you think about how curious we all are as children. “Why?” was the question guaranteed to follow almost everything we heard. If you have a child of a different “certain age,” you know what I mean. Two-year-olds, for instance, seem to want to know the “why” about almost everything. Eight-year-olds, on the other hand, tend to question the “whys” of social norms: “Why do I have to be nice to kids I don’t like?” “Why do I have to go to school?” “Why can’t I (have Facebook/go to Disneyland/stay up till 11 pm) like So-and-So does?” For parents, annoying? Yes.

But put yourself in their shoes just for a minute. “Why?” really isn’t a bad question to ask quite a bit. There are plenty of aspects about life today that deserve a “Why?” So try to channel your inner 8-year-old the next time you find yourself accepting something because “that’s just the way it is,” and ask … “Why?” If the answers come, they might surprise you. If they don’t, expect to be surprised, challenged and even unnerved (in a good way) even more.

Amazing, wonderful, yet also likely to give you nightmares, AntWeb’s slideshow of digital ant photographs shows you unprecedented closeups of more than 12,000 of the world’s many ant species. The wide variety of heads, jaws, hairs and body shapes is mind-boggling.

AntWeb also has an awesome network link for Google Earth that lets you visually browse the globe for which types of ants are where. No surprise, the state where I live (Florida) is swarming with them (and I’ve received the bites to prove it).

How could I not pick Argia apicalis as the bug du jour? This photograph of a spectacular blue-fronted dancer (a type of damselfly) won first place in the Encyclopedia of Life’s “Life is Blue” photo contest. Quite tiny (33 to 40 millimeters), these blue insects still make for amazing closeup photos.

The Encyclopedia of Life, by the way, is a project worth supporting. It’s goal? To “provide freely accessible information by and for communities around the world about all of the 1.9 million known species on our planet.”

Look no further than poor Wisconsin to find evidence that the school voucher/school choice movement is just another way to line the pockets of corporate campaign sponsors and hammer a stake through the heart of public schools as we know them.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker, already all-too-well-known for his determination to break the state’s unions, has now proposed to get rid of Wisconsin’s income threshold for school vouchers … essentially expanding the program “so rich people can go to private schools on the taxpayers’ tab,” as Ruth Conniff, a writer for The Progressive, puts it. Even his GOP allies in the state aren’t so thrilled.

“I’m amazed at this,” said GOP Senate president Michael Ellis. “I didn’t see this coming.”

John Stocks, executive director of the National Education Association, offers an even strong critique:

“The real agenda is to dismantle public education through privatization schemes,” he said.

How much heat can some insects take? Not many can beat the Sahara Desert ant, which can remain active with a body temperature of more than 50 degrees C (that’s 122 degrees F!). That comes in handy, considering the desert surface where it lives can reach up to 70 degrees C (a whopping 158 degrees F) at the hottest point of the day.

Scientists believe Sahara Desert ants have managed to push heat tolerance about as far as possible for most animals on our planet. Only single-celled or microscopic creatures known as thermophiles (from the Greek words for “heat” and “love”) can beat them; these tiny heat-lovers thrive at temperatures of up to 80 degrees C (176 degrees F)!

If your vision is unimpaired, be grateful. But also be aware that people with impaired vision have powerful ways of perceiving the world around them without sight … something Oliver Sachs (Awakenings) explores in his 2010 book, The Mind’s Eye. One blind person he profiles in the book, John Hull, describes how rain can create a vivid picture of the outdoor landscape through sound alone:

Rain has a way of bringing out the contours of everything; it throws a coloured blanket over previously invisible things; instead of an intermittent and thus fragmented world, the steadily falling rain creates continuity of acoustic experience … presents the fullness of an entire situation all at once … gives a sense of perspective and of the actual relationship of one part of the world to another.

The next time it rains where you are, close your eyes and try to picture the world with Hull’s approach.

Don’t try this one, though: Sachs also recounts the story of Federico, a 15th-century duke “who had lost one eye in a tournament. Fearing the ever-present threat of assassination and wanting to preserve his prowess on the battlefield, he had his surgeons amputate the bridge of his nose to allow a wider field for the remaining eye.”

Update (05/13/11): With significant rain falling for the first time in weeks (months?) today, I tried a little rain visioning, and it was an intriguing exercise to listen to the different sounds the falling drops made and try to picture what they were falling on. I would have tried it longer, but my dog decided he couldn’t stand getting any wetter and tugged me toward the door.

Talk about a new perspective on fashion: what would you wear if you could grow your shirts, pants and dresses? Not the cotton or linen they’re made from, but the actual clothes themselves?

British fashion designer/researcher Suzanne Lee is asking just that through the BioCouture project. She and her team have grown material similar to vegetable leather from a “sugary green tea solution (mixed with) bacterial cellulose, yeasts and other microorganisms … We can then either use it wet to mold onto a 3D form, like a dress shape, or dry it flat and then cut and sew it into a garment.”

It’s mid-morning in the workplace: time to get up and move. Why? Because frequent breaks from sitting are good for both your heart and your waistline, according to the European Society of Cardiology.

So get out of your chair for five minutes if you can and go for a brisk walk, take the stairs up and down or do a few jumping jacks in the bathroom. Just move.

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