If you grow up with a certain religious belief, you might be taught that miracles were amazing acts of God that happened only in another time long ago. Some believe, for example, that there were times when water could be turned instantly into wine, or men — certain men anyway — could live three days in the belly of a whale, survive a fiery furnace or walk on water. Those things, some people will tell you, don’t happen anymore today, for whatever reason.

Others still believe that miracles do still happen today, but you sometimes have to wonder whether these are miracles that matter. Maybe God really does feel the need to remind us of his existence by putting the image of his face in a slice of bread or on a rusty metal chimney, but that seems like a pretty silly use of effort for an omnipotent, omniscient being. Other miracles might simply be things we haven’t discovered the scientific explanations for yet, like the incredible, sudden and full recoveries experienced by a rare few people who thought they had just days to live based on our understanding of conventional medicine. Maybe they are miracles. Maybe they’re just tomorrow’s unforeseen medical breakthrough.

But then there are other miracles. Miracles that all around us in the natural world. It is, indeed, a miracle that we live in a time when we can watch a full eclipse of the moon without fear, knowing that the gradual darkening of our planet’s satellite is caused not by some evil super-being but  by the Earth casting its shadow in the path of sunlight. Or that we live in a time where we can understand that it’s not angry demons, but sudden shifts of tectonic plates, that causes the ground in some places to shake violently and with sometimes deadly consequences.

Everywhere you look, there are real miracles to be seen.

Consider the ant, for example, There’s no such thing as an “ordinary” ant we should squash just because we can. What is “ordinary” about a creature that has been around for more than 100 million years — far longer than we humans — and, despite its tiny size, accounts for about 20 percent of the total animal biomass in any region? Every ant you see is likely part of a much larger society whose inhabitants can communicate with chemicals, might cultivate crops or livestock (fungus or aphids, for example) for food, and might have helped to spread the seeds of, in total, nearly 10 percent of the world’s plants. The more you learn about them, the more you realize how miraculous a creature ants are.

But it’s not just ants. Wherever you live, whatever you look at, you’re likely witnessing a miracle of some kind. A handful of dirt? An ounce or two will hold fragments of rock millions of years old, as well as a vast community of microscopic life forms. There is no “average” color, composition or consistency for soil on Earth. Dirt gives life by letting plants grow … and could even save life by providing a way to keep climate-changing carbon dioxide safely out of the atmosphere. Dirt filters water, absorbs the Sun’s heat, can give up secrets about long-gone cultures, and can provide shelter for everything from microbes to humans. Plain ol’ dirt? No such thing.

And that’s the miracle of life today: that we know and understand that nothing is as simple or “ordinary” as what meets the eye. The deeper we look, the more questions we ask, the further we investigate, the more miracles — not the fewer — we discover. Remembering that, we can live each day with a continual sense of wonder and appreciation … and that’s something none of us should ever surrender.

When my son was about five or six and we were out at  a restaurant with an inadequate supply of toys to keep him occupied, he spontaneously began playing “crayon baseball,” turning each color in his crayon box into a batter, pitcher, first baseman, etc. and embarking upon a miniature ballgame right there on the table.

Well, that’s pretty much what Terry Border does, only with a wider variety of common objects and a bit of wire to make them even more anthropomorphic. You’ll never look at a peanut, hot dog or egg the same way again.

It once was a tradition among some people in Mexico to dress fleas in tiny clothes. You won’t find many people who practice this art, called pulgas vestidas, anymore, but you can still see photographs of these tiny, dressed-up insects in some art exhibits and museums.

Antisocial personality disorder (also known as sociopathic personality disorder): “Antisocial personality disorder symptoms may include: Disregard for right and wrong, Persistent lying or deceit, Using charm or wit to manipulate others, Recurring difficulties with the law, Repeatedly violating the rights of others, Child abuse or neglect, Intimidation of others, Aggressive or violent behavior, Lack of remorse about harming others, Impulsive behavior, Agitation, Poor or abusive relationships, Irresponsible work behavior.” (Definition by the Mayo Clinic)

Society today is behaving more and more like one giant sociopath, and nowhere is that more true than in the US.

Now, sociopathy isn’t anything new in the long history of homo sapiens. If anything, most of human history can probably be best explained by sociopathic behavior: the endless warring of tribes, city-states, kingdoms and nations; the centuries of subjugation of the poor and weak by the mighty and rich; the almost unrelenting intolerance of “the other,” while that “other” usually had its own scapegoat class, religion or race.

But the Age of Enlightenment, France-born democracy and our own nation’s Founding Fathers aimed to change all that. And, for a good couple of centuries or so, the philosophies they embraced did a pretty good job of doing so. The scientific method replaced wishful, magical thinking. The ideals of a Bill of Rights, “a government of laws, not of men,” and checks and balances were adopted to prevent the cruelties and excesses of past plutocracies and aristocracies. And the concept of civic duty provided a counterweight to civil rights. If you wanted to protect and preserve the people’s rights, you as a citizen were also obligated to participate .. at the very least, by voting, serving jury duty, paying taxes and filling out your Census form every 10 years.

It all seemed so hunky-dory for a while. But even the grandest monuments made by humans are subject to erosion, and years of a little chipping-away here, and little smoothing of the edges there have revealed an edifice that’s a lot different than the one we thought we were living in.

It’s been a slow and often insidious process, but the results are devastating nonetheless … much in the way Albert Brooks’ character described declining standards in James L. Brooks’ brilliantly prescient 1987 film “Broadcast News”:

What do you think the Devil is going to look like if he’s around? Nobody is going to be taken in if he has a long, red, pointy tail. No. I’m semi-serious here. He will look attractive and he will be nice and helpful and he will get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation and he will never do an evil thing … he will just bit by little bit lower standards where they are important. Just coax along flash over substance … Just a tiny bit. And he will talk about all of us really being salesmen. And he’ll get all the great women.

Considering that some of the women associated with US politics at the moment are Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin, that last part might not hold true. Still, you get the idea.

The phorid fly might be tiny, but it has a powerful weapon in its possession: the ability to turn ants into gruesome zombies. After identifying an ant victim, the fly swoops down to lay a single egg into the ant’s head. The developing larva takes control of the ant’s body, first forcing it to walk far away from the rest of the ant colony. As the larva grows and eats the ant’s brain from the inside, the ant dies. Eventually, the ant’s head falls off and the next generation of zombie-creating fly emerges to repeat the cycle.

Jesus, how bad is the biodiversity picture? It’s so bad that the plight of a much-feared, perfect killing-machine predator like the hammerhead shark can make you cry.

If you doubt that, just look at this photograph.

Call me guilty of anthropomorphizing, but tell me you don’t look at this image and feel the same pangs: this hammerhead looks damned sad, beaten even. There’s no doubt it could turn around in the blink of an eye and bite in half the diver behind it, but it looks for all intents and purposes as if it’s completely lost the will to do so. And that’s how bad the biodiversity picture is: “Jaws” doesn’t scare us anymore … not the way it did in 1976. Instead, it breaks our hearts.

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).