Oh, hi

I’ve neglected this blog, I know. It’s like a dead jellyfish washed ashore, melting slowly in the sun into a pile of formless ooze. With some crabs or something picking at it, probably.

Unfortunately, today is not the day I stop neglecting it.

But! I do have a post up at Discover about barnacle penises. So… call it even?

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Is Google Making Us Ironic?

Hand-wringing about the internet is by now a time-honored tradition. It’s making our children lazy! It’s replacing legitimate human connection! It’s too distracting! There are too many naked people on it!

Perhaps the most famous work to date in the “oh no, the internet!” canon is Nicholas Carr’s 2008 feature for The Atlantic Monthly, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” In it, Carr suggests that the internet rewires our brains, diminishes our capacity for concentration, and might ultimately make us into poorer thinkers on the whole. (Carr’s story was followed by all sorts of refutations, including Carl Zimmer’s “How Google Is Making Us Smarter.”)

I was thinking about something on a related subject and wondering if Carr had addressed it, so I set out to find his story. As I started to type the title into Google — a little cannibalistic, I guess — here’s what happened:

Google search suggestions provide all sorts of fascinating anthropological insights, but I think this is my favorite one yet. What Carr said in 5,000 words, Google says in six. (And by the time I was done laughing, screen-capping and sending to a friend, I’d lost the motivation to actually read the article, so maybe Carr had a point after all.)

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Whale barnacles

I have a new story up on Scienceline on whale barnacles. Namely: How on Earth do barnacles get onto whales in the first place? The ocean is huge, barnacle larvae are tiny, whales are rare — it seems, as marine biologist John Zardus says in the story, “preposterous.”

Zardus — who is, as far as I can tell, the one guy actually devoted to studying these things — was fun to interview. First of all, his name is “Zardus.” Second of all, when I asked him why he studies commensal barnacles, he didn’t even try to make up anything important-sounding, as some people will. “It’s purely curiosity,” he said. “It’s just such a conundrum, and I want to know why.”

That’s the spirit! (And also maybe why he’s still trying to find grant funding, but whatever.)

Check out the story here.

Blog Exclusive Bonus Barnacle Fact: It’s hard to meet someone nice to mate with when you sit in one place your whole life, but barnacles have surmounted this obstacle by evolving the longest penises relative to body size in the entire animal kingdom. Motion of the ocean, indeed.

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Deep sea, deep fried

On Monday, the AP reported the discovery of a shrimp-like crustacean living in the frigid waters beneath a 600-foot-thick Antarctic ice sheet. The NASA team that accidentally caught it on video only wanted to look at the underside of the ice sheet — they hadn’t expected to find any life beneath it, where light doesn’t penetrate. The discovery opens up the possibility that life could survive in other dark, frozen places, like under the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa.

Yeah, yeah. That’s great and everything. But can we eat it?

Apparently that’s the real question on everyone’s mind, since the AP headline reads “NASA finds shrimp dinner on ice beneath Antarctica,” and one of the scientists involved in the discovery is quoted, early in the story, as follows:

“We were operating on the presumption that nothing’s there,” said NASA ice scientist Robert Bindschadler, who will be presenting the initial findings and a video at an American Geophysical Union meeting Wednesday. “It was a shrimp you’d enjoy having on your plate.”

So apparently, the most interesting thing about this creature living where they thought no creature could live is that it’s kind of big, and therefore maybe okay with garlic.

Looks... delicious? (Image: NASA)

This isn’t an isolated phenomenon. When scientists in New Zealand caught a colossal squid — a squid even larger than the giant squid, with the biggest eyeballs in the world and tentacles covered in sharp, rotating hooks — the Daily Mail dubbed it “Calamari for 500.”

Really? Really, its deep-frying potential is the most important thing about it?

I’m not trying to moralize here — a reporter’s job is to help readers connect with a story, and we can all relate to wanting to eat things. I, too, enjoy eating things, and occasionally I even eat shrimp or squid. And I’m sure that Bindschadler’s comment was made offhand, and that he’s truly in the Antarctic for the science, not the snacks.

But most of us, if we’re conscientious human beings, try not to be superficial. We try not to value other people only for their looks, or their wealth, or how tasty they are when sautéed. So maybe, as conscientious explorers of the mysteries of the deep, we should try giving our invertebrate friends the same respect.

Where to start? In the spirit of change, I propose we rename the sea cucumber to something that better reflects its many talents other than looking like food. I am open to suggestions.

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Parasite: A Love Story

Have you read The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien? It’s an amazing book for a hundred reasons, but one thing that sticks in my mind is the way O’Brien describes love. (No, this isn’t going to be one of those kinds of posts; hang in there.) First, near the beginning of the book, when a soldier thinks about the girl he left at home:

[H]is love was too much for him, he felt paralyzed, he wanted to sleep inside her lungs and breathe her blood and be smothered.

Then in the final chapter, a first-person account of a childhood infatuation:

Even then, at nine years old, I wanted to live inside her body. I wanted to melt into her bones — that kind of love.

Seriously, he’s a damned good writer.

Anyway, most of us don’t actually get to inhabit the objects of our affection — except maybe figuratively, but where’s the fun in that? In the ocean, though, there’s one incurable romantic who’s got it all figured out:

(Hans Hillewaert, Wikimedia Commons)

Meet Sacculina.

Sacculina is actually a kind of barnacle, though it doesn’t look at all like the ones on the beach. As a pretty young female larva, it finds a good-looking crab and punctures its exoskeleton at a soft, bendy joint. Sacculina then injects itself into the crab’s body, growing into a balloon that sits in the abdomen. It extends long, nutrient-leeching tendrils into every corner of the crab, like this:

Into you like a barnacle, baby. (From Ernst Haeckel's "Kunstformen der Natur," 1904)

The parasite has so much control that eventually the crab stops growing, hunts down food for the barnacle’s benefit, and even — after the barnacle’s mate moves into its abdomen too — takes care of the resulting larvae as if they were its own. (Say it with me: Awwww.)

Okay, so maybe that’s not exactly what O’Brien meant. Maybe it’s not the most healthy, mutually respectful relationship in the world. But if nothing else, I bet that crab writes the best angsty love poems.

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