#Emergence in Action

The universe is a truly incredible thing. It is an endlessly cycling chaotic simulacra, churning out endless iterations of itself. The best part about being immersed in such wonder? No one needs to travel to the ends of the Universe to see this. At roughly 93 billion light years across there’s plenty to see. But the thing is, the universe is self assembling!

Yes, self assembling. What does this mean?

Exactly what it says. Nature is chock full of patterns. It’s said that nature abhors a vacuum. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that nature abhors disorder. Patterns arise naturally from the firmament of whatever lies beneath the universe every single second every where at once all across the universe. In all of that vastness messes and disorder arise, but order always eventually spontaneously emerges.

Or at least it seems that way.

Life is a special example of emergence in action. A rather special example. It’s the most incredible phenomenon in all of existence. It’s right next to me as I write:

This is a collective of eukaryotic organisms. They all share the same genome: a special set of instructions which has emerged over evolutionary time. This set of instructions co-opts other seemingly random but very precisely designed molecules to pretty much do nothing but make more copies of itself ad infinitum. This collective of cells has organised itself into specialised structures that make the business of being a collective a little bit easier for all involved.

Now, replication of these instructions will eventually become riddled with flaws, as a process called senescence begins to emerge from this collective’s previously youthful state. Time will march on and eventually another equilibrium will emerge called death.

It doesn’t even end there. All of the atoms and compounds within this collective (from now on we’ll call this collective “Jasper”) will cycle through soil, clouds, other organisms, stars, molecular clouds, other planets and galaxies. Eventually they’ll come to rest at the end of time along with everything else. It’s a heck of a story. Really.

And all of that is self organising. Structures and patterns arise spontaneously from the laws of nature. Structures such as rivers and streams are no different to other familiar branching structures such as circulatory systems. Methane based river systems on frozen Titan resemble precisely the branching network of blood vessels that winds through your body like…..well, a river system. And it all creates itself!

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Naturally arising branching patterns on earth.

This spontaneous self organisation is ubiquitous in nature. Life , and especially multicellular life, has borrowed this proclivity for patterns, recreating those which seem conducive to biological processes functioning well.

Is this how multicellularity got a leg up?

Consider this example. Physarum polycephalum is the scientific name for a rather interesting species of plasmodial slime mold. Now, its name is a sign of things to come, meaning “many-headed slime”.

Plasmodial slime molds; not quite colonial, not quite multicellular. Image: Wikipedia

P. polycephalum breaks several tenets of what we would call common sense. Essentially, it is a single gigantic cell, consisting of thousands or millions of individual cells which have joined together for common interest. Unlike creatures like you and me, however, these cells aren’t compartmentalized like our own. In us, each cell is partitioned from its brethren by walls and membranes. The innards, including the nuclei are tucked away safe and sound. It’s truly a neighbourhood as we would understand it. Within the slime mold it’s like the sixties never died. It’s an orgy in there. All of the individual nuclei all slosh around inside this plasmodial common area. Creatures bearing this property are called coenocytic.

So. The slime mold has this kind of generic look about it, doesn’t it?

All of these structures emerge spontaneously, coded for by some as yet unknown aspect of spatial and quantum topography. I don’t know what this is, or how to elucidate it, but I know it’s there.

Life has somehow managed to encode these structures. Just like Jasper in the first image, these structures have evolved over geological time to work together, creating assemblages from which something emerges that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Could the first attempts at multicellularity have gotten a leg up? Did the laws of nature lay the groundwork for biological structures shared by the vast majority of multicellular organisms today? Consider this scenario.

Earth, several billion years before the present day. You’re drifting above a hellish landscape, in a little temporal bubble, that allows you to observe and record data but not interact with the landscape in any way. That could be disastrous. How so? Just imagine accidentally stepping on L.U.C.A; the Last Universal Common Ancestor of all life. Let your imagination do the rest. So you’re drifting along, observing, and you see something.

The earth at this time is hot. Islands of freshly minted land protrude above the semi-molten surface of a world still cooling down. You see chunks of the planet high above you, settling into a tenuous orbit. Only recently something the size of Pluto crashed into baby earth, shattering much of its outer skin and sending it into high orbit. All of those chunks you see in the sky will one day become the Moon. The collision wiped the surface clean like an Etch-A-Sketch, and so as a result baby earth is reforming again. Pockets of land like this one harbour water and other organic muck delivered by comets; the Universe’s version of Fed-Ex. Not to mention the stranger that caused all this damage in the first place.

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Space plays rough. Earth’s surface, wiped away in a catastrophic collision, provided the raw materials for its moon. Image: NASA/JPL

The view is impressive. Just imagine every vision or rendition of Hell you’ve ever seen and apply reality to it. It’s pretty cool. But something else huge is happening as well. Life is forming in the midst of this apocalypse. Your time machine hovers over the most momentous event in the history of the universe…

Whatever this tiny thing is, drifting about in warm eddies and swirls in that hot little pond, it’s the first. It may not live to see another day, or it may eventually give rise to things like you. You would love to examine it in more detail, but you ask yourself. How did this singular piece of organic machinery manage to figure out that one day forming collectives would be a good idea? Your time machine bubble thing seems to know what you’re thinking. It is only fictional after all, and the writer decides to jump forward a billion years or so….

Something large and dark slowly glides past you in the brightly lit upper layer of a sea that completely covers over three-quarters of the planet. The thing pushes you aside as a tremendous tail fin propels it down into dark depths. It’s some kind of fish. A big fish. The armour plating on its head gives it an appearance reminiscent of a tank. If Thunderbird 2 and the Batmobile (Christian Bale’s batman of course) had a baby, it would look something like this: Dunkleosteus. Your time bubble wobbles alarmingly as the behemoth sends powerful compression waves through the water. You know this is a fictional scenario, but you don’t care. You’ve gone too far forward anyway….

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Primeval earth, with a toxic atmosphere, much closer moon and primitive colonial life, in the form of stromatolites (right foreground). Image: NASA/JPL

A haze wafts across a landscape dominated by volcanic ash and a truly huge moon. Waves crash against a dark craggy shoreline. The time bubble lets you observe, but not interact, right? You can observe with all your senses. This place stinks. The shoreline is matted with a thick film of bacteria and gunk. Waves crash against the mat, breaking it up, and dispersing it further landward. You’re guessing with the moon so close tides must be insane here. This whole area is sub-littoral. Anything that can hold on here has to be tough. The rocks all give off steam. The sun isn’t as hot now as it is where you come from, but seams of volcanic activity are evident out in the water. Pillow like ridges of freshly solidified lava stretch up the shore, still not quite cool. Bacteria, or these Archean versions of them carpet some of the rocks. It’s here that you see something big. Almost as big as life appearing in the first place. Channels and rivulets run through some of the mats. Skins have formed and as water has reduced within the mats, structures have appeared. These mats have been given a push towards colonialism by the blind forces of nature. In these early more experimental times, genetic information and it’s transfer is a lot more promiscuous. A lot less Darwinian and a little more Lamarckian. These bacteria with their scrambled DNA and transfer will find this way of doing things a little easier, and will adopt it. Quickly.

Does this scenario make any sense? It does, but it had to have some basis in fact. I saw the principles in action, and they are as follows: an organic matrix, containing all manner of constituents useful to life is forced into biologically useful patterns and structures by some kind of energetic input. Where did I see this happen, or at least some analogue of it?

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My creature lives! Meet Soupenstein.

Meet Plasmodium botanicus, or plant muck. Otherwise known as puree vegetable soup. It does bear a striking resemblance to P. polycephalum, doesn’t it? This little monstrosity was created accidentally in the lab. Or should I say kitchen?

20170728_133413 It was busy. I was moving at a million miles an hour, when I spilt soup on the grill plate next to me. This odd structure was the quick result. Branching patterns and channels formed within seconds, and I was instantly taken by its similarity to a slime mold. It was this random splash that was the inspiration for this post. Now, this post is only a speculative “what if?” with some cheap time travel thrown in, but could the earliest multicellular life, or collective modes of existence have been given some kind of initial leg up by similar incidents or circumstances? There are parallels between my imagined “slime on a rock” and the soup accident above. Let’s call the soup an extracellular matrix. It is a composite substance, containing all manner of organic compounds, plus a few impurities (probably. What doesn’t?). Energy in the form of heat is applied to the ECM as it comes into contact with a flat hot surface. Water in the ECM reduces, leaving behind a concentration of material, which forms channels and branches in accordance with the laws of nature. Bacteria within this newly formed arrangement suddenly find life a little bit easier.

What of other mixes of organic and inorganic compounds? Could life have resulted from a random splash like this? Did multicellular life arise when the cosmic cook was a little busy and not being careful? It would be interesting to perform a series of experiments. Why not use foodstuffs such as soup? Would different recipes lead to different structures? Would other energy sources, or electricity, lead to new outcomes? Who knows? That’s the point of experimenting!

I’d be interested to hear what others have to say on this. Thanks for reading.

 

Ben.

References and Further Reading:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Titan_(moon)

http://www.elijahwald.com/origin.html

https://www.seeker.com/life-continues-within-the-body-after-death-evidence-shows-2212720233.html

http://www.medicaldaily.com/life-after-death-according-science-cells-fight-stay-alive-long-after-body-dies-409525

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5303275/

P.S.

Thanks for reading this far! Could readers please do me a favour? I have a YouTube channel, and I would like feedback on it. If people could watch a couple of videos and give CONSTRUCTIVE criticism. What’s good? What’s not? Am I boring? Do I mumble etc? All feedback is welcome and if you can leave comments either here, on my twitter, Facebook or YouTube channel that would be awesome. I’ll make you famous. Or something. 

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UClvBq6G-DkIlKci7xXdWYzA

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Doing Something Right

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Image: Pixabay

Even though I call myself a man of science, looking at it realistically I’m not anymore. Yes, I did get through a Science Degree, and then went on to do Honours. I would have gone further, but life did it’s thing. Anyway.

Them’s the breaks, right?

In the ensuing years I have fought hard to keep my mind active, and to maintain an interest and/or presence in the world of science. Seeing as I’m not a practising scientist by any stretch of the imagination, it seemed natural to engage in scicomm (or my bargain basement variation of it). I have been working hard on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and now WordPress to get myself in people’s faces about science. It has definitely been tricky and often tedious work. Sometimes, it’s been plain heartbreaking. Others whom I follow (particularly on Twitter where most conversation happens) speak of “Imposter Syndrome” It has it’s own hashtag and all! People are speaking about it that much. Well, despite my genuine achievements in the world of science, and my own meagre scicomm presence I generally feel like a bit of a pretender.

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Image: Pixabay

Then, something comes along to help me out. Life does this sometimes.

I had the pleasure this morning to meet a follower who has been avidly following my scicomm journey. He is a 78 year old man, and it seems he isn’t ready for the scrap heap just yet. On meeting for coffee he was practically gushing to meet me, and thanked me for firing up an interest in such things as science and astronomy. Were it not for me, he claims, his brain would be slowly turning to mush. I have been working on a blog post about the place of our senior citizens in a world of longer lifespans and increasing connectivity. I don’t know if I’ll ever finish that post, but occasions like our chat this morning drive home for me an important realisation:

We are living longer. Much longer. We are healthier for longer. Yet, we don’t really value the old for what they are. In a sense, I’m looking at them as a resource, because that’s what they are. The old are a repository of experience and information. Nobody would baulk if I referred to a library as a resource, right? Well the old are exactly that; a living breathing library. A key difference here though is that they want to talk and share what’s in their heads. Show me a lending library anywhere in the world that is falling over itself to tell you what it knows.

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Image: Pixabay

We have the capacity to be much more useful for much longer. This 78 year old man is a single example of that. He’s worked in telecommunications, and on rocket bases. He’s travelled the world and seen technology changing the world. Instead of succumbing to “future shock”, as Alvin Toffler called it, this man has grabbed change by the horns, with a real can do attitude. I am completely and unashamedly proud to state that I’m responsible for a bit of a sea change in his thinking. I’ve got him interested again.

I already know he has plenty of stories to tell, and I intend passing them on to you as I can, as they come. He told me he’s the last of his circle, and it would be a shame to lose all that history. So stay tuned.

My own attempts at reaching out to the science world are tiny, but I know that they’ve made a difference to someone, and for me that is exactly what I wanted to do.

For my Father.

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David Reid Roberts, 1930-2010

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#OddPuzzlePieces no. 4

Hi all, and welcome to another #OddPuzzlePieces post. I’ve been busy these last couple of weeks working on all kinds of stuff. My YouTube channel for one. I’ve put a few videos up recently and have gotten back a desire to try and make it work. Right now it does. It’s not big, but it’s fulfilling, and that is becoming more important.

Odd Puzzle Pieces.

In this series I look at things that tend to be based firmly in fact. This post however could be seen as slightly different.

Do you know what a “cryptid” is? According to a Google search a cryptid is:

“An animal whose existence or survival is unsubstantiated, such as the yeti.”

Simple enough. We all know about cryptids then. Who hasn’t heard of the Loch Ness Monster, or Bigfoot? The Kraken or mermaids? These are all well known fabulous beasts that seem to stubbornly refuse to exist, despite the efforts of cryptozoologists all around the world.

What’s a cryptozoologist? It sounds kind of scientific, but cryptozoology is at best a pseudoscience. A lot of fun, to be sure, but just not rigorous and codified as true science is. A cryptozoologist is someone who hunts fabulous beasts. Their methods tend to be, shall we say, unscientific. They take confirmation bias to the next level.

If this is the case, why am I writing about such quackery? Because as Aristotle once uttered: it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. For much of human history these creatures and thousands more were real. They inhabited the world beyond the edges of known maps for thousands of years, as well as imaginations and stories. In fact, the human fascination with exploring the unknown and seeking out fabulous beasts provided some momentum for the birth of modern science.

Fact 1: Tales of strange hominids or ape-like creatures even exist in countries where no such real counterparts exist. The Yowie is a humanoid creature which inhabits Australian bushland and waterways. Believed to be quite tall and hairy (reminiscent of Bigfoot? ) tales of the Yowie are found all over Australia. However,  Australia has no native non human primate species, living or extinct.

A statue of a Yowie in Kilcoy, Queensland. Image: Wikipedia

Fact 2: The Ozenkadnook Tiger was a mysterious striped animal photographed in 1964 by a motorist after a chance sighting in Victorian bushland. This creature has essentially been designated a hoax, but it carries with it a certain mystique. Perhaps it’s appearance is a factor:

This leads on to

Fact 3: Australia has a rather woeful track record when it comes to mammalian species extinctions. Creatures like the Ozenkadnook tiger just won’t go away, because perhaps our guilt over the untimely disappearance of so many species weighs on us. This could be why “sightings” of extinct creatures are a regular occurrence here. The thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger is regularly spotted throughout mainland Australia and on the island of Tasmania.

“Benjamin”, the last Thylacine, died in Hobart Zoo in 1933

At a glance the two “tigers” are superficially similar, with a vaguely dog like appearance and tiger like stripes. Where they differ markedly is that the thylacine is still being “spotted” to this day.

Draw your own opinions. 

Fact 3: Move over Nessie! Australia has it’s own water monsters. The bunyip is a mythical creature believed by Australia’s original inhabitants to frequent water holes, rivers and creeks. 

 

One interpretation of the bunyip’s appearance, produced in 1935 Image: Wikipedia

Fact 4: The bunyip was even on display in the Australian Museum in 1847,  when several fragmentary remains; including a bizarre skull were presented to a curious public. The skull was refuted as evidence for the bunyip by various experts, who declared the skull to be that of a deformed foetal calf.

Fact 5: Science itself owes a debt to the mysterious! That’s all I’ll say about that!

As long as people wonder what’s out there, patrolling the empty spaces of the world, I think there’s hope for us all. As long as we still have imaginations we’re still able to choose the right path for ourselves. Whether these creatures are real or not; or whether they’re extinct or not, we should never stop looking for them. It’s when we stop looking for the mysteries and stop caring about exploration that progress is dead. 

Darren Naish over on Twitter was very helpful, particularly with information on cryptids and the motley folks who pursue them. His input on the Ozenkadnook tiger was invaluable. Darren is an author and zoologist who doesn’t seem to stop moving for one second! Check out his work!

Darren’s Patreon page:

#OddPuzzlePieces No. 3

Death

 

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Hello and thanks for popping in today, for another assortment of random factoids. In keeping with the bone theme of the last post, things again seem to be taking a morbid turn. I’ve always been interested in taphonomy. This is the study of what happens to the body after death. More to the point it is the science of what happens to you as soon as you cease living. From a very technical standpoint, this is from the second your heart stops beating and it really is a matter of ashes to ashes. Physics and nature go into autopilot and work to recycle all the goodness that is in you. Eventually time and decay wring you dry. It’s a bit clinical, but it’s also an extremely beautiful and interesting process.

Death!

There’s much more to it than meets the eye. As a tiny green Jedi master once said, you must “unlearn what you have learned.” Forget TV. Forget it! Death isn’t as simple as pointing a gun and just killing someone:


Life isn’t so cut and dry. And that’s what this series of posts is about! In response to some of the contributions I’ve recieved this week, it seems fitting to address some random morsels of information about both Death the supernatural entity and death the physical process.

Death has had an obvious hold over us since before we were us. It is the single motivating factor that drives life on. Mythology from around the world has tried to understand it. Ancient peoples anthropomorphised death, feeling that if death was someone like us, it could be reasoned with or controlled.

Fact 1: In ancient Greek mythology, Thanatos was the personification of death. He was captured by a human criminal (King?); Sisyphus, who tricked Thanatos into shackling himself! During this period of bondage, death obviously came to no one!

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Hypnos and Thanatos: Sleep and His Half-Brother Death, by John William Waterhouse, 1874.

Fact 2: Thanatos obviously wasn’t that powerful, being defeated in a wrestling match by the hero Heracles, during his quest to rescue the princess Alcestis from Hades (the Underworld).

Fact 3: In the sacred Indian language of Sanskrit, death is a journey, or mahaprasthasana; when the soul leaves the physical body and returns to the Aatman, or Universal Soul.

Fact 4: Full skeletonisation of a body can occur in as little as month. In some cases it’s been observed to take place in one or two weeks!

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Because centuries old engravings are less confronting than images of corpses! This is a family friendly post! Deal with it. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Fact 5: There are many kinds of death, but on a cellular level there are two main ways cells die: necrosis; premature death of cells resulting from destruction which results in the cellular contents leaking out (autolysis) and apoptosis. This is a targeted sequence of genetic signals and processes whereby the cell essentially switches itself off.

Fact 6: Senescence, or ageing as we would understand it, only happens in multicellular organisms like us. It is still not fully understood why we age the way we do.

Fact 7: Cells in a dead body can regain mitotic activity, even after long periods of inactivity. This ties into…

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Many cells in the body fight to stay alive, long after death has technically occurred. Image: Pixabay.

Fact 8: Gene transcription has been observed in cadavers for some time after “death” has occured. It appears that many types of cells in a corpse actively fight organismal death. It’s like a city dying, but the individual inhabitants are still alive and kicking! (at least for a time).

That’s all for this post. There was so much from contributors that putting it all in would have turned this post into something completely unwieldy and just plain long. All contributions have been referenced and you will find links to plenty of great reading and resources below if you find (like me!) that this whole death thing is actually really interesting.

All contributors to this post found their way here via Twitter.

Facts 1 and 2 were provided by Serena:

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Fact 3 was provided by Devayani:

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Fact 4 and other interesting facts on skeletonisation were provided by Laure Spake:

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Facts 5, 6 and 7 came from a fascinating discussion with Cam Hough, a contributor to a previous post. Thanks again Cam!

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Finally, John van der Gugten brings up the rear. Again, an extremely interesting discussion was had, and there was just too much too squeeze into a post like this. Many of the links below were provided by John, and he knows his stuff. His academic page is linked to in his twitter profile, for an overview of his publications and work. Check him out!

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Absolutely feel free to leave comments or questions below. I will endeavour to hook people up with any information they may require.

Ben.

References and further Reading (highly recommended):

http://www.history.com/news/6-fascinating-facts-about-space-probe-voyager-1

https://www.seeker.com/life-continues-within-the-body-after-death-evidence-shows-2212720233.html

http://www.biochemist.org/bio/03902/0014/039020014.pdf

http://www.medicaldaily.com/life-after-death-according-science-cells-fight-stay-alive-long-after-body-dies-409525

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5303275/https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thanatoshttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanskrit

 

 

 

Happy Canada Day!

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This post is a small tribute to the great nation of Canada. This amazing country has many reasons to hold it’s head up high. It is a progressive advanced country which is on my list of must see destinations. One day I may even make it my home. Those open spaces….We have plenty of space here, but I yearn to stand atop the cliffs of Newfoundland, or look out across the vastness of Canada’s wilderness. I also have close friends there, but Canada holds a special place in my heart for another reason.

I have loved prehistory all my life. I think my late father infected me with a chronic case of curiosity, and my earliest memories involve dinosaurs and fossils. As I got older, my interests diversified somewhat. One day I picked up a book at random in a second hand bookshop. This book stayed with me forever, and reading it was one of those life changing experiences for me. The book was “Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History” by the famed American paleontologist and science historian Stephen Jay Gould.

Wonderful_Life_(first_edition)

I devoured this book quickly, reading most of it whilst waiting for my kids at swimming lessons. The book virtually forced itself into my brain. Gould’s ideas on punctuated equilibrium and contingency have butted heads with other thinkers in the years since the book’s publication. I myself have had several friendly jousts with a scientist colleague over the years!

The book showed me the Burgess Shale up close. Even now I can still smell the mud and cracked rock being sorted as generations of palaeontologists have unearthed some of the most bizarre and scientifically interesting creatures ever known. These creatures hailed from the Cambrian Period. It was a time when multi-cellular life had truly arrived and was exploding onto the evolutionary scene.

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Hallucigenia; one of the more controversial denizens of the Shale. Artwork: Joshua Evans

Not only was it exploding, it was something like an evolutionary bomb going off, as representatives of all modern animal phyla suddenly appeared in fossil records. Not only did all modern animals appear, but a host of other phyla all appeared seemingly at once. Then, for whatever reason, many of these mysterious other groups vanished, to leave no descendants. All of this in approximately ten million years, between 580 to 590 million years ago. A quickening took place indeed.

The book took me up the slopes of Walcott Quarry with Charles Doolittle Walcott, the founder of the Burgess Shale. For the next fourteen years after the site’s discovery in 1910 Walcott and his children climbed the slopes of the Shale, collecting more than 65,000 specimens, many of which have almost single-handedly turned taxonomy and natural history on their respective heads.

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Walcott and his children during one of their summers spent working at the Shale. Photographer unknown. 

 

Walcott was an American, but the Shale was an intrinsic piece of Canada, a fragment of a lost world without borders or names. To stand on it’s slopes and feel such history would be quite a thing. The Shale represented an incredible and critical chapter in the history of life. Whether you believe in contingency or of inevitable progress toward life as we know it today, the Shale preserved whatever tales the world had to leave behind. We can interpret it any way we like, but there is only ever one truth.

This piece of Canada belongs to the story of the world. I appreciate that not all Canadians see the Shale as I do, but it’s still super cool. So on Canada Day 2017, I salute the Burgess Shale, Canada’s greatest gift to science.

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Anomalacaris, the first true super-predator. Image: Wikimedia Commons.