Posts tagged ‘Zoology’

Bluefin tuna: Threatened with extinction.

Bluefin tuna: Threatened with extinction.

So far in the history of life on Earth there have been five Great Extinctions. One was caused by the giant meteor that hit what is now the coast of Mexico, two by freezing in the oceans and the lowering of the sea levels, one by huge, widespread volcanic eruptions, one (probably) by gigantic meteorite showers.

They were all many millions of years ago — all but the sixth Great Extinction, which has barely started. That is the one the scientists are calling the “Holocene,” and its cause is annihilation of species of birds, animals and — especially, for example — edible fish.

And the cause of that is Us.

How do we cause extinctions? Oh, we have lots of ways. For fish, we harvest the tastiest ones en masse until there are none left (it’s estimated that we have removed nearly 90 percent of large fish from the sea). We destroy habitats. Most of all, we cause global warming. Anyway, our work in this matter has gone far enough for scientist to refer to the present as a new age, the Holocene.



Remember those good old science-fiction stories, those scientifically impeccably accurate ones that pointed out that. as the human brain has been getting bigger and bigger ever since Lucy. it must be going to keep on getting bigger still? So those great Frank R. Paul-ish illustrations showed the man of the future with a torso the size of a chimpanzee’s and a bald skull as big as a watermelon?

Turns out they weren’t really scientifically probable. Human brains have been getting bigger, all right, but that’s mostly because human beings themselves are getting bigger all over. And as far as bigger brains making us smarter is concerned, there are other ways to look at the matter. In New Scientist a while ago the magazine drew up some interesting comparisons for us to look at showing, in order of size, smallest first, the brains of—

1, mouse, 2, cat, 3, chimpanzee, 4, human, 5, dolphin and 6, elephant1, mouse, 2, cat, 3, elephant, 4, chimpanzee, 5, dolphin and 6, human.

That’s a bit more flattering to us genus homo people, but then they spoil it all by offering a third display, this one displaying brain weight as a percentage of body mass. This cuts us right down to size:

1, elephant, 2, chimpanzee, 3, dolphin, 4, cat, 5, human, and 6, mouse

—with the mouse display in these terms towering over all the others, its relative mass greater than all five of the others combined. (The mass of a mouse’s brain amounts to 10 percent of its body weight, while that of the human is a measly 2 percent and that for the other animals trailing down to as little as 0.1 percent for the once dominant elephant.)

But if you want a really humiliating brain size comparison forget about those vertebrates and compare our brain with, say, a honeybee’s. The bee’s intelligence is generally equal to, say, a two-week-old human baby’s — with a brain mass differential by a factor of something over 100,000.

It’s a good thing computers came along when they did. We can use all the help we can get.

Frederik Pohl and Milly

I have the dog. . . .

For the science-minded among us, there’s a home scientific experiment that you might like to try. For it, you will need the following research materials:

4–6 little opaque cups with lids
1 piece of tasty dog food
1 baby about 1 year old
1 pet dog
1 domesticated wolf
(optional) 1 each bonobo, chimpanzee, gorilla and other great ape

Procedure: In a room where none of the animals are present put the piece of tasty dog food in one of the cups, cover it and line them up on a table. Admit one of the animals. Point to the cup containing the dog food. Observe the response of the animal.

In general, if the animal used in this trial is either the pet dog or the baby of about 1 year or more in age it will then attempt to open the cup. If successful in that effort, it will then eat the piece of dog food. If it is any other kind of animal, it will probably pay little or no attention to your signal but will sniff each of the cups, perhaps attempt to lick your face or simply wander around the room.

You will probably suppose from this behavior that the dog and the baby have inferred that you are calling attention to the one cup that contains a reward — the piece of dog food — for the subject animal and thus attempt to find out what that reward is, whereas none of the other animals will appear to draw that conclusion. At least, that is the conclusion reached by the team of ethologists led by Jozsef Topal at the Institute for Psychology of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest.

Interestingly, no other kind of living creature displays this ability to interpret a human signal except for the domestic dog and the human baby, which begins to be able to solve the problem of interpreting this nonverbal human signal around its first birthday. The wolf is the closest relative to the domestic dog, but even a wolf that has been raised since birth in the company of human beings, as well as any of the great apes, the closest species to human beings, fails miserably at this task.

It is suggested that this innate quality of dogs is what has made them particularly easy to domesticate.

Eugenie Clark

   Eugenie Clark

It’s hard to list the Ipsy’s guests in any sensible order, perhaps because they were not an orderly bunch. It does make sense for me to divide the guests into two classes. To begin with, there was the New York science-fiction crowd, all of whom I had known for some time.

In that group were most of the science-fiction people I have already written more or less extensively about in these pages. Among the ones most frequently present were Lester and Evelyn del Rey, Bob and Essie Bolster, George and Dona Smith, Cyril Kornbluth (first as a house guest of mine, then as a nearby resident on his own). Assorted other house guests of mine included Fritz Leiber from Chicago and Jack and Blanche Williamson from New Mexico.

Ted Sturgeon was definitely a regular in an unusual sense. For a couple of months one summer he never went home at all, since at the time, his finances being anemic, he didn’t have a home to go to.

The Pratts had no objection to Ted’s staying in the house when everyone else was gone. However, they didn’t offer to feed him. That was not a problem for Ted, who enjoyed a good dish of eel. He enjoyed it so much, in fact, that by the time he finally moved out of the Ipsy-Wipsy Institute, he had fished out the entire family of eels who lived by the boat dock. They never returned.

Any number of other New York-area sf people visited the Ipsy. Isaac Asimov, for instance, was there I think only once, but it was a significant visit, since Fletcher and Inga had plans for Isaac. They spent a lot of that weekend telling him what a wonderful place the Bread Loaf Writers’ Colony was for anyone with the desire, and the ability, to be a serious writer … and, I’m pretty sure, spent an equivalent period of time with the Breadloaf people telling them what a wonderful prospect Isaac was. The effort paid off. Isaac did give Bread Loaf a try; he loved the place, the Breadloaf people loved him and he became a Bread Loaf stalwart.

The other fraction of frequent guests at the Ipsy basically comprised the non-sf friends of the Pratts, many of them with ties to The Saturday Review of Literature. Some of those were actual celebrities of one kind or another, as for example Eugenie Clark, known worldwide as the “Lady with a Spear,” after her bestselling book with that name. Eugenie, as a child, had been fascinated by the works of William BeebeHalf Mile Down, the story of his adventures hanging at the end of almost 3,000 feet of steel cable in his “bathysphere,” a steel sphere about the size of a pup tent, or Beneath Tropic Seas, about his less spine-chilling but even more beautiful experiences walking through warm-water corals with only a mask for breathing.

I could understand her fascination. I had been turned on by the same books at about the same age. The difference between Eugenie Clark and me, though, was that she then grew up to become an actual ichthyologist, and I only to become a writer.

Continue reading ‘Fletcher Pratt, Part 4: The Friends of Fletcher’ »



What postwar New York had lacked was a gathering point for the area’s sf brethren (and sistren), so Lester del Rey and I created one. I invited a few of my sf friends to come and discuss the subject at my apartment at 28 Grove Street in the Village, Lester showed up with some of his, and we constituted ourselves a sort of roving gentlemen’s (and ladies’) club for people interested in science fiction, especially if professionally.

There were nine of us. The mythological Hydra was said to have nine heads. That was good enough, so we called it The Hydra Club and began beating the brush for members. In the process of inviting all the area’s sf writers and editors whose addresses we could locate, Fletcher Pratt was one of the first we reeled in.

He was a key recruit. We original nine of course knew all the book and magazine editors, and most of the writers, in the area. Fletcher knew everybody else — Basil Davenport, editor (and later judge) for the Book-of-the-Month Club; Bernard De Voto, authority on my personal hero, Mark Twain, whilom editor of The Saturday Review of Literature and eternally the author of its most popular regular column, “The Easy Chair”; Hans Stefan Santesson, editor of a couple of small book clubs which now and then did science-fiction books and so on.

The cut was between the people who primarily did science-fiction, all of whom we knew, and the people who did all kinds of works, but sometime did or sometimes might do a little science fiction as well. And those latter were the ones with whom Fletcher was our strongest link.

I have to admit that at first I wasn’t entirely easy with the idea of Fletcher Pratt, considered as friendship material for me. There was a generation gap. I didn’t have any other friends anywhere near that old. Fletcher was pushing fifty, and almost all my other friends were within at least approximate lying distance of my own age, which was then in my late twenties. Even Jack Williamson’s age was not much more than halfway to Fletcher’s. Fletcher was also famous — that is, famous in wider circles than just those of science fiction.

On the other hand, Fletcher did now and then definitely write science fiction himself, which betokened a certain youthfulness of outlook. Anyway, how could anyone be stuffy, stodgy or staid when he was known to spend at least one hour of every day hand-feeding live mealworms to his pack of pet marmosets?

Fletcher owned about a dozen of the little South American monkeys, kept in three or four large cages in a corner of his huge sitting room. They were sweet-looking little beasts, with a fringe of white beard all around their little faces, with their chronic expression of concern.

The census of the pack was not a fixed number. Fletcher encouraged the little animals to breed — not so much because the surplus was always well received by pet dealers, whose payments to the Pratts for those they didn’t keep just about covered the mealworm bill, as, I think, because Fletcher wanted his marmosets to be happy.. He had, of course, given them all names, mostly taken from New York’s literary establishment. The head marmoset, and Fletcher’s personal favorite, was Benny De Voto.

That same room was a great asset to us all. It was spacious, it was conveniently located, and Fletcher and his wife, Inga, were gracious hosts who enjoyed company, When a couple of Hollywood types came to New York with a proposal for a sort of syndicate of science-fiction writers to market their works to film and TV producers the Pratts provided them with a place where they could describe their plan to twenty or so of the area’s leading sf writers. (It came to nothing. The Hollywood duo had nothing tangible to offer the writers.)

Then when many of those same writers wanted to get together to discuss creating an organization of sf writers along lines similar to the Authors League, the Pratts once again offered a venue for the discussion. (And that, too, came to nothing at that time because half the writers declined to join anything that was structured like a trade union, and the other half rejected anything that wasn’t. When SFWA — the Science Fiction Writers of America — at last did come into existence, it was because two writers, Damon Knight and Lloyd Biggle, Jr., declared that they had created it and urged all the other writers whose addresses they could find to send in checks for some $25, upon which they would become members. This was an immediate success.)

Even more important, when such seldom seen heavy hitters as W. Olaf Stapledon, author of Last and First Men, Odd John and many others of science fiction’s early classics, made a trip to New York for other reasons, the Pratts made that room available for a reception. That was a wonderful break for those of us lucky enough to be invited to meet him, and actually a welcome one for Stapledon himself.

He had been invited to New York to participate in a meeting to urge peace in international affairs. Like many respectable European intellectuals, Stapledon found it hard to decline such invitations, but when he got to the Waldorf-Astoria, he found it encircled by a howling mass of anti-communists, perhaps rather like today’s Tea Party hordes, and he welcomed the chance for some quiet conversation.

But the Pratts’ appetite for company wasn’t satisfied by what could be accomplished in one — after all — rather small New York apartment. Without telling anyone what they were doing, they went shopping for a more impressive place.

They found what they wanted in Highlands, New Jersey, a wonderfully huge structure that sat on a bluff over the sea, and for the next half-dozen or so years it was, for many of us, our favorite weekend resort.

To be continued.

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Emperor penguins in Antarctica.

Emperor penguins in Antarctica.

If you’ve seen me lately, you might have noticed a good-looking blonde hanging around. That’s my wife, Dr. Elizabeth Anne Hull, who may soon be famous as the editor of what I think may be close to the best science-fiction anthology ever published, but is already locally well known as a woman who has gone swimming in both Arctic and Antarctic waters. It happened on two trips, several years apart, but I’ll tell you what I learned about the two remotest sections of our world now.

Betty Anne and me.

Betty Anne and me.

The Antarctic is said to be very cold, but when we were next to the Palmer Station on the Antarctic peninsula the air temperature was 37 degrees F. When we left Chicago, the temperature at O’Hare had been –4.

Antarctic ice comes in several pretty colors, It is blue or green if it has been at the bottom of some heavy layers of other ice and the air has been squeezed out of it, rarely reddish or yellowish if it has picked up a load of algae or something and — everybody’s favorite — the rest of the time most of it is the whitest white you ever saw.

The principal visible inhabitants of Antarctica are penguins. There are more than a dozen brands of penguins, but which brand any given penguin belongs to is of real concern only to another penguin. I can tell the difference, but only if they’re fairly close and I have the guidebook in my hand.

A pretty sight is to see several Buick- to bungalow-sized ice floes sailing by, each one with a penguin catching a free ride by sitting on its top.

Penguins live on land but have to return to the ocean if they want to catch anything to eat. This makes quite a problem for them because on the other side of one of those holes in the ice that they use to let them get into the water may well be one or more hungry seals, who are swimming around down there, waiting in the hope of catching a penguin for the same purpose. That is why you see the number of penguins parked next to a hole growing until, at last, one of them dives in and the rest follow pretty much all at once. If there is a single famished seal waiting there he’ll catch one of the penguins, all right, but the rest are home free.

Penguins don’t exactly swim. They sort of fly through the water and are very good at it.

Ice floes come in all shapes and sizes, some like castles with towers and minarets, some like craggy mountain ranges, some like huge, flat, square-cut pizza boxes, some like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

Most of a berg or floe is under water with a lot of mass and jagged edges. Consequently every once in a great while one of them holes a ship, and then there’s big trouble. One small cruise ship did go down a few years ago, with I believe two people trapped inside.

While on the other end of the planet —

The Arctic Ocean contains no continent (though it is bounded by several) and very few islands (although one or two new ones are being discovered as the ice melts away).

When we sailed north toward the Pole, we hit lucky on the weather. It was fair and not very windy, thus giving us only gentle waves. As we approached the Arctic ice cap there was at first only a vague blur on the horizon. Then abruptly it transmuted itself to what looked a wide bay that we were entering. The closer we got, the more it began to look like — wow! — a tropical island that we were approaching, with a narrow beach of white sand, lacking only some palm trees and a central mountain to resemble Bora Bora or Moorea.

Actually, that whole scene was composed of nothing but size-sorted bits of floating ice. We were almost on top of it before I could see that the “beach” part was made up of a gazillion tiny ice bits, more or less marble-sized, next to a band composed of larger strawberry-to-baseball sized pieces, then one band after another, each band’s pieces getting bigger and bigger as you headed Poleward. Each separate piece of ice was jigging independently up and down in the gentle waves but they all kept to their spots within the group. (I developed a theory that there was a feeble northward current around there, perhaps a straggling fragment of the dissipating Gulf Stream, pushing on the surface waters to line the ice fragments up so neatly, but never found an oceanographer to tell me how all wet I probably was.)

Then the captain took us right into the ice, all the thousands of tons of our cruise ship, until we were more than a quarter mile from open water and getting a bit close to some biggish ice floes. The captain stopped the ship so we could all take pictures. (And, gee, I wish I had.) And then he carefully backed us out of the ice, staying within the liquid-water lane we had opened on the way in.

There aren’t any penguins in the Arctic. What they do have there is the local knock-off of the same general design, the auk, only they don’t have many of them anymore because 19th-century sailors found them quite tasty. We didn’t see any, anyway. Other Arctic creatures we didn’t see include polar bears, Arctic foxes and various aquatic and semi-aquatic forms.

We did see some whales.

Oh, and listen, those waters in the Arctic and Antarctic that I said Betty Anne had gone swimming in. Did I mention that they were the swimming pools located on the upper decks of our cruise liners?