Four very hot years.



Last year was the fourth warmest year on record. 2016 was the warmest and 2017 the second warmest. Four of the five hottest years on record have happened since 2014. 

The science on climate change is settled, has been for a long time. Articles in the 1800s  describe the effect of civilization on the environment–how the emission of carbon dioxide into the air creates a greenhouse effect. Articles from almost 200 years ago!

“The establishment and progress of human societies, the action of natural forces, can notably change, and in vast regions, the state of the surface, the distribution of water and the great movements of the air. Such effects are able to make to vary, in the course of many centuries, the average degree of heat; because the analytic expressions contain coefficients relating to the state of the surface and which greatly influence the temperature.”  –Fourier, 1827.

“The highest effect of the sun’s rays I have found to be in carbonic acid gas. … An atmosphere of that gas would give to our earth a high temperature; and if, as some suppose, at one period of its history, the air had mixed with it a larger proportion than at present, an increased temperature from its own action, as well as from increased weight, must have necessarily resulted.”  –Eunice Foote, 1856.

Forced warming has been understood since long before we grew addicted to oil. Think about that!

As a personal issue, climate change got into my head in the early 1990s. It’s also why I switched my personal research goals to planetary science. Previously, I was on the human genome project, and I taught pre-nursing majors at local colleges (these things are important, too).  But the global threat of climate change on ecosystems and human well-being–to me very little else seems to hold much of a candle in terms of degree of systems-level threat.

And the science is settled. So why do governments fail to enact sufficient policy?

I have a few ideas about this. Sometimes I think it’s down to guilt, or simple biological drive, or maybe denial. Maybe it’s the time span of a human experience vs. the time span of a measurable geological process. We can measure climate changing over, say, a decade. (Not true forty years ago–the rate of change is accelerating.) But we live and breathe in work weeks and seasons, holidays and school years. We don’t think in decades.

In biology, animals are ‘consumers.’ Every consumer generates carbon dioxide as part of their biology, and humans do this more than most because we also have fire.

Increasing the number of consumers (especially fire-makers) compared to producers (otherwise known as plants, which absorb carbon dioxide and convert it to sugars) has a spiraling effect on the mass balance of carbon in our world and air. The carbon cycle.

Maybe the reason we aren’t acting in ‘big enough ways’ regarding climate change is because the information about the problem is scientific instead of emotional. I don’t know, but it’s one idea.

The author Ursula Le Guin has said that science fiction writers tell lies, create fictions to reveal truth, with an intent not of predicting the future but of describing how things are. By this thinking, the lies of fiction reveal the truth of being.

Maybe through fiction, authors can move hearts in a way that scientists cannot. Maybe fiction is the means through which we will decide to act on the science of climate change. Fewer gallons of gas, keeping the thermostat down, insulating homes better, smaller family size, buying local, growing our own food, recycling, voting on climate, reforesting, restructuring our economy, demanding transparency in the energy sector, developing and using carbon-free energy sources. There are so many ways to become carbon-less, or carbon negative. We are innovative. We care, all of us. With luck, writers might make a difference where, to date, science seems to have gained too little traction.

All the little beasties



Recently, a friend remarked to me about the microbes in our guts. She mentioned that the small intestine has no bacteria, that only the large intestine does. (that’s wrong.) I think that’s a misconception she has because of this idea ‘out there’ of gut overgrowth—the idea that too many bacteria (or yeast) flourishing in the small intestine is an unhealthy sign.

I don’t know much about overgrowth in the small intestine. But I for sure know about the human microbiome. It’s a fascinating topic and the numbers of bacteria and archaea in and on us are staggering. The mass is staggering, and their roles in our bodies (and in the world) are too.

You’ve probably heard that 90% of the cells in our body (in the space that our body occupies) are microorganisms, and only 10% are human cells. OK. This is disgusting. But take a breath, because microorganisms are tiny compared to human cells. A human egg is the size of the period at the end of this sentence, and although a human egg is a very large cell (about four million cubic microns), even average-sized human cells are still freaking big, like four thousand cubic microns.

Bacteria, on the other hand, clock in at one single cubic micron.

So, OK, there could be ten times as many bacteria (and archaea… and fungi and protists and small mites and worms and other lovelies in and on us), but each of our cells is several orders of magnitude bigger than any prokaryotic cell. So, in the end, only about 1% of our mass is not what we think of as ‘us.’ A few pounds.

(Tangent… But what if–wait, what if cells, are us? Oooh.  If we are no more than cells working together, why would a human cell contribute to consciousness, awareness, ‘being human,’ any more than a prokaryotic cell? Whoa. You know what, there’s research about this too… but…  too big a topic. Maybe later.)

OK. Guts and bacteria. So, there’s the small intestine and the large intestine, and these are divided into segments (like the duodenum right past the stomach, and the jejunum further down). There’s a duct near the stomach (the bile duct) and the appendix too.

And the whole intestinal tract is over twenty-five feet long. Here’s WebMD’s pages on the intestines.

So depending on where you look in the glorious mess of guts inside the human body, the distribution and numbers of microbes changes. Near the food (incoming!) or the bile, or where there’s no oxygen, or in the colon where digestion is over, the make-up of microbes changes. The numbers change too. Here’s an article with the numbers.

We’re covered in bacteria, inside and outside. What’s in our mouths is hugely diverse, hundreds of species, and different from our neighbors’ mouths. The stomach and duodenum are diverse places too—they get first crack at food, and that matters to the microbial community! There’s lots of different Proteobacteria in these niches. By the time digested food reaches the large intestine the community is down to the diehard phyla that thrive in anoxic environments—Bacterioidetes and Firmicutes in this case.

There’re different populations on our skin, in our underarms, our genitals, our belly buttons. The secretions of our eyes and ears shifts the microbes there. Our sinuses are moist and salty places that Staphylococcus loves. Our nails can feed fungi (a eukaryote). Toe jam. Need I say more?

If you removed every human cell from the space that body occupies, you would still see an outline of every surface of that body, an outline from the bacteria and archaea.

And they outnumber us ten to one!

And that’s why microbial ecology is so fascinating. 🙂

Puzzles and Science



When I was a kid we used to get something in the mail called Games, which is now online. My mom was so excited when she first discovered that magazine. We might have even gotten the inaugural issue, I don’t remember for sure, but I do know we got Games every month for years, and that she really looked forward to it. Hard.

It was filled with puzzles. Mom had always done the crosswords and acrostics and riddles and whatnot that the newspaper sometimes put in after the funny pages, but this magazine was different. Thick. Filled. She went straight for the crosswords, and then the logic puzzles, and then whatever else looked good.

I went for the mind twisters and optical illusions and riddles. They had a page of doodles, really simple ones, barely more than glorified stick drawings, and the idea was to identify the common item that the doodle represented.

Here’s an example I remember, and you can try to guess what this is. Hint: it’s an everyday item looked at in a unique way. I’ll put the answer (upside down*) at the end.


I know, right? You can see why we were so excited to get Games every month!

The best part was how much she liked the magazine. Mom was busy. I had seven older siblings, and most of Mom’s time was spent taking care of us. Her few hobbies, here and there, those came and went. But this magazine? It wove through the years in a permanent way.

And I think … this is part of the reason I eventually got my degrees in science (Biology, then Genetics). I liked puzzles, and I had (still have) this attraction to them. There’s a sense of something clicking when the answer falls into place. Find the clues, test the ideas, figure out how to explain something, whether it’s a disease, or an environmental threat, or a genetic trait, or something to do with landing a spacecraft on Mars or looking for life on Europa or deciphering some grand universal theorem that holds everything together.

There’s no message here, just recollections. If you have a favorite game or puzzle I’d love to hear about it.


*I don’t actually know how to blog letters upside down. Sorry.

Answer: This is a door! You’re looking at it from the perspective of a housefly sitting on top and peering over the edge, down at the knob.





Jim Thompson has a fantastic quote:

There is only one plot — things are not what they seem. 

There’s a little window that cracked open here on the internet. This window didn’t exist twenty years ago, certainly not thirty years ago, but the contractor came out, found a nice piece of wall far away from the door, made a big ol’ hole and installed it. It’s a lovely window, wide and clear and lots of beautiful faces on either side. The world smiles back and forth across it. Hello!

That’s a roundabout way to say that I’m starting a website. I’m Patty, I live in southern California, here’s a picture. (It’s only photoshopped a little bit. Guess there’s room to learn some photography, too.)