The Hunt for Life Beyond Earth, by Michael D. Lemonick, photographs by Mark Thiessen
The Hunt for Life Beyond Earth is pretty much just like it says: it’s about scientists’ attempts to find life on other planets. Needless to say, Mars is one of the planets they are considering as home for this extraterrestrial life, but Mars is too close. Rocks travel back and forth between Earth and Mars periodically. As a result, the discovery of life on Mars would not prove that said life developed there. It could be terrestrial life that made the trip between the two planets.
Based on the premise that life should be develop in places with liquid water, we are also looking at two of Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus, as possible sites of life. Saturn’s moon Titan also has liquid, but that liquid is methane and not water. As a result, scientists who are looking for life haven’t ruled Titan out, but they are uncertain what kind of life would develop in liquid methane.
Then there is the possibility of life beyond our solar system. In 1961, an astronomer named Frank Drake created what is now known as the Drake Equation, which is an equation to calculate how many extrasolar civilizations we should be able to contact. The equation included the number of sunlike stars in our galaxy, the number of those stars that had planetary systems, the number of planetary systems that have planets capable of sustaining life, the number of planets that actually do develop life, the number of those whose residents develop intelligence, and the number of those who develop radio signals that we could detect. We are just now starting to be able to apply numbers to these variables.
As someone who has read and watched entirely too much science fiction for her own good, I think that the Drake Equation may understate the number of planets that we might be able to communicate with. What if a society jumped right to television? Or used some other form of radiation that we cannot yet detect to communicate? Or evolved while orbiting a sun completely different from ours? The Drake Equation might be a good estimate, but there are no guarantees that it is the only way for life to develop. It’s just the way that our life developed.
The Next Breadbasket, by Joel K. Bourne, Jr., photographs by Robin Hammond
The Next Breadbasket is another installment in the Future of Food series. For this installment, we travel to Africa to watch the various ways that the fertile land, and those who work it, are being both used and exploited by agribusiness. In too many African countries, the government allows the agribusiness entities to run people, some of whom have been farming this land for generations, off of their land. Bourne names names, both of the companies that have treated the indigenous people well and those who have treated the people poorly.
So far, two of the ones that Bourne seems to support are a company called African Century Agriculture which uses an “outgrower” model, in which African Century provides soybeans, weeding, and training in conservation agriculture to small farmers. The farmers then sell the soybeans that they grow back to African Century, which deducts the costs of their services from the payment. This way, the small farmers get to keep their land and also get education in the latest agricultural techniques.
Another company that Bourne seems to me to think well of is Bananalandia, the largest banana farm in Mozambique. The owner of Bananalandia, Dries Gouws, pays his workers at least 110% of the Mozambican minimum wage and he also has done things to improve the lives of the people in the surrounding villages, including paving roads, providing electricity, building a school, and making improvements to the sewage system. I know well that 110% of minimum wage is in no way going to raise these people out of poverty, but I feel that the other improvements in the quality of life that Gouws has made are not insignificant either.
The Wells of Memory, by Paul Salopek, photographs by John Stanmeyer
In The Wells of Memory, the second installment of Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk series, Salopek is walking up the western coast of Saudi Arabia, through an area known as the Hejaz. The Hejaz was added to what is now Saudi Arabia in 1925. Both Mecca and Medina are in the Hejaz, so until the era of airplane flight, most of the pilgrims coming from around the world had to pass through the Hejaz. Jeddah, also in the Hejaz is the burial place of Eve, according to legends.
Salopek focuses in part on the wells that are spread, a day’s walk apart, through the Hejaz. The wells date back to the Caliphate of Caliph Umar in 638. There were also guesthouses, forts, and hospitals along the route, courtesy fo the Caliph. Today, in addition to the ancient wells, there are asbila, outdoor electric water coolers along the route these days.
Salopek is one of the first, if not the first, Westerner to travel this route in close to a century, but this is the route taken by other Westerners in the past, including Lawrence of Arabia.
As with nearly all National Geographic stories, The Wells of Memory is punctuated by photographs. However, some of the photographs in this story were taken with a smartphone and then edited to look like vintage, sepia-toned photographs with an app called Hipstamatic. Stanmeyer chose this approach to reflect his feeling that he “had one foot in the present, and the other had stepped back a hundred years.”
Big Fish, by Jennifer S. Holland, photographs by David Doubilet and Jennifer Hayes
For the past 25 years, the Altantic goliath grouper has been a protected species. Once sport fishermen would catch them by the dozen, but goliath groupers are long-lived and reproduce slowly. This meant that the fish were not able to replace their numbers as quickly as they were being harvested. This resulted in the species being granted legal protection as an endangered species.
Now, some fishermen believe that their numbers have rebounded enough that it should be safe to start catching them again. In part they want the trophies, but these fishermen also believe that the goliath grouper is eating fish that the fishermen should legally be able to catch, thus reducing the numbers of legal fish even farther.
Holland seems unswayed by these fisherman’s arguments. She has spoken with scientists who are studying goliath grouper and who believe that the population is still too low. Goliath groupers tend to stick to one area, and until they start to overpopulate that area, they will not spread elsewhere in their range. Additionally, according to Holland, there are a number of studies (she doesn’t tell us which ones) that show that there is not much overlap between the targets of the fishermen and those of the goliath grouper. If the fishermen are finding it difficult to find fish to catch, it is not the fault of the goliath grouper.
Additionally, just because their numbers are rebounding now does not mean that this will continue indefinitely. Goliath grouper juveniles live in mangrove swamps, and the mangroves in their home range are being decimated. To make matters worse, due to mercury levels, goliath grouper are coming down with lesions in their livers. This may also have an impact on their population numbers in the long term. It also makes goliath grouper unsafe to eat, so fishermen who catch them would need to throw them back, or use them only for trophy purposes, which would be wasteful.
Empire of Rock, by McKenzie Funk, photographs by Carsten Peter
Alas, Empire of Rock has nothing to do with popular music. It is, in fact, about the karst caves underneath Guizhou, China. This part of China was once covered by a sea. Over the centuries, the mollusks left their shells behind, which compressed into a limestone formation known as karst. Karst is limestone which is punctured by holes. Water seeps down into the holes, which wears the holes away until they join together and eventually form caves. This area is relatively unique in that this process has taken place over so many centuries that there are entire mountains of karst on the surface. Have you ever seen photographs or Chinese paintings of large, steep stone mountains, usually surrounded by mist? Those are karst mountains.
Funk accompanied a group of scientists and cavers who were attempting to measure the volume of one of the largest cave chambers in the world, the Hong Meigui chamber. Though Funk’s eyes we watch them descend into the chamber and see their laser scanners, which Funk tells us is about the same size as a human head, measure the volume of the cave. Funk and her hosts also visit other caves and karst formations in the area.
“Hong Meigui,” by the way, is the word that inspired me make my last post, on my experiences with foreign language. “Hong Meigui,” depending on the tones, can mean “red rose.” And I suspect that may be the meaning here, since there is a caving organization called the Hong Meigui Cave Exploration Society and the characters for the name of that group are the “hong,” “mei,” and “gui” of “red rose.” Another chamber mentioned is the Miao Room, and my first instinct was that the “miao” in question is “temple,” but, when looking at a list of other “miao”s, it could also be the “miao” that means “infinity,” or any of a number of other Mandarin words that can be transliterated as “miao.” I just don’t know. To make things more frustrating, Funk does imply one translation when he tells us that the Yanzi cave is named for the swallows that live in the walls.
Two months after the cover date on this magazine, in September 2014, the title of the largest cave in the world was granted to the Miao Room.
(originally posted June and July 2015)