Shark Tales: JFK, Mercury 7 astronauts and shark repellents

This seems such an odd topic from the start, but I thought it’s worth revisiting in celebration of today’s 50th anniversary of John Glenn’s orbital flight around the earth.  John Glenn and Scott Carpenter (who will be celebrating his own 50th anniversary in May) are the last surviving members of the original seven astronauts of NASA’s Project Mercury.  Though two other Russian cosmonauts had orbital flights before his, John Glenn’s flight was America’s first and its success changed the momentum of the race to the moon to America’s favor.

Looking back 50 years, I am always amazed at the significant advances mankind has made as a result of the space race with Soviet Russia — calculators, computers, internet, among many.  Mankind seems to excel when in competition, whether at war, in commerce or in the arts. The rudimentary equipment half a century ago could not even compare with the precision of our digital age.  Many of the technologies we now take for granted were pioneered by the men and women of Project Mercury.  Those that followed in their wake made American pre-eminence in technology possible.

Space travel was a fascination for me long after the Mercury astronauts had made their mark in history.  I was only aware of them through later documentaries.  As a young boy in the 60’s, there was certainly the thrill of watching the spaceships blast off to space.  Yet, I was more keenly interested in the splash down when the capsule plunges into the sea on its return trip.  There was that unexplainable excitement at seeing the helicopters hover around the capsule to retrieve the astronaut and the tiny space capsule.  What seemed odd at time were the other helicopters hovering around with sharpshooters on board.  It wasn’t till later when I got interested in sharks that I learned why.

So, this is my “Shark’s Tale’ for you. And it’s not about saving the shark from extinction, who got bitten lately or about shark fin soup.  Before I tell you the rest of the story, I would like to tell you a little bit more about shark repellents first.

Between sports fishing, by-catch from longline fishing and the Chinese penchant for shark’s fin soup, mankind has devastated the world’s shark population to the point that sharks are becoming endangered.  But the fear of sharks remains with us.  It is a visceral fear.  More people die of bee stings than shark bites.   With bears or lions, the fear is also there, but tempered by the fact that we can always carry a gun, can run off in a jeep or simply hide inside a house.  With sharks the fear is magnified because there is really not much one can do in the water if the shark decides to take a bite, mostly by mistaking us for a seal or a big fish dinner. 

In North America prior to 1916, there was never a fear of sharks simply because there had been no documentation of sharks attacking human beings in temperate waters.  In 1891 Hermann Oelrichs, a banker/adventurer, even put up a reward for anyone who can document a shark attack in the temperate waters of North America.  Everything changed in 1916, detailed in Richard Fernicola’s book entitled “Twelve Days of Terror,” when, in over a span of just 12 days, four people along of the shores of New Jersey were killed by a shark, most likely a bull shark rather than a Great White (a story that inspired Peter Benchley’s book, “Jaws.”)

The idea of a shark repellent was not new.  It was suggested way back in 1895.  However, serious work on the idea started with the US Navy during World War II when airmen and sailors inevitably find themselves in shark infested waters.  The sinking of USS Indianapolis, a destroyer that carried the atomic bomb to the tiny Pacific island of Tinian, by a Japanese torpedo made that need imperative.  The mission was so secret then that no SOS signal was transmitted even as the ship sank with over a 1,000 sailors in the water.  When they were finally rescued 4 days later, only 316 remained alive, the rest were eaten by sharks.   

The Navy developed a shark repellent, called the “Shark Chaser.”  It was ineffective, yet given to sailors more for morale to allay fears of sharks rather than as a true protection.  Shark research continued after the war through the Office of Naval Research (ONR) through the 1960’s with not much success either.

Eugenie Clark, a world renowned shark expert, discovered in the 70’s that a flat fish in the Red Sea, aptly called Mose’s sole (Pardachirus marmoratus), can repel sharks.  Sharks have a powerful bite and when committed to a potential meal, would not likely stop.  When the fish is about to be bitten, the shark stops at mid bite and run’s off like a scared rabbit.  It was found later on that the flat fish has glands along its sides that secrete a venomous cocktail of peptides and steroidal compounds, presumably not meant to frighten sharks, but to repel/stun organsims as it glides along the sandy bottom of the Red Sea.  It is the Mose’s sole’s fast food drive-in! Like our quick trip to McDonald’s for a fish sandwich.

When purified, this 33 amino acid peptide repellent was called pardaxin, a term coined by Naftali Primor, an Israeli scientist funded at the time through ONR, working in one of the laboratories at New York University.  As my research team at NYU Medical Center tended to work long hours, Naftali often came by for a short visit at night, the first time to get some of our ‘extra’ mice for his pet snakes.  We talked often about sharks, snakes, Israel and Chinese food.  During this period, he was able to demonstrate pardaxin’s mechanism of action. This peptide create pore channels through the gill membrane that causes a sudden rush of sodium ions through the gills. Likely, it is perceived by the shark as an ‘unpleasant” or perhaps a painful experience.  Naftali used to go out to the fishing port in Montauk Point at the end of Long Island to remove gills from sharks caught by fishermen.  It took a day’s hard work to get enough for his research.  One night, he came back totally disgusted and exhausted.  The cooler was just open for a moment and seagulls rushed to eat all the shark gills he collected.   By then my interest in pardaxin got stimulated.  Yours truly‘s contribution to shark science was helping him dissect late into the night the opercular cells out of the killifish, Fundulus heteroclitus, to use a model system to validate the concept. Certainly beats hanging around fishing ports for shark gills and fighting off seagulls! He told me one night jokingly that Orientals are the ones with the patience for this kind of work.  I just chuckled because I knew he was right! 

My real interest was to develop a gadget, a release mechanism that would enable dispersion of pardaxin or pardaxin-like analogues around the person in water upon seeing the shark.  Great idea, if we only had enough repellent.  I did manage to develop a prototype for the device that still sits on my desk till now with many fond memories.  But, back then the cost of synthesizing the active compound and the liability issues (if the person who have the device got bitten) in a litigious society like United States made the project at that time quite daunting. 

Dr. Naftali Primor holding a restrained venomous snake( Daboia palaestinae). Its venom is being used for the production of a life saving anti venom.

Naftali eventually returned to Israel, but continues to work on venoms.  This time his interest is turned on to new exciting research on the analgesic effects of small peptides from snake venoms.  This new concept, called Zep3, is a promising technology for relief of chronic pain and treatment of various skin disorders, such as  those caused HSV viruses.  This scientific adventure started me on the path of studies on repellents, leading to the development of barnacle and insect repellents called MR08.  All these new body of work and long-term friendship started on a chance meeting at the corridor of NYU Medical Center 25 years ago.

There had been continuing work on repellents from many other scientists.  That pardaxin also behave like surfactants led to new work on molecules, like SDS (sodium dodecyl sulfate), that can ward off sharks.  SDS did not meet the Navy requirement of a non-directional surrounding cloud-type repellent at 100 parts per billion.  It would require a barrel full of SDS to ward off sharks around a single person.  It is likely useful as directional type repellent where one squirts directly on an oncoming shark.  Not likely a viable option for a swimmer in panic.  Other products include the Shark Shield, a Navy led research on bag type product with a floats where one climbed inside to avoid being detected by shark. There is also a similar concept of bubbles created around a swimmer to deter sharks. There is always of course the shark cage to hide into.  A patent was issued for the Shark Stopper, an acoustic device to ward off sharks.  Wet suits with surface patterns to mask the silhouette of a man underwater are also being developed. More promising areas of work these days involve semiochemicals, associated with decaying shark carcasses (Shark Defense Technologies) that act as small molecule messengers that modulate shark behavior.

JFK and the Mercury astronauts

Consider this scenario:  America sends a daring young astronaut, the cream of the crop of military pilots (immortalized in the book and movie entitled ‘The Right Stuff’), the best among the best, in a space ship to outer space at a cost of billions of dollars in today’s money; against all odds, the ship survives re-entry and the tiny capsule comes back to Earth, lands in the ocean; the astronaut comes out alive from the tiny space capsule, swims to be rescued and then eaten by a shark in full view of journalist and shown on live television all over the world!  This was President John F. Kennedy’s and NASA’s nightmare scenario; hence, the sharpshooters on board the helicopters.

The image of an astronaut being eaten by shark was not out of irrational fear and dark imagination.  Prior unmanned space capsules brought of out the water occasionally had embedded shark teeth on the heat shielding tiles.  Like all ships of the period, Project Mercury’s Friendship 7 came with standard military survival kit and included a shark repellent device that shoots out of the capsule ahead of splash down.

Years after my shark science with Naftali, I reluctantly went with my wife one night to attend a marketing conference in Connecticut, sponsored by Arbonne, a cosmetic company.  The after dinner speaker, to my great surprise, was Scott Carpenter, who recounted his days as a Mercury astronaut.  In his dinner speech, he related the story of NASA’s preoccupation with sharks.  As the NASA-US Navy liaison officer, astronaut Scott Carpenter took the NASA- approved shark repellent device and sent it to the Navy’s shark experts for validation testing.  Scott related that as he was preparing to embark on his first space trip, he received a letter from the shark experts essentially saying that “the electronic shark chaser device was interesting with all the lights and sounds, but appeared to be mildly effective against sharks in either the on or off positions!”  Later, after the Mercury Mission, Scott became part of the Sealab Program to develop underwater living habitats — the only austronaut who also became an aquanaut. 

As we celebrate John Glenn’s and Scott Carpenter’s 50th anniversaries of their space flights, America should be grateful that JFK’s nightmare of his astronauts being eaten by sharks never came to pass.

The most eloquent sentence in space travel to date was by Scott Carpenter before Friendship 7’s lift-off:  “God speed John Glenn”

 

Jonathan R. Matias

Poseidon Sciences Group

www.poseidonsciences.com    [email protected]

Dedicated to my children who are on their own unique adventures.

 

References:

Lazarovici  P, Primor N, Loew LM Purification and Pore Forming Activity of Two Hydrophobic Polypeptides from the Secretion of the Red Sea Moses Sole (Pardachirus marmoratus). J Biol Chem. 1986.  261:16704-167123

Primor N. Pardaxin produces sodium influx in the teleost gill-like opearcular epithelia. J exp Biol. 1983. 105:83094

Primor N. Pharyngeal cavity and the gills are the target organ for the repellent action of pardaxin in shark. Experientia. 1985. 15: 693-695

Primor N, et al.  Toxicity to fish, effect on gill ATPase and gill ultrastructural changes induced by Pardachirus secretion and its derived toxin pardaxin.  J exp Biol. 1980. 211:33-43

Sisneros JA,Nelson DR. Surfactants as chemical shark repellents: past, present and future.  Environmental Biology of Fishes. 2001.  60:117-129

http://au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/a/-/breaking/12848556/experts-work-on-wetsuit-to-outwit-sharks/

http://news.yahoo.com/john-glenn-reunites-50-old-mercury-team-022029804.html

http://www.scottcarpenter.com/sealab.htm

http://www.collectspace.com/ubb/Forum29/HTML/000375.html

http://sharkdefense.com/Repellents/repellents.html

http://the.honoluluadvertiser.com/article/2005/Aug/22/ln/FP508220336.html

http://onlineissues.wherewhenhow.com/article/Dive+Training+Shark+Repellent/866010/85272/article.html

http://www.mach25media.com/bookspacious.html

http://www.scottcarpenter.com

 
 
     
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Searching for seagrape seaweed in Indian waters: a nun-scientist’s tale of passion and perseverance

This is not your usual technical article on seaweed biochemistry or biology.  This topic is quite different.  It is the untold tale of discovery, repeated thousands of times around the world by scientists from all disciplines.  It is the chase, the hunt for something new, something useful.  Starting with a hunch, proving an idea and fulfilling the passion are all the ingredients that make scientific discovery a unique experience.  And this story is not about me.  This story is about Sister Avelin Mary, a Roman Catholic nun, a marine scientist of India and her relentless effort to find seagrapes, a strange, odd-looking seaweed considered by experts as ‘extinct’ in Indian waters.

For thousands of years, seaweed has been harvested from wild beds and some cultivated artificially for food, primarily in Asia.  It is only in the last century that a portion of the world’s seaweed harvest has served as natural resource for ingredients used in cosmetics and other industries.  This nonfood use has great potential.  Just as an example, a recent paper in Science described the use of engineered microbes to convert brown seaweeds (kelp) into biofuels.  Seaweeds produce two times more ethanol than sugar cane and five times that from maize given the same area of cultivation.   Given the increasing demand and great interest for new ingredients derived from the marine environment there has been a flurry of research to identify new seaweed resources.  However, harvesting from the wild is a problem, partly because the ingredients derived from them may vary from one season to the next.  Moreover, companies are wary of using resources from wild harvest since they can be affected by seasonal fluctuations of availability, quality, pollution and over-exploitation of sensitive marine habitats.  The cosmetic industry, in particular, looks for marine resources that have both a great marketing story and renewable through artificial methods called mariculture.

Anyway, that was my ‘scientific’ excuse for initiating a worldwide search for new exotic seaweeds.  But beyond the science and the capitalistic expectations, there is always a thrill in the hunt. Sister Avelin Mary, the heroine of the tale, and I always refer to such scientific adventures as ‘treasure hunting’ (in a biological sense).  Sister Avelin is a marine biologist and a Roman Catholic nun belonging to the Congregation of the Mother of Sorrows Servants of Mary.  After her PhD in zoology, she went on to do her post-doctoral work at Osborne Laboratories (New York Zoological Society) and Duke University Marine Laboratories (Beaufort, North Carolina).  She returned to India to establish her own independent research group in 1988.  Established in the port city of Tuticorin and with permission of the Mother General of her Congregation, this nonprofit research institution, called Sacred Heart Marine Research Centre (SHMRC), became one of the premier marine science research centers where Sister Avelin studied the biology of barnacles [1].

Why of all things barnacles? That was her area of training and focus of interest while at Duke University and the research program was conceived at the time when there was an urgent need to find alternatives to the toxic tributyl tin (TBT) widely used in marine paints to prevent barnacles from attaching.  TBT is a nonspecific organotoxin and among the most toxic man-made chemicals in use.  It kills all marine life on contact!  She identified one such non-toxic natural anti-barnacle chemical from soft corals called Juncellin, named for Avelin and the octocoral, Juncella [2].  My collaboration with Sister Avelin began in 1994 and continues today, the longest, productive and continuous scientific collaboration Poseidon Sciences ever have had.

In 2007, I posed the question to Sister Avelin about the presence of Indian seagrapes (Caulerpa lentillifera), a unique edible seaweed delicacy grown in Okinawa.  It is found mostly in the Pacific Rim and commonly referred to as sea caviar, as nama in Fiji, as lato in Philippines and umi budo in Japan.  Highly priced as a delicacy, seagrapes really are succulent miniature grape-like seaweeds.  Upon biting on the seagrapes, the salty interior bursts in your mouth.  However, this marine plant is seasonal and available only during the dry season.  This seaweed requires normal seawater salinity to grow and die when salinity drops during the rainy season.  SHMRC’s research site in Tuticorin (Tamil Nadu, South India) is ideal for cultivating the seagrapes since it has two short monsoons, not in the path of cyclones, with stable salinity and temperature year round.

I thought seagrapes ought to be naturally occurring along the coast of India.  This question led us through several years of an exciting quest and I would like to share this story with you.

There was a 2004 article by Mantri [3] that described seagrape found in the Gulf of Kutch on the northwest coast of India.  However, the discovery was not well received by the experts in marine botany who suggested that it was merely an error in identification. Further literature research on the topic indicated that seagrapes, for reasons unknown, had been declared extinct in all of India for over half a century, according to the experts.  The last survey showing presence of seagrape beds was in 1955 and subsequent surveys yielded no specimens [4].  We consulted botanists and was told not to waste our time looking for it.

India has a vast coastline.  We could not imagine that the ‘experts’ have explored all of its 7,517 km coastal zones exhaustively to make such a definitive declaration of extinction.  And, as we have seen in the last decade, other species once thought extinct, seems to turn up all the time, found accidentally or through sheer persistence.  Take for example the story of the Hula Painted frog that was also declared extinct 50 years when its swamp habitat was drained totally to get rid of malaria in the Hula Valley of Israel.  Rehydration of the swamp brought back the species. Another example is one species of giant Galapagos tortoise, Chelonoidis elephantopus, once declared extinct for the last 150 years and just recently found again.  There are many more examples just in the last year alone.

So, we thought it is just a matter of looking hard enough for the ‘treasure.’  All we need is some luck and determination.  We decided on a hunch that it is not extinct and that maybe seagrapes were just simply hard to find.

The last known location of seagrapes was in Krudasai, just about 100 miles in front of our marine station in Tuticorin.  However, the site has long been converted to a protected marine reserve and off limits to harvesting of any organism.  Beyond the reserve is a vast area and we have sent divers to search beyond the exclusion zone.  Seagrapes can survive in a wide range of habitats, from rocky subsea outcrops to muddy-sandy substrates where it attach.  Our own surveys covered a wide area from Tuticorin (Toothukudi) to Mandapam.

Months of treasure hunting yielded nothing!  It was like looking for the Titanic without the benefit of sonar and a GPS unit.  Our broad, methodical sweep, looking for a natural bed of seagrapes was a failure.  But, Sister Avelin, one of the most optimistic people I have ever known, persisted onwards.  In an India Today magazine article, she said that “there is no magic in the world [of science] except the magic of hard work.”  That very much sums up Sister Avelin.

Then came the hunch–the seagrape bed still exists; it is simply not accessible and that fragments wash out of the bed during monsoons, some of them spreading to the shore.  We thought it is was a wild hunch, but Sister Avelin was persistent and thought that it was worth one more try.  This time, instead of looking deep underwater, we simply instructed harvesters to take a few kilogram samples from near shore beds of seaweeds and bring it to the lab.  At the same time one of our company’s biologists from Athena Biosystems in the Philippines, Araceli Q. Adrias, went to India to help sort and identify the seagrapes from the mass of mixed species of harvested seaweeds.

Sorting the seaweeds manually to identify fragments of seagrapes (top left), Seagrapes found compared to mass of other seaweeds collected from near shore (top right), an entire fragment of seagrape (bottom left), close up look at a single ‘grape’ and a schematic of the grapes on a branch (bottom right).

And, indeed the wild hunch paid off!  After hours of exhausting work, we found 16 grams of pure seagrapes embedded in the mass of other seaweeds, such as C. racemosa (a related species with almost similar physical characteristics), C. sertularioides, Enteromorpha flexuosa and C. peltata.  Our seagrape collection represented less than 0.01% of the total mass collected from the near shore.  With much effort and overcoming the objections of other marine botanical ‘experts,’ the seagrape manuscript describing the find was published in 2009 [5].  This Indian species represents a new sub-strain; smaller ‘grapes’ and more spaced than typical specimens found in other countries. And, yet tastes just like the Okinawan variety too!

Young shoots of seagrapes on the palm (top left), growth pattern of cultured seagrape showing 15 days doubling time in mariculture (top right), raceways used for artificial culture (bottom left), Sister Avelin showing the harvest from one tank after months of culture using the 16 g collection as starting point (bottom right).

Certainly the find is of significant academic interest but not enough was collected to be of practical use.  We asked, “Can we culture the seagrape we collected?”  Within six months, Sister Avelin’s team artificially grew those 16 grams to a mass of over 12 kilograms.  With a doubling rate of 15 days, it is possible to build an entire mariculture program to support a new industry using land-based culture technologies we now refer to as the Javelin Mariculture Program. This natural, sustainable approach is one that can supply vast amount of seagrapes for food and industrial applications.

Why culture this seaweed on land in seawater tanks and raceways? 

This approach represents an opportunity to grow pure strains of the seagrapes under controlled conditions on a year-round basis that maximize production of the required active ingredients.  Mariculture also makes it possible to make productive use of non-arable sandy coastal zones and avoid the need to harvest from the wild, thereby protecting the fragile marine ecosystem of the Indian coastal zones.  And, more importantly, one will avoid the temperamental sea that can easily destroy man-made structures on the sea surface or below.

The senior research team: Jonathan R. Matias (top left), Sister Avelin (top right), Araceli Q. Adrias (bottom left), and Sister Vitalina (bottom right).

Seagrapes have already been shown to have higher absorptive capacity compared to activated carbon.  It has anti-oxidant, anti-viral and anti-cancer properties! [6.7.8.9.10]. Ongoing research is yielding interesting findings that will have unique applications in cosmetics.  It offers a unique opportunity to formulators for an ingredient that is natural, sustainable, reproducible and rare.  With a renewable, secure, year-round supply, Sister Avelin’s seagrapes, she prefers to call in Tamil as kadalthiratchai, may soon yield new and exciting products for cosmetics and other industrial applications.

Our ‘treasure hunt’ at sea continues.….

Jonathan R. Matias, Executive Director

POSEIDON SCIENCES GROUP, New York, N.Y., USA

Email: [email protected]

www.poseidonsciences.com

References

  1. http://www.poseidonsciences.com/sisteravelin.html
  2. Mary, A. Sr., Mary, V. Sr., Rittschof, D. and Nagabhushanam, R., Bacterial barnacle interaction: potential of using Juncellins and antibiotics to alter structure of bacterial communities. J. Chem. Ecol., 1992, 19(10): 2155-2167.
  3. Mantri, V. A., Current Science, 2004, 87, 1321-1322.
  4. Chacko, P. I., Mahadevan, S. and Ganesa, R., Gulf of Mannar Contrib., Marine Biological Station, 1955, pp 1-16.
  5. Mary, A. Sr., Mary, V. Sr., Lorella, A. Q. D. and Matias, J. R., Rediscovery of naturally occurring seagrape Caulerpa lentillifera from the Gulf of Mannar and its mariculture. Curr. Sci., 2009, 97(10): 1418-1420.
  6. Pavasant, P., Apiratikul, R., Sungkhum, V., Suthiparinyanony, P., Wattanachira, S., Marjaba, T. F., Bioresour. Technol., 2006, 97, 2321-2329.
  7. Barbier, P., Guise, S., Huitorel, P., Amade, P., Pesando, D., Briand. C., Pevrot, V., Life Sci., 2001, 70, 415-429.
  8. Ara, J., Sultana, V., Qasim, R., Ahmad, V. U., Phytother. Res., 2002, 16, 479-483.
  9. Ganesan, P., Kumar, C. S., Bhaskar, N., Bioresour. Technolo., 2008, 99, 271-273.
  10. Nicoletti, E., Della Pieta, F., Calderone, V., Bandecchi, P., Pistello, M. Morelli, I., Cinelli, F., Phytother. Res., 1999, 13, 245-247.

Thoughts on that fateful September 11th from a man who wasn’t there

     There is so much going on in science and technology every day, yet I am compelled instead to write about this singular event of the decade—September 11th.    Where were you on 9/11?  This is a most often asked question posed to any New Yorker traveling overseas or just going across the State lines.  I wish I can say how terrifying that day
was,.  How the acrid smoke and the dust filled my lungs.  How much anguish it had
been to see the Twin Towers disintegrating right before my very own eyes.   I could not say those words.  I wasn’t there.  I was 6,000 miles away, watching the events of
that fateful day unfold in the safety of a hotel lounge far away from home.

     I belong to that minority of New Yorkers who were not home on 9/11.  It was about
3 pm in Athens, Greece and I just started giving a lecture at a marine science symposium at the University of Piraeus.  One of the organizers came to the lecture room and whispered to me as I was giving my talk that a plane hit one of the Twin Towers.  And I continued on, thinking that it was just an accident.  Certainly those massive Towers can withstand any plane.  A similar accident also occurred before long ago with a plane hitting the Empire State Building and nothing catastrophic happened.  A few minutes later, he came back to tell me that a second plane hit the other Tower.  By then almost everyone in the conference room were rushing out by the coffee area, watching the events on CNN.  I rushed back to the hotel and became glued to the TV, just like the rest of the billions of human beings on that day.

Though I felt less concerned because my family lived miles away in Queenboro, that concern heightened when it was impossible to reach anyone by phone. Because air travel was restricted indefinitely, I ended up by accident in the Greek island of Ydra, spending a week there, mostly drinking wine and watching the Greek sunset along with a dozen fellow stranded Americans.  A week later, I got onboard a plane to
Singapore and from there finally to NYC.  Hardly an adventure worth recounting when someone asked where I was  on 9/11.

The World Trade Center was memorable to me, not simply as an icon of New York City. I had my wedding luncheon at Windows on the World, a restaurant on top of the Towers.  I had New Year’s celebrations there many times over the years.  I often go for a drink there and have lunch or dinner meetings with colleagues visiting New York
for the first time.  In 2000, I looked at several floors at the Twin Towers for Poseidon Sciences as home office.  Only the high expense of the lease and the longer subway ride talked me out of it. The Twin Towers was never pretty, but it exudes power and presence.  Not having enough money and being lazy to take a longer subway ride saved me from that disaster just a year later.

Not being home on that unusual day bothered me.  For inexplicable reasons, I
never came close to the ruins when I got home; the closest was 10 blocks away to see if my friend, Eugene, was fine.   And that was weeks after the event.  I can
sense the doom and gloom of downtown Manhattan as soon as I stepped out of the subway station.  I can feel the dust settling on my skin.  The distinct overpowering smell
that came from the combination of chemicals from plastics, cement, paper… and of
human bodies still burning underneath the rubble, filled my lungs.   As a
scientist, curiosity should have drawn me closer, but did not want to.  I felt I did not deserve to be there.  I did nothing.  Perhaps, I felt that pang of guilt for being
so far away then.  In fact, I had not gone to see the makeshift memorial after the attacks or even came close to the ruins to this date.

In a study published in JAMA in 2002 entitled “A Nationwide Longitudinal Study of Psychological Responses to September 11″ examined the effects of the World Trade Center attack on the national psyche.  In this article, Roxane Cohen Silver, who lead the nationwide study noted:

“This research dispels a number of myths …The effects of a major national trauma are not limited to those directly affected by it, and the degree of response cannot be predicted simply by objective measures of exposure to or loss from the trauma. This fact has not been adequately acknowledged by some mental health professionals….. We believe it is important to recognize that potentially disturbing levels of
trauma-related symptoms can be present in individuals who are not directly
exposed to a trauma, particularly when it is a massive national tragedy such as
the 9-11 attacks….Rather than seeing these symptoms as evidence as psychiatric
disorders, however, their presence is likely to represent a normal response to
an abnormal event.”

New Yorkers, in general, are very resilient mix of peoples.  Perhaps, it is the cultural
diversity that makes them less immune to major catastrophes even in their own
backyard.  The study in 2004 led by Joseph Boscarino and published in Journal
of General Hospital Psychiatry
showed that New Yorker’s use of mental health services only rose slightly after the September 11th terrorist attacks.  In fact mental health providers were prepared to provide mental heath services to the thousands of New Yorkers anticipated needing those services, but the expected need never really materialized.  Must had been the NY attitude thats hard to fathom at times!

CPT Jennifer McIntyre briefing troops before next mission in Iraq

What I think happened instead was the overwhelming need to do something.  Some as big as joining the armed forces to fight overseas or as little as helping those in need, big or small.  The disaster galvanized people to do something then as therapeutic journey to solidarity.  And, on this 10th anniversary, those who had done little, like yours truly, have some soul searching to do.  I am not sure if many feel the same way.    As a scientist working on marine science issues seemed out of place here, my work irrelevant in many ways.

Jenny enjoying Nat Sherman cigars I sent for her 'boys.' Just one of the few pleasures in the desert of Iraq.

This asymmetric warfare,  a war between a high tech nation and a low tech enemy, has a common thread repeated thousands of times in thousands of wars over the millennia– that young men (and now women too) go to war and young people die. The basic common thread is always the human element.

Though I had served my time in the army back in the Reagan years, and as I ponder this 10th anniversary of September 11th, I come to realize that I am also fighting this war (and this anger) in a different way–through my own two kids.  My daughter, Jennifer, joined the army after college and had already served two tours in

Airman Jason Matias with the Predator drones in Afghanistan

Iraq running convoys through IED infested highways in and out of Baghdad.  As an army captain, she is now again getting fresh troops ready for her third tour, this time in Afghanistan.  My son, Jason, joined the US Air Force and served his tour in Jalalabad, Afghanistan with a Predator surveillance squadron.  We, as a nation, fight wars through our children.  This is nothing new in the history of mankind, but something new and personal to me.

A Christmas card from Jason’s team in the Afghanistan airfield taken at 10,000 ft by another Predator surveilance drone

Today, as the 10thanniversary of that fateful day unfolds, perhaps it is time for me to finally come to terms with my own “post-traumatic shock,” see the Memorial and think about what I can do next for my adopted country.

Jonathan R. Matias, Science Officer

Poseidon Sciences Group

www.poseidonsciences.com

 

https://scienceblog.com/community/older/2002/C/20025747.html

http://www.scienceblog.com/community/older/2004/2/20041623.shtml

Barbarians at the gate: Reflections on the decline of American innovation while watching a spectacular sunset at Gantry Park

        Despite the recent spectacular scientific achievement of DARPA (US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) on a hypersonic glider traveling at 13,000 miles per hour, American innovation, like this Mach 20 glider, is on a downward path towards unknown depths, with profound ramifications to our economic and political status among nations.  We all know intuitively that the declining trend exists and I am not sure there is a way to reverse that in such a complicated world we live in today.  In my life experience as an American scientists and a former immigrant, I can see it as clearly as the sun sets behind midtown Manhattan from across the East River in Gantry Park. 

        Often, I sit on the bench at Gantry Plaza State Park waiting for sunset, mostly alone or at rare times with my kids or friends.  Just recently I began thinking about my years through graduate school, work, science and the economy.  These thoughts came about after a friend sent me a link to an MSNBC interview with Michael Greenstone, an MIT economist heading the Hamilton Project, on the subject of the Innovation Gap.  It is definitely worth taking time to see the video before reading the rest of my blog.  Here it is http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21134540/vp/44041044#44038620

       My career spanned the period from the height of American innovation of the 70’s and 80’s to its post-millennium decline.  Why the decline?  There are already many reasons that pundits, strategists, economists, professors and politicians came up with and you can read them elsewhere.  But, it’s not just because of the rise of China and India as economic powerhouses.  It is not just the decline in American knowhow or enthusiasm for the sciences.  And it is not just outsourcing.  It’s all of these.  Most of all it is about the human element–the scientists.

        Sitting in Gantry Park at sunset is like a metaphor of the waning American supremacy in science and technology.  American innovation is spectacular in its achievements, like the burst of light of the waning sun behind the majestic skyscrapers of Manhattan, slowly fading away to darkness.

       Just to digress for a minute, what’s so special about Gantry Park anyway, you may ask?  I think of it as one of the most beautiful small parks in New York City, with the breathtaking view of Manhattan, especially at dusk.  It is at the waterfront in Hunter’s Point on what used to be an industrial/ warehouse district no one wanted to be caught walking at night years ago; a place to be avoided then, but not anymore.  Once the site of the Pepsi bottling plant, whose sign still remains today as a relic of the past, this waterfront area in the 1920’s serviced  rail cars coming from Manhattan and New Jersey to supply the industrialized Long Island City in the NYC borough of Queens.  Gantry refers to cranes that lift objects by hoists that move horizontally.  Back in the heyday of American industrial might, rail cars were lifted off barges, moved on to rail tracks and hooked on to trains that crisscrossed Long Island.  With the decline of American industries and the pre-eminence of trucking systems, the gantries ceased to serve its purpose and the machines became silent, another testimony to the doomed manufacturing industry.  One can still see the original rail road tracks in between the manicured gardens.

       Now, it is gentrified, with bustling new businesses and pricey condominium buildings mushrooming around the park.  It is one of the those truly wonderful little known places in New York, just a subway stop in Queens Borough on the #7 subway train from Manhattan’s Grand Central Station-42nd Street.  I go there because it is a quiet place to contemplate, work and just simply do nothing or go fishing (I have yet to try that).  As I sit by the fishing pier, I can see where I had been.  From my beginnings as a research intern at Goldwater Memorial Hospital on Roosevelt Island on the right of the East River, through my days in graduate school at New York University, my work at Orentreich Foundation on 72nd Street, my old labs leased by the Foundation at NYU Medical Center Public Health building on 29th Street and the Metro North trains I took from Grand Central Station– all laid out for me just across the East River. 

       In a way, standing there on that pier gives me a quick view of where I had been.  Here I share an anecdote about the multibillionaire, Harry Helmsley, among the great real estate magnates of his time; back in the 1970’s when he used to stand on a waterfront building in New Jersey facing Manhattan.  When asked why he often have luncheons on top of this building.  He replied (from memory), “I am old now. I cannot understand the spreadsheets of real estate properties my accountants carry around.  Standing here, I can see all of Manhattan and I do my own accounting.  I own those buildings there, there and there.  And I can see the buildings I would like to buy over there and there.  Here I take stock of  where I had been, what I have and where I am going.”  In a way, standing on the pier at Gantry Park also shows me where I had been, though not necessarily where my life is heading at the moment.

       Having digressed enough, I would like to tell you what I think about how the decline of American innovation came about.

       In the 70’s and 80’s and certainly even decades before, American innovation in computers, engineering, chemistry and practically all scientific pursuits were in a frenzy.  American technology dominated the world, from soft drinks to blue jeans.  That was also a time when young men and women from foreign lands flocked to American universities to continue graduate school.  That was a time when foremost in the mind among foreign students, who tend to work harder than most, was the dread of having to go back where they came from, where political instabilities, economic issues and lack of opportunities persisted.  Coming back to their home countries was not on their priority list, reaching the American dream was.  That means being sponsored by a company and making big bucks.  I know that for a fact as I had sponsored many during that period.  That also was a time when American businesses need more scientists and the steady flow of foreign student filled that gap. And, talented scientists flocked into America through working visas. 

        In the 1980’s China was just experimenting on private enterprise.  Having visited China in those days, I have seen the change; from the early days with people wearing Chairman Mao style jackets and avoiding contact with Americans to a time when local Chinese students would go out of their way to meet with me just to practice their English. (That was also a time when I was courageous in haggling with a street merchant for a pair of shoes that I know was worth $75 in NY, then coming back to the hotel proudly telling the concierge that I got it for $4 and only deflated when he told me I was cheated—it was only $2 for the locals. I knew then something was very wrong).

       It was the 1990’s when things began to change.  China opened its doors to manufacturing for overseas markets and India slowly made strategic changes in its business laws.  Exports brought wealth and China opened a hybrid enterprise system allowing private ownership.  American and European companies saw the opportunity for cheaper good to be manufactured, increasing their profitability and dooming their own domestic manufacturing industries.  More important, foreign students and foreign workers began to have a change of attitude about coming home.  It is not simply being homesick that drove them back.  Certainly they have the economic capacity to come home for frequent visits.  It was the lure of starting a business in their home countries where economic opportunities began to be rosier than struggling in America.  For these young men and women, it was riskier but the potential opportunities outstrip what they can get here. 

        I know this because I was once one of them.  In 1995, I came back to the old country, started some businesses, did research at a cost of 1/10th it would had I stayed in America.  Though political issues had made me return to New York in 2000, the experience was profound, memorable and productive.  I was able to accomplish much more in that 5 years than I could have possibly done in NYC in 20 years.  The 1990’s also saw countries adjusting to the new-found wealth.  By the turn of the century, opportunities abounded in Asia.  It was no longer a risky experiment for foreign scientists from America to come home.  The infrastructure, though imperfect, was there, waiting for the young scientists/entrepreneur from America.  American knowhow, learned from years of study and hard work are being snapped up by companies in foreign soil.  Is there anything wrong with that?  Absolutely not, as long as they are not bringing patented ideas.  And even so, most of those countries are not places American inventors filed their patents anyway and therefore free for the taking and/or improvements. 

       America is hemorrhaging its talents not just from reverse migration.  American talents from those born here are also being lured by foreign companies and governments with higher wages, better scientific support and a better life style than they could ever imagine at home.  Just simply take the case of Singapore, whose expat communities are bursting at the seams.  American innovations are being sucked out of the country year after year.  You will see great innovations coming out of Asia in the next decade, innovations that would have originated from America had we been able to keep our scientists happier at home.

       These thoughts are from my own personal experiences.  Can I support this point of view?  Absolutely! 

        The backbone of a modern economy is innovation.  In the days of the Spanish, the British and the Portuguese empires, economic wealth came from conquest of new lands and people.  Modern economies, such as the ‘American Empire,’ is built solely in innovation; not the military innovations whose proprietary ownership is often fleeting.  Take the case of the US stealth fighter shot down in Serbia and ended up being reversed engineered by the Chinese who now have stealth technology of their own.  Outsourcing in history is best exemplified by the Roman Empire, whose lack of foresight and need to save money on its military outsourced the defense of its borders to ‘barbarians.’  The Goths, Visigoths and others eventually turned on the Empire, emptying Rome of its 1 million inhabitants down to the size of Google’s workforce of 30,000 by simply destroying its greatest innovation—the Roman aqueducts that brought freshwater to the city.

        The Hamilton Project demonstrated that the loss of America’s innovative edge translated to American workers losing 51% of the value of the dollar compared to the 1970’s.  This loss of purchasing power was made up by credit and eventually led up to our current economic crisis.  There is no direct way to show how innovation’s decline affects our economy.  However, the 2009 article by Vivek Wadha in YaleGlobal served to highlight the impact of migrant workers, foreign students and immigrants on the American economy.  A most telling part of the article described an adhoc question he posed on Indian techies at a conference on who wanted to return home.  Fifty percent raised their hand.  Had I asked the same question in the 1980’s, I would had been lucky to get one!  It is really worth reading his article entitled “Is the US brain drain on the horizon?  Immigrants now see better prospects back home” (see link below).

       Considering that the Chinese and Indian nationalities in the US represent only 3% of the population, over 25% of all patents have ethnic Chinese and Indians listed as inventors. 

Vivek Wadha writes:

      In 2006, immigrants contributed to 72 percent of the total patent filings at Qualcomm, 65 percent at Merck, and 60 percent at Cisco Systems. And contrary to claims that immigrant patent-filers crowd out US-born researchers, emerging research is increasingly showing that immigrants actually tend to boost patent output by their US born colleagues. These immigrant patent-filers emerged from the US university system, where foreigners now dominate the advance degree seeking ranks in science, technology, engineering and mathematical disciplines. For example, during the 2004–2005 academic year, roughly 60 percent of engineering Ph.D. students and 40 percent of Master’s students were foreign nationals. (We don’t know for certain that those who have been leaving are patent-filers but anecdotal evidence suggests this to be the case).

       Beyond intellectual contributions, Chinese and Indian immigrants have been key entrepreneurial drivers in the US. According to another survey we conducted, one-quarter of all technology companies in the US have at least one founder who is a Chinese or Indian immigrant. The concentration is even heavier in certain key industries such as semiconductors and enterprise software. Based on this data, we calculated that in 2005, immigrant-founded tech companies generated $52 billion in revenue nationwide and employed 450,000 workers. This revenue total bridges multiple multi-billion dollar sectors including semiconductors, Internet, software and networking.

…. the Rising East will continue to pull in its fair share of future science and technology rock stars who may build the next Google or Microsoft in Gujarat or Mumbai.

That immigrant-founded tech companies employed 450,000 people with a $52 billion in revenue is awesome to contemplate.  And if 50% of them returned home to their own countries, that’s an economic loss that will never be recovered.

The barbarians are at our gates and they are tearing down our aqueducts. What to do?

       All is not lost of course.  There had been so many suggestion put forth by strategic thinkers.  They range from improving educational opportunities, inviting more foreign techies on H1 visa, providing better business opportunities, relaxing the immigration hurdles for scientists.  All these require a bouncing economy and political will, both simply lacking in our current domestic environment.  Even if those were to be implemented now it is unlikely that the tide will reverse since other countries can offer much more.  And Congress has to debate on that for a while if they ever get to it, unless of course they are distracted by something else like elections or the debt ceiling.

       The answer is through private initiatives, backed by government immigration reforms specifically tailored for inventors.  Here is what I thought of at Gantry Park (I certainly had a lot of free time then):

1.  Have a Gates Foundation type of initiative where a fund is created to entice potentially lucrative inventions from overseas.  Bill Gates can easily do this with his own money besides creating challenge funds for the best ecofriendly toilet for the third world.  (I think toilets are also important.  But as one of the great American inventors, it’s time for him to put in a little for his fledgling inventor colleagues of the new generation).  We have enough billionaires here in the US and each can donate a million or two to this fund if Gates is preoccupied with toilets.  Hey, that’s just your annual budget for fuel for your private jet.  Time to kick in some for your country.  I would like to call this The Great American Enterprise Fund (GAEF) and a billion $ should just about do it.

2.  Winning ideas from anywhere in the world get evaluated by the private sector; not some academics who likely have not made a dollar on his own.  Many great inventions were made in the dining room table or the garage—take the case of Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google.  Fellow inventors and business people can make the winning technologies much better than any government or academic-led initiative.

3.  Have the winning invention patented in the US and licensed to an American company.  With few exceptions, inventors typically make lousy businessmen anyway (me included in that group).

4.  If the invention makes X amount of money or employs X number of Americans, give the guy or gal (have to be politically correct here) prize money above and beyond the license for the technology.  If he/she is foreign born, give him/her a fast track to citizenship and let him/her invent some more right here in America. 

5.  What does the donor get? Besides the usual tax write off, whoever invests in GAEF has first option to commercialize the new invention (provided the inventor agrees) before anyone else does and the unique opportunity to feel good about being an instrument in reversing this innovation gap.

       For now, that’s all I thought about.  Perhaps, someone already have this idea before and just did not know about it.  Let me know.

I did not want to miss this sunset because the Gantry Park locals say such a view happens only once a year when the sun comes down at the right angle on 42nd Street.  My lucky day!

       Any better ideas or have something to add, just send me a note (use subject heading GAEF) on my email ([email protected]) or send your comments here. 

Jonathan R. Matias, Chief Science Officer

Poseidon Sciences  www.poseidonsciences.com

PS:

This blog is dedicated to my colleagues who loved inventing:  Jason, Mike, Kosta, George, Naftali, Ernie, Saudha, Avelin, Aras, Tim, Coleen, just to name a few.

References:

http://www.qchron.com/news/western/article_5f2a6db9-2e05-5f0d-8c5c-34993b652151.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gantry_crane

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21134540/vp/44041044#44038620

http://www.brookings.edu/opinions/2011/0805_jobs_greenstone_looney.aspx

http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/us-brain-drain-horizon

Collapse of dictatorships through people power revolutions expedited by science and technology

“The revolution that surprised the world” was a headline in 1986 and just as easily applies to the revolutions now sweeping the Middle East.   Today is the 25th anniversary of the first People Power Revolution that took the Philippine dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, out of power.  That was Feb 22-25, 1986, the remarkable days of non-violent civil resistance against the 20-year repressive rule of a dictator.  Those were the 4 days when 2 million unarmed people –common folks, priests, nuns – took to the main thoroughfare of Manila, called EDSA, built barricades, sang songs, made prayer vigils and refused to disperse.  Those were the days when soldiers and tank crews facing the crowds were given kind words, praises and flowers.  Also the days when soldiers simply could not fire on their own people and turned their guns around to join the revolution instead.

Back then, I was among the millions watching the events unfold on television, but in the comforts of home in New York.  My parents and I were among the few that managed to go on a self-imposed exile to escape the dictatorship and could not return until the dictatorship was over.  So, the events of those four days took on a more personal meaning for me.

Many similar revolutions have followed since then, taking the Philippine example of nonviolent regime change, such as that in East Germany and many other former Soviet Bloc countries.  These last few weeks see history being made once again in the Middle East.

Non-violent civil disobedience is not new.  It was happening already in many instances long before and made more widespread by Gandhi against British rule in India.  But, it was never in the scale seen in the last 25 years.  Why such a phenomenon only in the last 25 years?  Repressive regimes have been around for millennia and people suffered through successions of regimes—good and bad—without triggering a massive popular revolt.  What made the last 25 years so different? 

I suppose dictators can blame it partially on science and technology!

People Power then

Perhaps the first attempt at people power revolt ever recorded was during the reign of Ramses III of ancient Egypt.  In that instance, the wives and concubines of Ramses conspired to start revolts against their own pharaoh by sending written messages to their relatives in the far flung empire at the same time.   The revolt failed and all the conspirators executed.  Ramses III ‘s reign was also the first time in recorded history of a labor strike when tomb builders were not provided with adequate grain supply.

Back then Ramses could blame his problem on the invention of the papyrus.

The Philippine experience 3,000 years later was two million people coming out on the streets almost at the same time, surprising a dictatorship that could not muster effective resistance against such an unexpected, passive, non-confrontational show of displeasure against the government.  Soldiers would not fire on the mass of people, many of whom are their own relatives.  Although there were organized opposition leaders at the time, they too were surprised by the unexpected turn out. 

That revolution was made possible by portable radios.  People listened to Radio Veritas (a Catholic church owned and operated radio station), coordinating the revolt by listening to the minute by minute events, troop movements and where food/ water were needed.  If it were not because of the popularity of cheap, portable ‘transistor’ radios, it is doubtful that such a spontaneous mass movement of people can be coordinated back in 1986.

For the engineering impaired ones like me, I had to read more about what transistors radios really mean as I have always taken that for granted.  And, most of our newer generation probably can’t relate to this at all.  I asked my kids what they know about transistor radios and I just drew a blank stare.  Before the transistor radio was developed by Bell Laboratories (Yes, its Bell and not Sony as most think) in the 1940’s, the typical radio used a vacuum tube and the smallest radio was the size of a toaster.  Hardly the type to carry around since it needed to be plugged to an electrical outlet.  The transistor changed all that.  It is a tiny, solid piece of semiconductive material which amplifies and switches electronic signals.  Unlike the vacuum tubes that serve the same function, the transistor is compact, does not need to warm up first like the vacuum tube, turns the radio on instantly, can be operated by batteries, rugged and lost lasting (over 50+ years of performance life).  Its invention, thought to be among the best of the 20th century, made the development of hand-held calculators, cell phones and laptop computers possible.  By the 1970’s,  over 7 billion cheap transistor radios were manufactured.  Almost every household on earth can afford to have one, even in poor countries where it became a common source of entertainment, especially with the worldwide popularity of rock and roll music.  And there were plenty during the People Power Revolution to coordinate the mass uprising.

People Power now

Though the passions, anger, resentments and collective suffering were all part of the common experiences, the single catalyst that made these revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya possible was the technology of cell phone, video and internet.  Had the mobile systems not evolve from its original 80 lb weight in 1946 by Bell Labs engineers to its current light weight design first developed by Motorola in 1973 , these popular uprisings would have been more difficult.  The first call made from a cell phone by Motorola’s inventor, Martin Cooper, in 1973 was to his rival at Bell Labs, Dr. Joel S. Engel.  Even years before that, the concept of cellular phone was already part of the science fantasy of Star Trek in the late ‘60s.  Back then, it was called the ‘communicator.’

Mobile phones and internet are the first to be shut down by besieged dictators because of their power to mobilize people.  Just like cryptic messages written on papyrus 3,000 years ago, mobile text messages, voice and videos certainly made the call to action even more immediate, compelling and personal.

People Power in the future

While dictatorships are slowly fading to the pages of history just like hard core communism, there will always be room for dissent in mass scale.  Being dissatisfied is a very human thing and there will always be some cause to take up later on.  What technology will propel the future people power revolt?  Can’t imagine.

But, if I have to fantasize, I would say teleportation, just like in Star Trek episodes and movies.  Scientist are making progress now in transporting tiny objects from one place to another already.  The popular phrase “Beam me up Scotty” will be in common usage by then and people will simply materialize instantly for the next people power revolt.

Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry would had been ecstatic.

Jonathan R. Matias

Chief Science Officer

Poseidon Sciences Group

www.poseidonsciences.com

FRACKING Revisited: What lies ahead (or beneath) and the idea of a FRACKING CHALLENGE

Last summer, precisely six month ago, I wrote a blog article on hydraulic fracturing at the height one of the contentious periods between the industry and the public about this issue.  The adversarial relationship between the two groups have not abated since, maybe just dampened for now by the piles of snow on the ground, out of sight and partially out of mind.  This is sure to erupt once again once spring thaw arrives.

Anything good happened in the last 6 months?  Not a thing.  Really!  The same issues remain.  The politics and the drama you can read elsewhere.  The industry continues, bowing to some regulatory pressures in some cases, moratoriums, public discussions, but the business goes on.  Even politicians are divided, some trying to sit on the fence, some seemingly concerned, but wary of the economic repercussions of bringing the industry to a halt.  Both sides have strong convictions and even that is not worth a story line here.

Practically everything humans do, even those done with the best of intentions, carries unintended and often unforeseen consequences.  Even a simple new design for baby cribs get recalled for flaws found only when thousands began using it and accidental deaths occur.  The same happens to new drugs that came into the market, backed with world class research and extensive clinical trials on thousands of patients, only to be withdrawn later because, when millions use it, then other medical problems emerge.  When the spraying of the pesticide, DDT, to kill mosquitoes was banned for the sake of protecting other non-target species from being decimated, millions of Africans died of malaria instead.  Even for the best and noblest of reasons, things happen we never planned for.

I also think that it is an uphill battle for the industry to change public perception that fracking is good for the country and good for the environment at the same time.  Even a billion dollar public relations campaign will not change that. Not that I would want PR executives and lawyers to lose out in this process. Somebody has to spend for the Audis, the Mercedes Benzes, Lear jets and box seats at the Superbowl.  They are part of how our economy flows.

Getting our oil from elsewhere overseas carries an environmental price too.  Do you think it’s OK for some countries to have their aquifers destroyed to extract oil to ship to America, but not OK if ours are damaged?   Does the environmental degradation of the Niger Delta, the deserts of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates or Iraq less important?  There are living things there too besides people.  These organisms may not look so cute or cuddly, but deserve the right to exist.  How about marine life in the Gulf of Mexico and the new gas fields being discovered along the continental shelves and out in the open oceans?  Pollution in China eventually reaches the United States; just takes time to get here.  The same is true that desert storms in Africa bring polluted particles to Europe and beyond.  We live in one Earth, interconnected in so many ways that even pollution is a shared experience for all.  Our Fracking issue is a mirror of what is happening throughout the world and how we deal with this may set the framework on how the rest of world can manage the same issues. 

Human beings are great problem-solving species. That is why we are dominant on Earth. We are also a great problem-making species too—but we have the ability to correct our mistakes.  This Fracking problem is no different.  The Halliburton technology was a ground breaking (pardon the pun) in extracting shale oil.  No one cared about it for decades until when the boom came and thousands of wells start springing up all over the place.  And, just like the crib story, things happen.  Is the contamination problem ubiquitous throughout the industry or is it just a few bad apples spoiling the rest of the bushel?  I can’t say for sure.  Can the technology be improved so that even some bad apples can’t ruin things for the rest of us?  I am sure it can.  This is not rocket science.  We are not curing cancer or growing new hair on balding scalps.  This is engineering, chemistry and geology.  Americans are good at these.  We can certainly make a better mouse trap.  And, we should.

The answer to this problem will not come from tweaking the fracking fluid formula a little or carting them offsite and hoping for the best; and it is not lambasting the industry, yet clamoring for cheap oil and gas at the same time.  The answer lies in collectively finding a better way, another method and an improved ‘out-of-box’ idea that can change the scenario in the years to come.

Yes, there have been some innovations in the past 6 months.  But they are not ground breaking.  They won’t change much how things are done.  Even our work at Poseidon Sciences on developing covalently bound biocides that never leave the ceramic beads (proppants) to keep the fractured shale from clogging with bacterial slime is just part of the incremental step toward eco-safety.  Perhaps the newest idea I have seen from industry is the use of LPG technology (liquid petroleum gas, not propane as one would automatically think, but a mixture of petroleum and natural gas in liquid state) by GASFRAC Energy Services Inc. (Alberta, Canada) instead of the conventional hydraulic fracturing fluid.  The company claims that the new process avoids the contaminations normally associated with fracking fluids since all of the LPG are recovered after the fracture stimulation.  Only time will tell if there might be unintended consequences here too, but certainly it is a step in the right direction, if all goes well.

When it is energy and the environment, time seems to be of the essence.  We don’t always have the luxury to wait.  As I think through these issues tonight, how does one create a ‘crash program’ to solve this issue?  Certainly waiting for the universities to come up with solutions will take time and money too.  To get a grant (assuming there is money appropriated for it) takes at least a year, even if one’s idea is so great and if you are in the right academic environment to get it.   An entrepreneur with a great idea?  Not likely because this project will cost a bundle of personal wealth even to try a simple idea and most entrepreneurs, like yours truly, are always hard up for cash to chase new ideas.  Government?  I think everyone will agree that getting Congress involved is a guarantee of long, bickering rounds of partisanship.  They have to argue about it until they reach consensus and until everyone involved looks great on TV.   By the time it gets voted, if at all, the enthusiasm would have died of old age.  The Industry?  Oil men are great adventurers but hardly guys that do well when put together in the same room, especially if they have to share a single vintage bottle of Bourbon (The standard perception would be: “It works. Why fix when it is not broken—just tweak it a bit and keep the regulators happy.”).  Bill Gates is preoccupied with his obsession with malaria, TB and something else in foreign lands. And Oprah is just way too busy right now.

How to stimulate innovation?

In his State of the Union speech last week, President Obama focused on the need for innovation in America and the need to correct America’s innovation deficit.  With the economy in the toilet right now, we better find a better way to stimulate innovation than the traditional ways it has always been done.   

So, it dawned on me.  (It would have happened earlier if I had that bottle of Bourbon).  We need a FRACKING CHALLENGE.  The same way that my friend, Mike – Dr. Michael A. Champ — has been advocating for A DESALINATION CHALLENGE to develop a low cost, advanced desalination technology to convert seawater into freshwater. Make everyone chip in.  Get Mike to create a combination of Gates Foundation Grand Challenge and a FRACKING X-PRIZE that has an independent, third party judging group with the right expertise to develop the rules, judge the challenge and award cash prizes. 

I always thought that prizes to stimulate innovation is a modern invention until Mike pointed out that it dated as far back as 1714.  Back then, determining the accurate position of a British ship at sea was indeed a challenge and they needed a practical means of determining longitude.  That year, the British Parliament enacted the famed Longitude Act and offered the highest bounty – a prize equal to a king’s ransom (several million dollars in today’s currency) for a “Practicable and Useful” means of determining longitude.   English clock maker John Harrison, a mechanical genius who pioneered the science of portable precision time keeping, invented a clock that would carry the true time from the home port to any remote part of the world, which was considered the greatest scientific problem of his time in measuring longitude.  Harrison was our first true X-Prize winner in recorded history at least.  I would not be surprised if later archaeologists dig up an Egyptian tablet from 5,000 years ago announcing a competition for best design of an above ground pharaoh’s tomb.

How to do it?  Set up a nonprofit foundation with a board comprising industry, academia, environmental groups and government.  Then ask each company involved in hydraulic fracturing to support the program with 1 % of their gross sales over a 3-year period, complemented with the 100% tax free incentive from the government for that funding.  Considering that the projected market value of shale oil by 2015 is estimated at US $12 billion, this will yield at least US $300 million– $100 million to support promising ideas for validation at Phase I; another $100 for field demonstration of those that have real world practical applications on Phase II; and $100 million for the Prize on Phase III.  Any company that pitches in gets to use the technology royalty-free; the rest that didn’t shall pay a price through the nose to use the technology developed from this Challenge.

$300 million is a lot less than the fracking industry likely spends just paying lawyers and PR companies in a single year.  Seems a lot of bucks, doesn’t it?   This project is definitely not simple or cheap.  But, if you look at it from other perspectives, it surely isn’t that much.  The last Megalotto that I (and other friends) sunk $10 for was worth $375 Million!  I did not win even a buck either, but I was willing to fork over $10 for the infinitesimal chance of winning.

Or, let’s assume the industry, according to environmentalists, is just a bunch of lowly ‘pond scum’; only in it for what they can get out of it (I tend to think not).  Then, how about just $1 contribution from every US resident — citizens, legal aliens, illegal aliens and out-of-this-world aliens?  That’s even less than the price of one bottled water.  Or, for a family of 4, just skip one Starbucks coffee for one day this year!  We can make $300 million without government-industry support.

Or better yet, run the fundraising from a special Megalotto for each of the states affected by fracking.  “Hey. You never know,” as the NY lotto advertising says. 

$1 per person in the US is a cheap price for saving our water resources and keep our own oil and gas flowing, isn’t it?  Buy less foreign oil; Keep our men and women in the military from harms way for the sake of protecting our overseas strategic interests in oil.

How about it?  Anyone up to this FRACKING CHALLENGE?

Jonathan R. Matias

Chief Science Officer

Poseidon Sciences Group

www.poseidonsciences.com

Suggested reading:

http://www.poseidonsciences.com/Covalently_bonded_biocides_selenium_environmentally_friendly_hydraulic_fracturing_Poseidon_Sciences.pdf

http://www.poseidonsciences.com/Selenium_environmentally_friendly_biocides-Hydraulic_Fracturing_Poseidon_Sciences.pdf 

http://gasfrac.com/fracturing_process.aspx

Suggested reading on the use of a prize to stimulate innovation:  

Adler, Jonathan. Editorial on Innovation. Prizes are more effective at spurring innovation than federal subsidies.    http://energy.nationalreview.com/post/?q=YTQwNzY2ZGRhMGM5MGQ0NjdmMTlhNjVjZDdkZTY4NjE=

Congressional Research Service, Deborah D. Stine. 2009. Federally Funded Innovation Inducement Prizes.  CRS 7-5700. www.crs.gov.

Diamandis,  P.H. 2007.  X Prize Foundation.  2007.  Offer a prize if you want innovation. Reno Gazette Journal. www.RGJ.com August 13, 2007. 

Debelak, D.  2007. Winning a Contest Can Catapult Your Invention into the Mainstreamwww.entrepreneur.com

McKinsey & Company. 2009.  And the Winner is…Capturing the Promise of Philanthropic Prizes.  124p. http://www.mckinsey.com/clientservice/socialsector/And_the_winner_is.pdf

The Economist. 2010.  Offering a cash prize to encourage innovation is all the rage. Sometimes it works rather well.  http://www.economist.com/node/16740639?story_id=16740639.

Mathematical models of emerging and collapsing societies. From Asimov’s fictional futuristic tale to the real science of Gavrilets’ numerical simulations

I was preoccupied in this last three weeks of January about the bigger picture of how life and work might look like in 2011, mostly playing catch-up with work issues since a lot of things just got placed in my ‘waiting basket’ during the Holidays.  I was also bothered by little things; especially about finding my old collection of science fiction books by Isaac Asimov called The Foundation Series, the first trilogy printed in the 1950’s.  My kids typically classify my preoccupation with things and events of that era as the ‘dinosaur years.’  With a plethora of science fiction paperback novels and special effects movies in the last 10 years alone, why should I be interested in a similar genre written 60 years ago?  Not sure what the answers is.  Perhaps by the time I finish this tale of science fiction and real science we will both have the answer to this question.  

As I rummage hopelessly through my ‘library’ (In my case defined as rooms full of books, manuscripts, articles and magazines scattered on the floor, on bookshelves and on top of tables, along with the smattering of half a dozen partially filled and almost empty cups of coffee for ‘decorative’ purposes), I decided to just glance over to my laptop to check out today’s smorgasbord of science news in scienceblog.com.  And there it was!  Not Asimov’s books, but an article published recently by Sergey Gavrilets (National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis) and co-authored by David G. Anderson (University of Tennessee-Knoxville) and Peter Turchin (University of Connecticut).  The article “Cycling in the complexity of early societies” was among the first in the brand new journal called Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History, “the first academic journal to research from the emerging science of theoretical history and mathematics.”    

That’s nice.  But, where’s the connection to Asimov’s books?  Let me tell you first what this article is all about as best as I can figure it out.  I really am not a fan of anything mathematical, especially when it comes to theoretical population biology on which I still harbor occasional nightmares from grad school days.  The start of the population biology class usually triggers also the start of  my usual fantasy of being somewhere else—on a tropical beach, sipping margarita under a coconut tree, surrounded by native women wearing sarong– that is, when I wasn’t dozing off. 

Gavrilets developed a mathematical model, using hundreds of years of human historical data, to predict the rise and fall of complex societies.  Through numerical simulations that take into account parameters such the size of the state, political power, length of rule, economic variables, etc, his team was able to explain the dynamic processes that cause kingdoms, states and empires to collapse on the scale of decades and centuries.  

Gavrilets concludes: 

Over the past several decades mathematical methods and techniques have become very important in life sciences and social sciences. In particular, mathematical and computational modelings are powerful tools for better understanding the origins of new species and of general rules of biological diversification. Agent-based simulation modeling efforts like those advanced here offer fruitful avenues for future research on general patterns in historical dynamics and on the emergence and diversification of human societies. 

Isaac Asimov

Much has been written about Asimov and thought I just give you a snapshot of his life and his works as a preamble to the next part of this narrative.  Isaac Asimov (family name derived from the Russian word meaning winter grain—from his great grandfather’s occupation) was born in Russia as Isaak Yudovich Ozimov of Jewish ancestry, immigrated to United  States at the age of 3 and later became one of the most prolific American writers of all time, with over 500 books  to his credit.  Not knowing the exact date of his birth due to the uncertainty between the Gregorian and Jewish calendars of the time, he simply decided that his birthday ought to be January 2, 1920.  He would have been 90 years of age this month.  

Young Isaac taught himself to read English at the age of five, taking advantage of the “pulp” science fiction magazines sold in his father’s candy store in Brooklyn, NY. (Pulp  magazines, pulp fiction or simply ‘the pulps’ refer to cheap fiction magazines printed between 1896 through the 1950’s on cheap, ragged, untrimmed wood pulp paper.  It was famous for being cheaper than the magazines called ‘glossies.’  Pulps mostly feature lurid, sensational, exploitive stories with colorful page covers.  Comic book superheroes are considered descendants of pulp fiction).  Though his father disapproved of pulp science fiction magazines, Isaac managed to convince him otherwise since he reasoned that the word ‘science’ was there and therefore must be ‘educational.’  By 11, he was already writing his own stories and by the age of 19 selling stories to science fiction magazines himself.  Educated in the New York public school system, he eventually received his PhD in biochemistry from Columbia University in 1948.  Along with Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov is considered the master of science fiction during his life time. 

The words robotics, positronic (an entirely fictional technology) and psychohistory (also fictional) are all attributed to Asimov from his novels.  Robotics and positronic continues to be part of American lexicon, most notably in movies, such as Star Trek; The Next Generation that featured androids with positronic brains.   His robot stories which became part of the novel I, Robot in 1950 and  made into a film in 2004 with Will Smith, described a set of ethical rules for robots (The Three Laws of Robotics) leading to other stories, such as the Bicentennial Man, also made into a movie starring Robin Williams.  He became a friend and science advisor to Gene Roddenberry on many Star Trek projects. 

The Foundation Series 

Though Asimov had written history books (about the Greeks, Romans, Babylonians and Egyptians), mystery stories (in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine), scholarly biblical works and countless science fiction stories, he is singularly remembered for his Foundation SeriesThis is where Gavrilets and Asimov converged in this narrative.  The Foundation Series comprises seven science fiction novels, the first three, the Foundation Trilogy (Foundation, Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation) are considered the most famous and written in the early 1950’s.  It wasn’t until 30 years later that he began writing again the 4th entry in the saga.  

The fictional story goes like this: 

The setting is the universe thousands of years in the future when mankind, with a population in the quadrillions and ruled by a Galactic Empire, occupied millions of star systems in the galaxy.  A mathematician named Hari Seldon developed a mathematical simulation, called psychohistory.  The principle, based on the laws of mass action, numerically calculates the behavior of a quadrillion inhabitants (anything less is inaccurate) that enabled Seldon to predict the imminent collapse of the Empire.  It also predicted that the collapse will follow a period of 30,000 years of descent to anarchy and barbarism, akin to the Dark Ages of medieval Europe, before the rise of the Second Empire.  His mathematical modeling also predicted an alternative option with the Dark Ages lasting only 1,000 years, if a source of knowledge can fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the Empire and the technologies that created it.  The Seldon Plan, which attempts to minimize the period of the Dark Ages, was to establish two cryptic societies, one at each opposite end of the Milky Way galaxy, populated by scientists and technocrats, called the Foundations, ready to step in as the Empire collapses.  The Galactic Emperor found out about psychohistory and the adventures began… 

Gavrilet and Asimov’s Hari Seldon 

A science fiction writer conceives the idea from basic facts and then extrapolates from there, creating fantasies and visions not always possible in a real scientific discipline. 

There are times when the figment of a fiction writer’s fantasy decades before becomes a common reality now.   Let’s take the case of the Star Trek television series of the late 60’s.  The series described the interstellar adventures of Capt. Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, a multi-ethnic crew (first time such an attempt was made in the racially charged era of the 1960’s) and the occasional alien crew member or guests in galactic starship Enterprise of the 22nd century.  This unique TV series created the biggest ever fan base of science fiction enthusiasts (and that includes yours truly).  Even NASA named its first space shuttle Enterprise in honor of the fictional galactic starship. Though the original airing of the TV series was not accessible to me then (I happened to be in an island in another continent at the time; and yes, no American TV), coming to America, I did grow up on the TV reruns of Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future, many of which has come to fruition in my life time:  mobile phones, pda, tablet PC, hand held diagnostic instruments (Mr. Spock’s tricorder), MRI (Dr. Spock’s diagnostic table), the jet injector for drugs (Dr. McCoy’s hypospray), the universal translator (now the voice recognition and language software), the telepresence device (now the video conferencing) and the phaser set to stun (now the Taser gun to immobilize), just to name a few.  Even the truly far out concepts of the Romulan cloaking device, the transporter beam, the tractor beam, the energy shield to protect the starship are being researched seriously.  New results from military and university research are paving the way for new materials to distort light to hide objects in plain sight, new methods  transport small items by fragmenting molecules and electronic shield/counter strike weapons that destroy incoming projectiles, now featured in the more recent Israeli design for combat tanks. 

Isaac Asimov’s fiction of a mathematician predicting the collapse of the Galactic Empire made a good the story.  It was purely from the fantasies of Asimov’s fertile mind.  But like in Star Trek, some fantasies eventually turn to something real—sometimes.  Gavrilets’ numerical simulations do seem to show that such predictions can be possible.  His paper certainly is an elegant piece of scientific work and will surely be controversial.  Whether it can predict the collapse of empires, perhaps Gavrilets, like Hari Seldon, have to wait before mankind reach the quadrillion mark in the far flung reaches of a future galactic empire. 

I wonder if Sergey Gavrilets ever read the Foundation trilogy.  Had he been alive today, Isaac Asimov would have been ecstatic to read Gavrilets’ paper.  Perhaps, I should ask Gavrilets about the Foundation novels if we ever meet one day.   Not to talk about galactic futures, but about the recent collapses of dictatorial states and when future ones might be expected to follow the same path. 

I think science fiction writers and mathematicians in sociobiology have one thing in common – they seem to chase after futuristic events. 

I am sure Isaac Asimov would agree.

Jonathan R. Matias

Chief Science Officer

Poseidon Sciences Group

www.poseidonsciences.com

PS

Still looking for Asimov’s books !

SUGGESTED READING

https://scienceblog.com/41939/mathematical-model-explains-how-complex-societies-emerge-collapse/

Gavrilets S, Anderson D, Turchin P. 2010. Cycling in the complexity of early societies. Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History. 1:1

http://escholarship.org/uc/irows_cliodynamics?volume=1;issue=1

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foundation_series

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Asimov

http://www.tiem.utk.edu/~gavrila/Research.htm

http://electronics.howstuffworks.com/10-star-trek-technologies10.htm

Lunar eclipse, Christopher Columbus and the Teredo worm. A convergence of astronomy, history and biology.

       Native Americans (such as the Pomo, the Ge, the Serrano and Hupa), the Vikings and the Chinese all have their own myths about the lunar eclipse.  The Vikings believed that the moon is eaten by Hati, the wolf; the ancient Chinese says that the dragon ate the moon; the Serrano Indians thought that the dead spirits did it too.  There are two common themes—that something ate the moon and it takes loud noises to make these things give it up.  For the Chinese, the moon is represented by the mirror and during the lunar eclipse, millions of Chinese beat mirrors to make the dragon give back the moon. 

      My lunar eclipse experience did not involve making a lot of noise, though I can hear my teeth chattering from the cold.  After all it was after midnight in New York City and my neighbors might call the cops on me if I started beating mirrors.  I suppose New Yorkers are not ancient enough yet to develop lunar myths and, if we ever do, it is not likely to involve making loud noises.  Maybe a sudden rush to Starbucks for the new ‘moon latte’ is more like it.  I was among the perhaps 1.5 billion people on Earth that watched the lunar eclipse unfold last Tuesday, December 21, 2010.  I seem to have been the only crazy one in my neighborhood to stay through that 3 hours and 38 minutes outdoor viewing event at 30 oF.  But, I had to see it. 

       Though lunar eclipses are reasonably common, this one is particularly rare because it comes at the precise time of the solstice.  For those like me who are unfamiliar with the term, solstice (from Latin sol meaning ‘sun’ and sistere meaning ‘to stand still’) occurs when the Sun’s apparent position in the sky from an earthbound observer reaches its northernmost or southernmost extremes at which time the movement of the sun comes to a stop before reversing direction towards north or south.  I am sure you are still a bit confused by this explanation, but the story must go on ! 

       I was told that the previous eclipse occurring at the same time as the solstice was in 1638 and the next one won’t come till 2094.  Unless someone discovered Ponce de Leon’s ‘Fountain of Youth” or some scientist finally figure out how to stop aging, I don’t think I will make it to the next moon show.  Even if I did, I will probably be just as happy to be breathing and the last thing I would want is to be outdoors at 30 oF ever again watching the moon turn red. 

       As I was thinking of tropical themes to keep my mind off the morning freeze (for instance–sunset by a tropical beach, sipping margaritas at 85 oF under the coconut tree and attended to by exotic young maidens wearing a sarong), I remembered reading before about Christopher Columbus being marooned on his fourth voyage to the Caribbean, spending a year under coconut trees and warm beach of Jamaica, watching the lunar eclipse too—exactly how I would have wanted it.  His lunar encounter was at least more interesting as you will read later on—so don’t go away.  Finally getting my dose of astronomical adventures for the year, I went back inside to read more about the voyages of Columbus—and that’s because there was nothing good on TV at 4:30 AM for insomniacs like me. 

       So how the voyage of Columbus relates to the eclipse and Teredo worms?  Science and history always converge at some point, often in unpredictable ways, sometimes taking me along for the ride as well.   And, before I tell you about it, I think you need a short course on Teredo first.

The terrible Teredo, termites of the sea

Teredo worms inside an infested wood being collected in Batan, Aklan Province, Philippines. Photos by Coleen P. Sucgang.

       Anything that’s long, slimy and ugly is always termed a worm (as long as it doesn’t bite, which would automatically get the label as a snake) .  However, this doesn’t apply to shipworms, also called by mariners as the ‘termites of the sea.’  Scientifically, they belong to the genus called Teredo, the most notorious of which is Teredo navalis, originally native to the Caribbean Sea.  It is actually a clam, though looking at the pictures here, one would hardly believe that.  But it is!  And the male Teredo is one lucky stud.  There’s 1 Teredo male per 1,500 females.  Must be one very exhausted male and probably don’t live very long.  For the male Teredo, this phrase certainly applies:  “….live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse behind.”   Just in case you are curious where it came from, the phrase originated from the 1947 novel by Willard Mothley about juvenile delinquents (turned into a 1949 movie with Humphrey Bogart) entitled “Knock on Any Door” and also often quoted lately to describe rock and movie stars dying young from drug overdose.

       After fertilizing the eggs by the overworked (and maybe overjoyed) male Teredo, the developing eggs are protected inside the female until they develop into free swimming larvae.  Then, the little terrors meander in the high saline sea until they find fresh wood (They don’t like old wood) to settle on, unless

A Teredo worm taken out of the wood and close-up images of the tri-lobed shell and siphons. Photo credit: Coleen P. Sucgang, Poseidon Sciences.

they get eaten first by something else.  Then it starts burrowing through the wood as it grows, parallel to the grain, only turning to avoid any knot on the wood or if there is any obstruction.  By the time it reaches adulthood, it is already at least a foot long and half inch thick.  If you think this is big for a worm, its Sumatran cousin, the Giant Teredo, grows to six feet long, but lives in the muddy bottom of the sea rather than inside wood.  Unlike other typical clams, the shell covers only a tiny portion of the Teredo and used more like a drill bit to burrow a circular hole through the wood.  The tube-like home is capped at the opening of the burrow with a secreted calcareous cover, with protruding siphons that allow the animal to breathe, feed on plankton and excrete wastes.  Inside its burrow, the Teredo‘s color is pinkish white.  When removed out of its home, the color changes to a lighter blue shade in just a few minutes.

The good things about Teredo 

      Before I tell you the bad reputation of shipworms, it is only fair to describe a few good things about them.

Brunel's original design of the tunneling shield (top). A modern tunneling shield

First, the tunneling behavior of the shipworm inspired Marc Brunel, a French engineer, to devise a method, which he patented in 1818, to tunnel under the Thames River in England, the first of its kind ever built under a muddy river bed.   His technique called the “tunneling shield” made use of his observations while working on a shipyard on how the shell with fine ridges were used by the Teredo to drill through the wood while protecting itself from being crushed.  The Teredo also secretes a calcium-rich framework that coated the inside surface of the tunnel, keeping it stable and crush proof. 

Second, the cellulose that makes up the wood is not sufficiently nutritious as food and the shipworm cannot normally digest it.   It overcomes this limitation through a symbiotic relationship with bacteria, Teredinibacter turnerae, in its gills that secrete enzymes, called cellulases and nitrogenases, breaking down the cellulose and fixing nitrogen to build amino acids.  By the way, cellulases are the same enzymes, derived from fungi, used to create your stonewashed denim jeans by breaking down the cellulose on the outer surface of the cloth.  Now, it is also a major ingredient in most laundry detergents to improve cleaning efficiency.  The potential of Teredo-derived cellulases is in its future use in biofuels because it is likely more efficient than fungal cellulases in converting paper-mill cellulose waste into ethanol or methanol.

Third, Teredo worms serve an ecological purpose by degrading the wood materials that end up in the ocean.

Benedetto archtop guitar made from Sitka spruce with Teredo holes. Bottom shows close-up of the guitar with the holes made by Teredo.

Fourth, Teredo-infested Alaskan Sitka spruce used as log floats back in the 1950’s and 60’s, when transformed into a 16” traditional Benedetto archtop guitar, becomes a unique, spectacular and most expensive archtop guitar at the hefty price of US$ 52,000. 

And lastly, Teredo worms make a special Philippine delicacy called tamilok, appreciated only by natives of Palawan Island and Aklan Province in Panay Island.   It is prepared raw as a ceviche or kinilaw in the local language, with vinegar, chili peppers and onions.  Must be a scary delicacy and certainly not for the timid.  Think of your appetizer as a moving, living, half-inch thick spaghetti.  But, then again Teredo’s only known predators, the Palaweňos and the Aklanons, are probably more adventurous epicurian diners than the rest of us.  I had been in both islands, had heard about it, but never did have a chance to sample this squirming dish.  Maybe, I will try tamilok on my next trip down that way.   

Tamilok: Teredo dish.  Delicious, isn’t it?

My affair with Teredo

      One of our long drawn out research project has been to develop a nontoxic repellent against a wide variety of invertebrates.  Many years ago we have successfully developed one, called MR-08 that repels barnacles, mosquitoes, ants, flies, termites and even leeches.  This is a food grade derivative of menthol with a propylene glycol side chain that reduced the menthol smell by 95% and increased the repellent effect many fold.  So confident that it will work against Teredo, I asked our long time research collaborator, Sister Avelin Mary at Sacred Heart Marine Research Centre in India, to find areas with Teredo worms.  We soaked fresh wood with MR-08 until we were confident that it has absorbed all the way into the wood and then immersed them for a few months in Tuticorin Bay in South India.  No luck.  Teredo just ate through that wood samples as if there was nothing there.  So far, it is the only invertebrate organism that seems to have no reaction against our repellent.  

       I just gave up on MR-08 but I have a new idea for an ecofriendly, bioactive natural chemical that will prevent the Teredo from burrowing.  So, just for the moment, Teredo wins the first round! 

Now for the bad news      

       Shipworms have been a bane to ancient mariners until the advent of copper clad ships by the 18th century and modern marine coating on steel hulls.  These boring clams weakened the wooden hulls of ships to the point that they break apart in the open sea without any warning.  The Greeks and the Phoenicians certainly knew about them since 3,000 BC, lathering the hulls of their ships with wax and tar to keep them away.  The Romans used combinations of lead, tar and pitch to cover their boat. 

        Unbeknownst to Columbus, his first voyage to the Caribbean Sea in 1492 exposed his ships to the world’s most Teredo-infested waters, likely due to the higher salinity and higher seawater temperature of the Caribbean.  The ships that arrived later brought back Teredo navalis to Europe, where they can be found even as far away as the North Sea, having adapted to the cold environment.  Hundreds of ships had been lost at sea just because of Teredo worms.  These same worms caused the collapse of the wooden supports used in the dikes of Holland in 1731 causing flooding, 250 years after the first voyage of Columbus.  Only the timely replacement of the outer surfaces of the dike with stones prevented more catastrophes.

        In modern times, we have yet to escape the wrath of the Teredo.  Wharves, piers, jetties and pilings started collapsing in San Francisco Bay between 1919 and 1921, resulting in almost 20 billion dollars worth of damage in today’s money, all because of Teredo.  The mouth of the Hudson River of New Jersey and New York was once considered a ‘dead’ waterway, devoid of fish life because of the overwhelming industrial pollution since the 1930’s.  Ship captains used to sail their boats through NY harbor just to kill off shipworms and barnacles.  That’s how polluted it was.  In 1972, the US Federal Clean Water Act limited discharge into the rivers and proactively revitalized the waterways.  By the 1990’s fish had returned.  And so did the Teredo, with a vengeance.  During this period also saw the voluntary ban by the lumber industry on the use of creosote and CCA (chromated copper arsenate) to prevent further leaching of the toxic chromium and arsenic to the environment.  These wood preservatives prevented fungi from rotting the wood away and also quite good at killing off termites and shipworms as well.  These good deeds had unintended consequences—piers and piling along the Hudson River that no longer used preservatives started collapsing, hollowed through by Teredo worms.

Christopher Columbus

       After discovering the New World by accident in 1492 (He was trying to reach India and China by going across the Atlantic), Columbus had undertaken three more voyages back to the Americas, mostly in search of riches in gold and silver to recover the cost of the previous voyages.  But the Caribbean was not particularly rich in anything but warlike Caribs and Arawaks.  Though forbidden by Queen Isabela of Spain to get involved in slave trading, financial pressures from investors forced Columbus to disobey. On his second voyage, he obtained 1,200 Arawak natives captured by the Carib tribe and transported 560 of them to Spain, 200 of whom died en route.  Though the Spanish monarchs at the time disapproved of slavery, 200 of these natives were used as galley slaves nonetheless while the rest were returned back to their native lands.  Though not widely known, Columbus’ second claim to fame is to start the slave trade in the New World. 

       In the province of Cicao in Hispaniola (now Haiti and Santo Domingo), to fulfill his promise to investors to fill his ship with gold, Columbus instituted a tribute system whereby each native above 14 years of age must pay in gold every 3 months. In return each received a copper token to be worn as a necklace (not quite a fair deal).  Anyone caught without a copper token was punished by having their hands cut off.  Though it failed to yield the riches he expected, that started the gold rush (his third accomplishment, if one can call it that) to the New World that destroyed the civilizations of the Incas, the Aztecs and the many other indigenous tribes in the Americas.

        His fourth voyage was not particularly successful either.  He went to Panama upon learning from the natives about more gold to be had and a strait connecting to another ocean.  One of his ships was stranded in the river called Rio Belen and by the end of his voyage the garrison he built there was attacked; more ships damaged.  More bad luck came on his way to Hispaniola in 1503 when a storm damaged his remaining flotilla and the hulls almost breached because of the Teredo worms that infested the wood.   Most certainly, the ships would have broken apart had he went further.  No choice but to beach his vessels in St. Ann’s Bay in Jamaica.  Waiting for relief ships to come to his rescue, Columbus and his sailors had to rely on food and help from the natives who were momentarily awed by the presence of the new arrivals.  As months go by, the natives got weary of the Columbus and his men.  Angered by the occasional thievery and bad behavior of the sailors, the natives began refusing to send food to the point where his sailors wanted to invade the villages to take what they needed by force.

Map showing the four voyages of Christopher Columbus (top). Print with Columbus showing the natives that God is taking their moon away (bottom).

        Columbus thought of a better way and summoned the village chiefs for a talk at sunset on February 29, 1504.  Opening the discussion with the announcement that God was not pleased with the way the people were treating the sailors and that God would show his disapproval by taking the moon away were met with disbelief and laughter by the chiefs.    No one controlled the sky as far as the natives were concerned.  As the moon rose up in night sky, the bright full moon dimmed, lost half of its light. This loss of light continued until the moon dimmed completely, turning to amber color.  The natives began to wail, begging Columbus to beseech the Almighty to return the moon.  Frightened by the display of this ultimate celestial power, they promised to bring food once again to the sailors in return for forgiveness and giving the moon back to them.

       Columbus told the chiefs that he would consult with the Almighty in his hut for a while to see if God is in a forgiving mood, likely just checking his hour glass and waiting for the right moment.  Then Columbus returned after 48 minutes to declare that God had forgiven them and was returning the moon again.  And God promptly did.  Soon after his declaration, the lunar totality was completed and the bright moon reappeared once again.  The lunar eclipse saved Columbus and his men from starvation and saved the villagers from rampage by the sailors.

       How did Columbus know about the lunar eclipse?  He kept a copy of the Ephemeris by the great German astronomer, Regiomontanus, with him on his voyages. 

Regiomontanus and a page from the Ephemeris

      The Ephemeris (from the Greek ephemerios  meaning ‘daily’) is similar to what we consider now as the almanac.  Johannes Müller von Königsberg (6 June 1436 – 6 July 1476), more widely known by his Latin name Regiomontanus (It was fashionable at the time for famous scholars to adopt Latin names), was a mathematician, an astronomer, translator of Ptolemy’s writing and famous for his astronomical tables and instruments (sundials, astrolabes) in the 15th century.  A precocious boy, he went to the university in Leipzig at age of 11 and received his degree of ‘magister artium’ (Master of Arts) at 21 in Vienna in 1457.  His astronomical and mathematical works were the best of his time and his Ephemeris considered one of the first applications of mechanical computers.  A moon crater is even named after Regiomontanus.

        The Ephemeris was a printed table of values that gives positions of the objects in the sky at any given time using a spherical polar coordinate system of right ascension and declination.  Regiomontanus went to Vienna in 1475, a year before his death, to help Pope Sixtus IV to reform the calendar and along the way managed to finally print his Ephemeris, a copy of which was carried by Columbus two decades later on his voyages.

This story is truly a convergence of many unrelated events:

  • Teredo worms destroying Columbus’ ships
  • The total lunar eclipse happening while Columbus was stranded and his trouble with the natives
  • Regiomontanus publishing the Ephemeris and Columbus having a copy with him on his voyages.

The voyages of Columbus were full of accidental discoveries and his survival on that last voyage showed that, despite his misfortunes as a ‘get-rich quick’ fellow, he was still a one very lucky seaman in the end.

        And, the Teredo still reign as the world’s best little terror of the high seas.  Who knows, 200 years from now the Teredo may even evolve to burrow through plastics, paint and steel.  Then, we will be in real trouble!

Jonathan R. Matias, Chief Science Officer

Poseidon Sciences Group

www.poseidonsciences.com

Suggested Reading:

For interesting stories about the Teredo, please read the articles by Jerilee Wei and Kristin Cobb below:

Jerilee Wei. Teredo. The terrible shipworm that eats wood. http://hubpages.com/hub/Teredo-The-Terrible-Shipworm

Kristin Cobb, Science News, Aug. 3, 2002.  Castaway: the gripping story of a boring clam – shipworm.  http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1200/is_5_162/ai_90468391/?tag=content;col1

http://www.poseidonsciences.com/MR08_nontoxic_repellent_menthol_mosquitoes_flies_termites.pdf

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shipworm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regiomontanus

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ephemeris

http://www.1911encyclopedia.org/Teredo

http://www.frammandearter.se/0/2english/pdf/Teredo_navalis.pdf

http://benedettoguitars.com/boutique/il-teredo/

Balanghai, Borobudur, Phoenicia and the Morgan: Reconstructing and celebrating our ancient maritime heritage

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking
 

“Sea Fever” by John Masefield (English Poet Laureate, 1878-1967)

       Standing at the base of a statue in Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan, my eyes wide open, gazing out to see far in the horizon, I remember the long wait under the blazing July sun for the most fascinating parade I have ever yet to see.    Not a parade of men and machines.  It was a parade of the Tall Ships, fully rigged sailing vessels – schooners, brigantines, brigs and barques.   All 16 of the 25 remaining tall ships around the world, led by the USCGC Eagle, came to view, sailing past the Verrazano Narrows Bridge into NY Harbor, along with hundreds of other sail boats and ships of all sizes and shapes.   That was the 4th of July, 1976, the Bicentennial of the American Declaration of Independence and Operation Sail.   For a young immigrant like me and the rest of the 5 million watching along the Hudson River on that day, the parade was truly awe inspiring.  Even the Soviets, at the height of the Cold War, had their tall ships, Tovarishch and Kruzenshtern , joined America for this display.  For the Soviet cadets on the tall ships, this parade was their first contact with the United States and their first real understanding that “Americans were not devils…”   On that day, New York City’s struggles–race riots, economic woes—just simply faded away.

The Italian tall ship, Amerigo Vespucci, in NY Harbor, 1976

That parade got me hooked on sailing vessels, small and big, forever. 

The Morgan

      Every time I look at a sailing ship, my mind drifts to the images of that day in 1976.  The reason these memories came back again weeks ago was a NY Times article on the Charles W. Morgan, the last surviving wooden whaling vessel that once numbered over 2,700.  A small army of marine scientists, engineers, historians, graphic artists and shipwrights, aided by the latest in modern technology, are helping forensic specialists to decipher the way the ship was originally built back in 1841 in New Bedford, Massachusetts.   New Bedford was once the bustling seaport for whaling ships that supplied the world with whale oil for lamps, with baleen (the tough part of the mouth) for buggy whips and corset stays.   Later, when petroleum became the cheaper alternative to whale oil and when horse drawn carriages were made obsolete by automobiles (and no need for buggy whips), the Morgan came to rest in Mystic, Connecticut as a museum piece.  That was where I saw the Morgan a long long time ago, docked along the wharf.  Not a soul was interested enough to board her except me on that summer afternoon.

       The Morgan was not majestic like the tall ships  It was hulking, somber–looking and utilitarian.  It is an example of a bygone era popularized by the 1851 novel, Moby Dick, the story of Captain Ahab’s obsession to hunt the great white whale.  The future author, Hermann Melville, came on board as a whaler on a similar ship that same year the Morgan was built.  The novel was authentic in every detail, down to the processing of the whale meat since Melville lived through it while 18 months at sea.  Though a fantasy, the novel had some basis of truth.  Captain Ahab’s death was mostly how whalers died during the hunt and the ship being sunk by a whale did happen on an actual whaling ship, the Essex, rammed and sunk by a sperm whale.  Whaling back then is like drilling for oil in the open sea, just infinitely more dangerous, without the comforts and the safety we know today.  You can feel the danger by simply reading the cenotaphs (Greek meaning empty grave) inside the Seamen’s Bethel, the non-denominational church for the whalers of New Bedford.  The cenotaph was a tablet placed on the side walls of the church as a memorial by the families since there were no bodies to bury when the whalers died of accidents, drowning, sharks and diseases far away from home.

The whaling ship, Charles W. Morgan, docked in Mystic, CT

        For those who have no feeling for a ship, the walk on its deck is just like walking on any other decrepit ship waiting mercifully for the barnacles and shipworms to eat through the hull.  For me, as an amateur historian, it was a walk through history, not of great sea battles or great discoveries, but a walk through the history of simple, tough and courageous men of the sea.  Long before American naval power dominated the oceans, it was men on ships like the Morgan that projected the growing American economic power of the 19th century.

       What I see beyond the restoration of the Morgan is the ever increasing awareness and appreciation of maritime history not just in the United States, but also around the world.   Discoveries of near perfectly preserved trading vessels in the depths of the Black Sea, reconstructions of Greek and Roman warships built two millennia ago, the 400 year old Virginia (a sailing vessel used by American colonists), Scandinavian long boats used by the Vikings and many more.  In Italy, the Lake Nemi ships built by the Roman Emperor Caligula had bilge pumps similar in operation to our modern ones, piston pumps that pipe in hot and cold water throughout the ship (only re-invented again in the Middle Ages), ball bearings to turn statues (Thought to be first conceived by Leonardo da Vinci during the Renaissance and patented by Sven Gustaf Wingqvist in 1907)) and iron anchors that only came to use again a thousand years later.  What we thought of as modern inventions turns out to have more ancient beginnings.

 Admiral Zheng He

        During the Ming dynasty from 1405 to 1433, the 300+ ships of the Chinese Admiral Zheng He comprised 7 expeditions, that took this huge armada all the way to India, Africa and Saudi Arabia.    Extensive written accounts of the voyages tell of 5-masted ships, 200 to 400 feet long, carrying 28,000 men, traversing the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean reaching as far away as Madagascar in Africa and up the Red Sea to Jedda.  The expeditions sought a rival emperor who fled (considered the longest maritime manhunt in history), suppress pirates in the South China Sea,

Comparison of the size of Admiral Zheng He's treasure ship and the ship used during the voyage of Christopher Columbus

explore new worlds, establish trading colonies and project the power of the Chinese Empire.  The Admiral fought a land war against the Kingdom of Kotte in Ceylon and brought back emissaries from 30 states to pay respect to the Emperor.  As a Muslim from Yunnan Province, Zheng He also expanded the range of Chinese Muslim influence in Asia, with contemporary scholars crediting Zheng He with the Islamic beginnings in Indonesia and Malaya.  Life-size replicas of such magnificent ships are yet to made and we can only wonder how such ancient leviathans managed to make this trek multiple times. 

 Borobudur, Phoenicia and Philip Beale

      While many working replicas of ancient ships continue to be made and sailed, perhaps the more recent expeditions on the Borobudur and Phoenicia by Philip Beale’s team are great examples of the passion for high seas adventure. 

       Borobudur Temple is considered the world’s largest Hindu stupa (Sanskrit meaning “heap”), a mound-like structure considered holy because of the presence of Buddhist relics.  Located in the island of Java in Indonesia, Borobudur was built during the 8th century and considered the inspiration for similar structures found in Cambodia’s Anchor Wat centuries later.  The intricate artwork within this vast spiritual complex includes over 1460 reliefs on its wall, 11 of which described the maritime events of the time.  Of these 11, five are reliefs of a previously unknown ship design, later called the Borobudur ships.  The saga describes Indonesian seafarers on ships laden with spices venturing far out beyond the archipelago to the Indian Ocean and to Africa centuries before Borobudur was built.  Pliny, the Roman historian of the 1st century AD, described seafarers from the East coming to Africa on ships and modern historians agree that Indonesians did venture as far as Africa to establish trading colonies. 

      Philip Beale, an Englishman who became captivated with this story, joined the ranks of inspired modern mariners who took it upon themselves to build the exact replica of the ship.  The ship, fitted with outriggers as shown in the carving, was built the same way ships were constructed during the period, with Indonesian hardwood and wooden pegs instead of nails.   When finally built, the ship captain, Alan Campbell, recalls,

“Some ships, when you first see them, you’re not sure which end is the front and which is the back.  When I first saw a picture of this ship, I wasn’t sure which end was the top.” Yet when she cuts through the water, the Borobudur possesses an undeniable majesty. “

His Borobudur Ship Expeditions had taken the exact replica of the ship through the Indian Ocean and to Africa in 2004, proving that ancient Indonesian mariners could have accomplished this feat with the Borobudur ships in the past.   

       Beale’s passion did not end with Borobudur. The next obsession was to build a Phoenician ship to validate the ancient story of Phoenicians circumnavigating Africa 3,000 years ago.  Phoenicia (also referred to in Latin as Punic) comprises city states along the coasts of the Mediterranean, from North Africa and extending to Syria today.  Its power rested on commerce due to its vast fleet that roamed the Mediterranean basin at will.  Because of its naval might and trading power, Phoenician alphabet was adopted by the early Greeks, then by the Etruscans, the Romans and eventually to become part of our modern alphabet.  Herodotus, the Greek historian, wrote the story of King Necho II of Egypt who commissioned the Phoenicians in 600 BC to circumnavigate Africa, previously considered an impossible task.  Like all mariners, Phoenician mariners rose to the challenge, built the ship in Egypt, sailed it through the Red Sea and eventually returned via the Mediterranean three years later.

      Could the Phoenicians have really accomplished it?  Since written records were made in papyrus that disintegrated with age, the only way to settle this question is to build a Phoenician ship and sail it around Africa.  After assembling his team of ship builders and marine archaeologists in Syria, Philip Beale built a replica based on archaeological artifacts, shipwrecks and descriptions available in the historical records.  Last October, the ship, Phoenicia, circumnavigated Africa, returning to dry dock in Syria last October, 2010, finally proving that it can certainly be one.

On the Galleon Trade

       This is a great year for ship reconstructions and expeditions.  The replica of the galleon, Andalucia, was made to highlight the celebration of the Galleon Trade between Manila and Acapulco, a period of over 200 years when goods from Asia came to the New World, not via the more famous Silk Route, but by ships built in the then Spanish colony called the Philippines.  The replica of the Andalucia, though not the life size working model, was thought to be the first ship that traversed the entire world.  Besides bringing the riches of Asia and plundered wealth of the colonies to the West, the Galleon Trade brought Western goods and historical connections between people over those two centuries.  Even now Mexican coastal families carry the last names of native Filipino seafarers that likely had jumped shipped (perhaps, becoming the first Asian illegal aliens in Mexico).  There are coastal communities in Mexico where the favorite alcoholic drink is called tuba, derived from fermented sap of coconuts, popular only in the Philippines.  Likewise, Filipinos came to like the Mexican champurado (chocolate rice porridge) and tamales.

       On my first visit to the island of Panay in the Philippines in 1994, I was struck by how denuded the mountains were and was told that the island only had less than 5% remaining of its virgin forest cover.  My first thought was that more recent uncontrolled harvesting of wood for timber and firewood were the root causes of the deforestation.  Only after talking with a local historian that I came to know the center of shipbuilding was in the old city of Iloilo in Panay because of its natural harbor and thick forests.  The Spanish colonial government had consumed all the big hardwood trees 200 years earlier to build the ships that served the Galleon Trade.

 My obsession with the balanghai

      Having lived and worked in New York City all my adult life, I often dreamed of living in a tropical island, a house by the sea, with coconut palms and beautiful sunsets.  My wife and I visited many islands in SE Asia and did chose the island of Panay and the town of Miag-ao, where I continued research on totally new directions—barnacles, spiny lobsters, endangered clams, eels and tropical abalone.  What captivated me on my first visit to Miag-ao was the view of the small fishing boats going out to sea at night with lanterns and the hundred or so boats racing to market in the early morning to sell the night’s harvest of fish.  It’s the delight of seeing the same boats on a different season, slowly moving parallel to the beach, with kerosene lamps lit up, catching squid; of local tales of a shark that once roamed the bay, keeping the fishermen from venturing out to sea, of wild tales of mysticisms and night creatures of ancient legends.  There were many reasons to be there, but it was the sight of fishing boats that kept me often by the sea .

Views of Miag-ao. Villagers helping pull fishing nets towards the shore at sunset. Fishing boats sailing towards the shore during the Salakayan Festival. Photo: JR Matias

       During the five year sojourn in Miag-ao, I also learned about the local customs, the local stories, the issues of being foreign having lived in another island in my youth, speaking a different language altogether.   I also learned about Maragtas, a tale written by a local islander, Pedro Alcantara Monteclaro,  a revolutionary figure during the Philippine Revolution against Spain.  Maragtas tells the story of the Ten Datus of Borneo, escaping a harsh ruler on their long boats with their families, searching for a new home in distant lands.  It tells of them landing in the island of Aninipay (now Panay) within the shadow of the mystical Mt. Madia-as, the negotiations with the local Negrito tribesmen for the datus to occupy the lowlands and the Negritos the highlands.   It was a tale of maritime adventure, of love stories and of many things.  But, I was most captivated by the vision of the boat called the barangay or balangay that the datus used for their escape.

       The word barangay refers not only to the boat, but also the village.  Antonio Pigafetta, a Venetian scholar who accompanied Magellan in his voyage to circumnavigate the world, called these boats by the Europeanized version of balanghai.   Pigafetta was one of the 18 survivors that returned to Spain on the ship Victoria out of the original 241 that constituted Magellan’s 5-ship flotilla.  The biggest balanghai, measuring 25 meters, can carry the entire village.  They are also war canoes used to raid neighboring islands.   Much of that maritime history was lost when the Spanish Conquistadors came, after Ferdinand Magellan landed in 1521 (and killed in battle with a local datu, Lapu-lapu) in the nearby island of Mactan.   

       The later conquest of the islands was made possible not by Spanish warships.  They were too big, too slow and the draft too deep to navigate close to the coast to make effective use of their cannons.  The ships of the Conquistadors were mostly anchored in the natural harbors of Cebu or Iloilo from where they boarded hundreds of balanghais, referred by the Spanish as caracoa, manned mostly by native allies to attack the next island.   After consolidating their conquest, the colonial government banned the building of balanghai, preventing interisland communication and trade except through permission of the colonial government.  The control was so total that even the first letters of the adopted Spanish last names were given according to the island of birth, thus enabling the government to track origins of people.  The natives were then redirected instead to build churches, forts and serve in the mines and plantations.  Boat building skills were lost, except in the unconquered territories of the southern islands where the same boat building tradition continues to this day in remote islands.

       In pre-colonial times, the city of Butuan in the island of Mindanao was the center of commerce, with ships coming from the Sri-Vijayan Empire of Java and from China and India.  In the late 1970’s, nine balanghais were found purely by accident, buried and preserved for centuries in the mud , the largest estimated at 25 meters.    While 6 boats remained buried in their original waterlogged condition, radiocarbon dating placed one of the three excavated balanghai to year 320, the second in 990 and the third in 1250.  These are the oldest, pre-colonial wooden boats found in SE Asia thus far.

The working replica of the balanghai in Batan, Aklan. Photo by CP Sucgang.

        On December 13, 2010 the replica of a balanghai, built by Arturo Valdez and his team of former Everest mountaineers , completed its 14,000 km odyssey, through the South China Sea, taking this boat to Brunei, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, finally berthing on its home base in Manila.  Like the Phoenicia and Borobudur expeditions, the journey of the balanghai also proved the ancient accounts that such boats had roamed throughout the archipelagic countries of South East Asia and perhaps beyond. 

        The balanghai is especially interesting to me because I had the same passion that began in 1997, yet was never fulfilled.  I visited the National Museum to see one of the balanghais on display and discussed with Rey Santiago, the senior archaeologist, on the possibility of building such a working replica in the future.  What developed in 1998 was a concept to build such an exact replica to sail around South East Asia in the same way that Art Valdez was able to successfully accomplish a decade later.   Finding the enormous hardwood tress needed for the planks and the carvers with the abilities to build one were daunting tasks.  And, new challenges of the times distracted me from chasing that dream.

      A Nova Pacific newsletter I wrote in 1998 while I was in Miag-ao discussed the balanghai in more detail and thought the excerpt below from that publication might be illuminating:

       Folktales handed down from generations tell of entire communities migrating from distant lands to settle in our islands aboard a legendary ship called the balanghai.  And, upon landing in their new found land, the voyagers continued to carry on the traditions of their homeland.  The legendary adventure of the ten Bornean datus, led by Datu Puti, and their settlement of Aninipay (now called Panay Island) in the Visayas spoke well of our ancient maritime heritage..  The advent of the Spanish era in the 16th century destroyed much of our seafaring legacy and, with its loss, much of our cultural identity as a people.

What is a Balanghai? 

      The term balanghai came originally from the Italian spelling of Antonio Pigafetta’s 16th century writings about the barangay.  What we really knew about the balanghai came from Francisco  Ignacio Alcina’s 1668 manuscript which described life in the archipelago for the Spanish King.  He described the balanghai as a 15 meter long plank built wooden boat propelled through the sea with a square sail on a tripod mast.  Its rowers, numbering 10 to 20 men, sit on platforms along the outriggers (2 to 3 rows on each side).  These ancient mariners paddled from “sunrise to sunset” at high speeds in unison to the songs and chants about heroes and their deeds.  Aboard the balanghai, the most important person was not the datu but the crier or singer whose songs, not drums like in Chinese or Japanese boats, set the rhythm of the rowers.  When traveling before the wind, the balanghai was said to go at a speed of 12 to 15 knots compared to the galleon’s 5 to 6.

     The balanghai is not just a ship for long voyages.  It is also a warship, highly maneuverable, versatile vessel best

Balanghai as a war canoe. Watercolor rendering from a print by Noe Trayvilla, artist, Miagao. In the JR Matias collection.

suited to the shallow waters of the archipelago.  Other than ancient writings and folk tales, there was no real proof of the balanghai’s existence until 1976, when by sheer luck, a Butuan City Engineer named Proceso S. Gonzales, unearthed planks of an ancient boat buried in the mud.  The National Museum dispatched archaeologists to the site and discovered a national treasure of several balanghais, which when carbon dated ranged in age from the 4th to the 13th centuries. 

      These ancient boats, whose construction remained unknown for over a thousand years, lay buried under the mud in Butuan City. What the archaeologists had unearthed corroborated much of Alcina’s detailed descriptions of the balanghai.  Having been a master shipwright himself before coming to the Philippines and have built such vessels during his travel through the Visayan islands, Alcina’s writings of the balanghai had the details only an expert could have provided.  The construction is unlike our more modern technique of boat-building where the keel and the ribs are laid first and from which the planks are fastened with nails or spikes.  The construction of the balanghai involved building the planks first and then fastening the ‘ribs’ after the ship has taken shape.  This same technique was employed in the building of Viking ships.  Each plank is carved expertly from a tree with an ax and fitted edge to edge perfectly with wooden pegs–a no mean feat for a boat the size of a balanghai.  Caulking was made up of fibers and resins.  Alcina’s description of the balanghai was indeed proven true by the archaeological findings in Butuan.

What makes the balanghai so important?

     The balanghai, with its various names, the biniday or barangay, is not just an ancient ship. It is the term from which our basic sociopolitical unit was derived.  Before the Spanish era, it refers to a community or settlement led by a monarchical chieftain, the datu, chosen for his wisdom and valor.  The renaming of this political unit into a barrio during the American occupation has symbolically subverted the Filipino psyche from an independent society into that of a conquered one.  In 1974, pursuant to Presidential Decree No. 557, the term barangay used to describe our community was again adapted as a reaffirmation of our national identity.

    Just like the Viking ships of Scandinavia, our balanghai is a symbol of the maritime heritage of our civilization that links us with our Southeast Asian neighbors. It can be a common link between the islands and its diverse cultures; a means of creating a national unity.

     For centuries, our balanghai had been a myth. To most Filipinos, the balanghai remains a mere symbol and few understand its true value.  To transform the myth and the symbol into a recognizable truth one must therefore bring the symbol into reality. To draw the balanghai from the abstract into the realm of the senses, one must bring the true balanghai to life.

From: JR Matias, Nova Pacific newsletter, 1998

The oceans as the ultimate freeway

       Seafaring legacies are aplenty.  Visit any nation that has a coastline, talk to any of the older villagers living by the sea and you’ll see what I mean.  Seafarers are among the most vibrant and adventurous people I know.  When they leave the comforting sight of land, dangers lurk in every wave, every change in the weather.  That has always been so for millennia and have not changed much even with our modern technology.  For mariners, beyond the national territorial limits, the ocean is like an autobahn, a freeway without lanes and without borders.  Unlike the Silk Route, where a traveler needs permission to pass through kingdoms and fiefdoms, the ocean was free, unfettered access.  And for thousands of years, it was the communication highway, the ocean the equivalent of our modern Internet.

 Traditions

      The maritime tradition of the Philippine Islands continues today, though most of this tradition now lay in more distant oceans under many different flags.  There are about 100 maritime academies in the islands, sending 230,000 seamen to man the world’s tankers, bulk carriers and cruise ships.  Of the 1 million seamen worldwide, 25% of them are Philippine seafarers.  So, it is not so surprising that every time a ship is hijacked off the Somali coast, invariably there would be a number of Filipino crewmembers taken hostage, more than any nationality.  There was a time in 2008 when one Filipino seaman was captured on foreign ships every 6 hours.

      Why so many Filipino seamen?  It can’t simply be explained by economic terms when there are so many more island nations with similar economies, yet with little participation in the maritime industry.  Perhaps, the Philippine psyche is still tied with the sea despite the 400-year ban that Spain imposed on its former conquered territories.  The thousands of years of riding the balanghai cannot be erased by such a brief interlude; it was just simply lying dormant, biding time to re-express once again.

Or, perhaps it is simply in the blood !

Jonathan R. Matias

Chief Science Officer

Poseidon Sciences Group

New York, NY USA

www.poseidonsciences.com

Additional reading:

http://www.balangay-voyage.com/index.php

http://agiledeals.com/2009/05/butuan-and-balanghai-a-journey-through-time/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nemi_ships

http://maritimeasia.ws/topic/shiptypes.html

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,480337,00.html

http://www.borobudurshipexpedition.com/design-outline.htm

http://www.phoenicia.org.uk/discovering-theship.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zheng_He

About the whaling ship, the Morgan

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/17/science/17ship.html

On Frank Braynard, founder of OPSail and maritime historian

http://www.signonsandiego.com/uniontrib/20071217/news_1m17braynard.html

Animation—from an ancient art form to high science. Cryptic images from Paleolithic cave drawings to Shrek, the movie.

     I thought to tackle a much lighter topic than aging, cancer, toxic spills and malaria for a change of pace, especially since Christmas is getting closer and need some happier thoughts.  Today’s blog will have less to do with biology and more into a topic of great personal interest since I was 4 years old.  You may ask, “What prompted this all of a sudden?”  I’ll tell ya.  Blame it on Shrek.

     Animation, as we know today as motion picture or video, is an increasingly sophisticated art form.  It is the method of creating optical illusion of motion through a rapid display of images in two or three dimensions.  This illusion is created in our mind because of the phenomenon called “persistence of vision” in which the retina of our eye retains an afterimage for 1/25th of a second.   It is for this reason that modern films run at 24 frames per second; at 16 frames per second, the images flash and not pleasing.  We can still see motion at 10 frames per second, akin to watching someone flip a book in front you.  It is the retina that does this all on its own, not the brain as once thought; hence, the term “iconic memory “ that has been debunked by physiologists as early as 1912.  Even the concept of persistence of vision dates back to the Roman poet and philosopher, Titus Lucretius Carus (ca. 99 -55 BC), from his only known work, an epic poem called “On the Nature of the Universe.” 

     It is also a perennial surprise to me that the things we now know often have ancient beginnings.  Cave dwellers of the Upper Paleolithic era (40,000-10,000 BC) began creating images of animals in motion by superimposing multiple legs.  Without any means of making the images move, the drawing is not animation in the true sense of the word, yet they conveyed the human need to display motion in art.  Hypotheses abound on the meanings of these cave paintings, ranging from pre-historic star charts (Dr. Michael Rappenglueck, University of Munich), spiritual trances invoking the power of nature (David Lewis-Williams), imagery of past hunting successes and rituals to improve hunting success.  Considering the thousands of images painted on the walls of Lascaux alone, I think that they simply have a lot of free time and like to doodle whenever they can.  Try this on your teenagers—don’t pay the Internet and cable bills, take their mobile phone away and keep them in the house.  The artistic ones will be doodling all day, while the rest with no talent will find other mischief or sneak out to go shopping, which is sort like “hunting and gathering” the modern way.   In fact, these ancient cave dwelling artists were so good that the painting called the “The Crossed Bison” showed perspective drawings not seen in art until the Renaissance, about 15th century AD.

     In 180 AD, the Chinese invented the zoetrope.  It’s ok if you don’t know what it is.  I did not know what it meant either until I looked it up (from Greek zoe meaning life and tropos meaning turn; the “wheel of life”).   A zoetrope is a cylindrical device with vertical slits. Below the slits, inside the cylinder is a series of drawings or pictures.  When you turn the cylinder while looking though the slits, the perception of motion is created.  It must had been a hit in 180 AD, just like getting your first Polaroid  instant camera in 1948 (called the Land camera from its inventor, Edwin H. Land, who also designed the optics for the Lockheed U-2 spy plane, later shot down by the Soviets –Sorry, can’t resist the trivia).  

     Zooming on to modern times and for my fellow New York  ‘straphangers’ who may not know, there is a linear zoetrope aptly called “Masstransiscope” built in 1980 on the subway platform at Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn.  The Masstransiscope (Sounds appropriate, doesn’t it?) consists of 228 slits set against a linear wall, behind each slit a hand painted mural is illuminated from behind.  As the train runs past the station, the riders, nicknamed straphangers for holding on to the leather straps (not leather anymore, but stainless steel now) hanging from the ceiling of the train, see  the images as a motion picture. 

     Stop-motion cinematography was developed in the 19th century and the first one was attributed to George Melies, who discovered it by accident when his camera broke down while photographing a passing bus.  By the time he restarted the film, a hearse was passing by after the bus.  Later, he discovered that his images transformed the bus into a hearse. And so began the motion picture industry, hearse notwithstanding.

     Animated films of the 20th century are a bit more complicated and involved hand drawing of each frame, the second frame slightly different from the previous ones, each drawing is traced or copied into acetate sheets called “cels,” colored and photographed one by one to create the motion picture.  The traditional cel animation was replaced in the 21st century with scanning and computer drawings, integrated with computer software.  Despite such technological advances, the art form of traditional cel animation is preserved to this day and the input of the animators remained as it was 70 years ago.  The technology has changed but the art remains blended into the new ways of creating the images.

    I fell in love with animation as a child living in a village far away from the city in the Philippine island of Luzon.  That was in the very early 60’s when television had yet to reach the village.  It was a time when a phone was a rare item and even a car passing through the village was a special event, a cause for celebration among the children who would chase the car as it sped out; must have been the same inclination that dogs have for doing the same for no reason at all.   As a 4-year old, my only recollection of that period was the movie van coming to the village every 6 months after the rainy season, a much awaited event for the young and old alike.  All the kids sit in front on the grounds of a dusty clearing at dusk, watching the driver/movie technician/marketing agent unfurl the wide screen attached to the outside of the van and get the movie projector going.  It was the only time I can remember as a kid to be in a hurry for darkness to come.

  The first 30 minutes was a promotion of Darigold powdered milk.  Back then in the village milk cames from some rare cows, water buffalos and nursing mothers.  Darigold, a brand since 1918, is a farming cooperative of over 500 dairy farmers in the United States.  Then, there was the Carnation evaporated milk promotion movie.  The company, founded in 1899 by Eldridge Amos Stuart, was famous for its for its slogan of the milk coming from “Contented Cows.”  The milk products and the contented cows were irrelevant to me; all the kids I knew hated drinking milk or had no chance to get any, anyway.  I did not even know what ‘contented’ means; thought it was something to do with bowel movement.  I was contentedly waiting for the animated cartoons of Mickey Mouse and Mighty Mouse to start.   Walt Disney’s Fantasia and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs were just pure works of wonder to me.   Life was simpler then, or perhaps, life was always simpler for all 4 year olds anywhere on Planet Earth.

     Half a century later, animation remains an interest, though vicariously enjoyed in the guise of taking my kids to the movies.    The high tech changes in animation, though visually appealing, seemed missing something.  The only enduring animation that made its recent mark on me was Shrek, but only the first movie in 2001.  (If you have not seen it, maybe you should go out of the cave and stop making drawings on the wall !) It was a different genre all of a sudden; a bit brash, irreverent, yet reminded me of the same qualities of the old animation films.  Just like the ancient cave dwellers, each generation leaves a mark for posterity within the limits of their own technology.  Our generation is leaving so much mark that we hardly notice.  Perhaps, it is the generations a hundred years from now who will decide the defining marks of our generation.

     Shrek was an unconventional movie on its own right, but something else that struck me as unusual.  I could not pin point what it was until I watched it alone, undistracted, early in the morning while I was taking a break from writing a dreary piece on malaria.  And, there it was!  An image of not so long ago, taking me back to the old country, an image of the Philippine flag embedded within the narrative of Shrek.  I only remembered it because of the recent diplomatic flap at the US State Department when the Philippine flag was displayed incorrectly, with the side signifying the country is at war.

   To make this observation plausible, I think it is best to give a quick primer on the Philippine flag.  This tri-color flag, whose colors were influenced by the Cuban Revolution, was first raised during the proclamation of Independence from Spain by the nascent Philippine Revolutionary government in June 12, 1898.  Within the white triangle is the sun, with 8 radiating rays symbolizing the first 8 provinces that revolted against Spain, a concept similar to the Betsy Ross flag of the American Revolution with the stars representing the first 13 colonies that fought the British.   In the Philippine flag, the three stars represent the three main geographic divisions of the archipelago, the red color symbolizing the blood of the revolutionaries who signed their membership to the Katipunan, a Masonic secret society, in blood; and, the blue representing peace.   

    Among all national flags, the Philippine flag is unique because it can show a state of war by simply flying the red field on top or on the left of the observer when mounted vertically.  In times of peace, the blue side is on top.  The war flag was first flown in 1899 during the Philippine-American War, then again during World War II when American and Filipino troops fought and died side by side against the Japanese and during the EDSA Revolution that toppled the dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, from power.  The recent diplomatic issue of the United States not being familiar with the protocol by presenting the flag on its war stance during the ASEAN summit ceremony in New York City attended by President Barack Obama last September 26th  was an understandable faux pax.   

Now, take this idea with grain of salt…

     Look closely at the sun and 8 rays in the Philippine flag and then compare with the animation frame in Shrek.  The portion of the narrative was when Fiona retired into the cave to hide from the evening darkness, Shrek and Donkey was talking about the starry night by the fireside.  There were eight boulders that make up the fire pit and in one frame eight rays where radiating from the fire.  In this animation frame are both characters lying down looking at the stars, with the shadows made by the rocks framing a likeness to the Philippine flag’s emblem of the sun and 8 rays.  If you watch the previous scenes closely, variations of similar images appeared in different frames making this less of a chance imagery, but a more thoughful, conscious action.

     It could very well be just accidental and I might be simply reading too much out of this.  And, I will be the first to admit that this might very well be just a happy coincidence.  Or, I need more sleep and less coffee. 

But, consider this:

     Dreamworks SKG (the creator of Shrek), like all of the major US animated movie companies (Disney, Marvel, Hanna Barbera, Cartoon Network, Warner Brothers) all outsource their animation overseas.  Over 90% of such animation companies are located in Asia.  The Philippines is the dominant outsourcing location for 2D animation because for the last three decades the US animation industry has been using Filipino artists.  This is because of a closer understanding by Filipinos of the American mindset, the numerous pools of talent and the lower cost compared to US animators.   

     That those embedded Philippine emblems are attempts to merge the creative talent with national pride in a cryptic way seems plausible considering possible Filipino artist involvement in the creative process of Shrek’s animation. 

     This is just a hypothesis and waiting for someone to prove or disprove it.  Maybe Dreamworks can tell me later.

     Nevertheless, it is heartwarming to know that some nationalistic pride still shines out of all of this dreary work.  Who knows, maybe since the animation business is moving in the direction of India and China too, perhaps there will be more artistic, cryptic and irreverent images embedded within future movies as well.  Only Indian or Chinese descendants may likely spot them next time. 

Maybe go get your Chinese friend to check out “Kung Fu Panda” for hidden imagery.

Jonathan R. Matias

Poseidon Sciences Group

New York, NY

www.poseidonsciences.com

Additional reading:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persistence_of_vision

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animation

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lascaux

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zoetrope

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flag_of_the_Philippines

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0126029/synopsis

On outsourcing and insourcing in the animation industry

http://www.druid.dk/conferences/summer2004/papers/ds2004-92.pdf