Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Tips for When You're a Kid Sleuth (Part 2)

Penny and Brain discuss Inspector Gadget's mediocrity

So you're back, are you? Still think you've got what it takes to be kid sleuths? Well then, let's get to it, maggots, by memorizing these important tips.

You Might Want to Put Some Aloe on That

Here’s the thing: you’re going to get knocked out a lot. Whether it’s a blackjack to the back of the head, a tranquilizer dart, or the ever-popular chloroform-soaked cloth, something’s going to render you unconscious about ten times a year.

This is, medically speaking, a really, really, really bad thing. Or “res perquam, perquam, perquam mal,” in the Latin. You see, the human brain is not a lightswitch that you can turn on and off without consequence. It’s a series of tubes. (Ordo de angustiae.)

For one thing, tranquilizer dosing is tricky. The dosage that puts me into a comfortable nap might well kill you, and it might do nothing to a larger person but make them groggy. There’s a reason that you have to spend ten years getting licensed to keep an eye on an anesthesia machine that administers sedatives with practically unfailing precision. So, do you really think the idiot thugs you’re investigating are going to get the ketamine dosage right on their first try?

Nuh-uh. You wouldn’t trust those morons to tranquilize a stray dog, let alone a person. And as a kid sleuth, you probably have a lower than average body weight, raising your risk of death-by-dart even higher. Given these risks, you might be tempted to hope for chloroform, but that’s even worse. Chloroform is just as dangerous and even harder to dose. Plus, it’s a carcinogen.

Being knocked out is even riskier. A total loss of consciousness after being hit on the head indicates a traumatic brain injury (traumaticus cerebrum owie,) which is especially damaging to children and teenagers. Given the rate at which they’re knocked out, it’s sheer luck that the average kid sleuth isn’t lying comatose with a tube up their nose, trying to solve the Mystery of the Persistent Bedsores.

So, no matter how often it happens to you or your friends, treat every loss of consciousness as a bona fide medical emergency. Immediately arrange transport to the nearest emergency pediatric snooping facility.

As a consolation, any villain who tries to knock you out is guilty of premeditated assault, so you can have the police and/or your dad add that to their rap sheet.

Some Miscellaneous Advice

Encyclopedia Brown meets Se7en - Bugs Meanie has a gift

Never step foot inside a lumber mill, or any industrial space that features a conveyor belt of any kind, for that matter. Just don’t, because everyone you investigate, no matter how trivial their offense, will prove to be an opportunistic murderer. The perp’s big crime could be having his car double parked, and he’d still be willing to kill you to stop you from exposing him.

You can be a kid sleuth even if you’re an idiot. Hell, some scholars argue that it could even make you better at it. Just make sure you have a highly competent friend, and unconditionally forbid them from helping you.

If you’re between cases, get a hobby. You’ll be shocked at how often it’ll be critical to solving the next case you’re on. Any hobby is fine, as long as it’s not the same hobby you had before your last case. In fact, never mention that old hobby again, because it’s against Sleuth Union rules, and you could lose your insurance coverage.

Making an adult disguise by standing on your friend’s shoulders and wearing a large trench coat is ALWAYS an option.

Purchase a pair of tactical door wedges and take them with you whenever snooping in a haunted castle, pyramid, Aztec temple, or etc. It’ll save your bacon when you inevitably get trapped in a room and the walls start closing in. Make sure you get a wedge that’s rated for both spiked and unspiked walls of doom.

Never try to figure out what state your hometown is in. You may be the world’s greatest detective in the under-15 category, but this is one mystery that no one will ever solve. Thinking about it will only give you migraines.

Office hours are critical. Have a time and a semi-public place were other kids can consult you, even if it’s your mom’s garage after school. Because, if you don’t have boundaries, you’re setting yourself up for trickery and kidnapping. And if you ever get a message from someone asking you to go to a remote location after dark, so they can hire you for an important case? That is so a trap. Immediately hand the message over to the police. Believe me, this is one time they’ll actually listen to you.

If I Listen Twice as Long, They’ll Say Something Twice as Incriminating!

Know how long to snoop. We’ve been over this already in the Superhero’s Girlfriend guide, but it bears repeating. When you come across a couple of goons who are—fortunately for you and unexplainably for them—discussing their plans in intricate detail, eavesdrop long enough to learn their plan and not a second longer. Then exit the area in a careful manner. Do not under any circumstances back blindly away from your hiding place, because perps surround their most sensitive sites with ankle-high pipes and tree roots for exactly this reason.

And One Last Thing...

I don't want any messages saying “I'm contemplating the clues.” We're not contemplating a goddamned thing. We're snooping the perpetrator constantly. We’re going to snoop him by the nose and we’re going to kick him in the ass. Our plan of operation is to sleuth and keep on sleuthing. We will sleuth through the perpetrator like crap through a goose.

Thirty years from now when you're still the same age you are now, someone will ask you, “What did you do in middle school?” You won't have to cough and say, 'Well, I shoveled bullshit on the essay portion of my history tests.”

All right, you sons of bitches. You know how I feel. I'll be proud to lead you wonderful guys in sleuthing anytime, anywhere. That's all.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Proterozoic Eon, Part 5

Full Linear Timeline of Life on Earth
You may remember that we started our journey through the Proterozoic Eon two and a half billion years ago. After a hell of a lot of Monopoly, we now arrive in the still-Proterozoic of only one billion years ago.

We've come more than half of the way home, watching 1.5 billion years of the Earth's history. The continents have shuffled around a lot, volcanoes have come and gone, and we've suffered a couple devastating meteor impacts.

Life has undergone a few major changes, all on the microscopic level. Cyanobacteria destroyed the environment. Complex cells called eukaryotes evolved, then invented sex. At some point along the way, multicellular organisms evolved—we can't say when with any certainty—but they're not much to look at. In fact, from where we're standing along the Toronto coastline, life still looks pretty much like pond scum.

Cyanobacterial fields forever
"You guys had a billion and a half years to evolve, and this is the best you can do?"
Adapted from an image Copyright and CC Martyn Gorman

And if life in the oceans isn't looking all that evolved, life on dry land has gotten absolutely nowhere. The coastlines, rivers, and lakes of Earth are teeming with life, but go any distance inland and it's the same sandy regolith we saw when we got here, with nothing but the odd desert crust to prove that life exists.

Land in the Proterozoic Eon

Now let’s play a couple more games of Monopoly, which will bring us to an even billion years ago. Something funny is happening now. Remember the supercontinent Columbia, which broke up, just like the Eagles?

Well, it’s getting back together, just like the Eagles. The ocean off the coast of Toronto is narrowing. In fact, you can just about see Montevideo coming over the horizon. Wave! All the major plates are smashing into each other, forming the new supercontinent of Rodinia.

Life has been busy, too. Following up on their recent triumph of sex, they’ve now invented murder.

As with sex, it’s entirely possible that murder existed long before now, but it’s here, at about a billion years ago, that we see the first clear signs of it, in the form of predation. We don’t actually have a fossil of a predator eating its prey this early in history. For that matter, we don’t have a fossil of a predator at all.

But we’re pretty sure predators were around, because we can see what their prey were doing to defend against them. Because this is the era when acritarchs, an umbrella classification encompassing microscopic fossils, started to get spiky1.

Image from PNAS cover July 2005

Other eukaryotes , around this time, also start evolving mineralized coatings that might have been a defense against predators. And stromatolites, those bulbous formations created by bacterial mats, begin to decline, perhaps because they fell victim to newly evolved predators1.

Stromatolite taxa, acritarchs, macrophagous predators, and grazers
From: Bengston. Origins and Early Evolution of Predation. The Paleontological Society Papers 8. pp 289-317

We’re going to play a couple more games of Monopoly to take us to about 800 million years ago. Here, the supercontinent Rodinia is breaking up. Yeah, again. You’re going to have to get used to it, because this shit happens a lot.

In the oceans, more crazy shit is going down. The first armored amoeba have shown up2, and there’ll be no hemming and hawing this time, because we know these little bastards are predators. There is some hemming and hawing about how long amoeba have been around, though. These little armored dudes are the first to leave fossils, but amoebas may have been around for a while. They may, indeed, have been the predators we saw signs of two hundred million years earlier.

And there’ll be no hemming and hawing about animal life this time, either, because something has just shown up off the coast and no one with a lick of sense would dare deny that it’s an animal. And here it is, in all its glory. The first animal:

The First Animals?
From: The first animals: ca. 760-million-year-old sponge-like fossils from Namibia. South African Journal of Science. Vol. 108 no. 1-2 Pretoria 2012.

Yeah, it’s a sponge. They’re animals, you know. It may seem weird, but they are definitely our ancestors, and the ancestors of every worm, fish, lizard, and human being alive today. They’re multicellular, can reproduce sexually, are made of highly specialized and differentiated cell types, have a primitive immune system, and even primitive muscles. They’re animals, and they’re here to stay.

And they’ve shown up just in time for another ice age. Sucks for them.

This ice age won’t last quite as long as the last one—only a couple hundred million years—but it’s going to be even more severe. Again, the glaciers and pack ice will come and go, because an ice age doesn’t mean that it’s always frozen, all the time. But there will be long periods, lasting from 20 to 60 million years, when most of the planet is covered in a kilometer or more of solid ice. Some of these may even have been more “Snowball Earth” events.

I told you to bring a sweater. It’s not my fault you don’t listen.

Two games of Monopoly later, and the planet is finally warming up again. We’re now at about 600 million years ago, the continental plates are coming together yet again, this time to form the supercontinent Pannotia. And, I’m sad to say, we’re only one Monopoly game away from the end of the Proterozoic Eon.

Here at the end, the oceans are warming up and conditions are ripe for life. The cyanobacterial mats are still here, and they still make up most of the biomass on Earth, but eukaryotes aren’t doing too bad.

Larger life (meaning, larger than a microorganism) from this period is hard to classify, because most species are soft-bodied and live on or above the bacterial mats. They don’t leave great fossils, unlike the hard-bodied trilobites and burrowing worms that will start to show up in force a hundred million years from now. But maybe they look something like this:

Ediacaran (Late Proterozoic) Ocean Life
Image CC Ryan Somma

We don’t know what most of these animals evolved from, and we don’t know what they evolved into, assuming they even left ancestors to evolve into anything. We’re not even sure when they died out. We think it was at the end of the Proterozoic, but without any clear sign of an extinction event such as a meteor or extreme volcanic activity, it’s possible they survived right into the Cambrian. In the Cambrian, the paucity of bacterial mats may have made fossilization of soft-bodied creatures less likely, and so they may have disappeared from the fossil record despite living on.

What we do know is that they’re here in the last days of the Proterozoic, and there are a freaking lot of them. In modern times, you’ll find them in the fossil record all across the planet, if you know what to look for. They spread, they evolved, they covered the planet with an explosion of complex life.

And then they disappeared.

Sorry to say, but so must I. The old Monopoly board has gotten a little decrepit over the past two billion years, and you can hardly tell St. Clare’s Place from Baltic Avenue anymore. We’ve had fun, but it’s time to go. The Cambrian is coming, and we don’t want to get eaten by an anomalocaridid.


If you enjoyed this trip through the Proterozoic Eon, check out my other science articles in the Archives!

Citations and References
  1. Bengston. Origins and Early Evolution of Predation. The Paleontological Society Papers 8. pp 289-317.
  2. Porter. Testate amoeba in the Neoproterozoic Era: evidence from vase-shaped microfossils in the Chuar Group, Grand Canyon. Paleobiology 26 (3) pp. 360-385.