Simanaitis Says

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LOOKING FOR something to worry about? I confess, my topics here at SimanaitisSays are ordinarily chosen to be pleasant, upbeat, non-threatening. I figure we’ve got plenty of other places to explore life’s dreads.



By editorial chance, perhaps, two recent issues of Science, the weekly magazine of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, offered dreadful things large and small that gave me a delicious frisson.

Full disclosure: I checked to make sure “frisson” is the right word for this reaction. It is: a strong feeling of excitement or fear.

I couldn’t resist studying the Science articles a bit and sharing tidbits with you. I’ll keep them brief to limit the scariness.

Science, July 8, 2016, contains “Master Manipulators” by Shelley Adamo, a book review of This is Your Brain on Parasites.

Parasites of all sorts affect the way their hosts behave, sometimes to the host’s benefit (as with microbes in our gastrointestinal tract), other times less altruistically.

For instance, the larva of the parasitic wasp Hymenoepimecis argyraphaga incubates in the abdomen of the orb-weaving spider. The larva induces the hapless spider to use its own web to build a cocoon. Then the larva kill and consume the host.

Toxoplasma gondii, another parasite, is more subtle in affecting its host of choice, felines. T. gondii initially goes after rats and mice. Though these rodents have a natural repulsion to cat urine, the parasite induces them to be attracted to it. As Science reviewer Adamo notes, “This strange attraction increases the odds that an infected rodent will be eaten by a cat, the parasite’s definitive host.”


Mice infected with toxoplasmosis no longer fear cats. Image from Science, July 8, 2016.

Several Sci-Fi tales on SiriusXM “Radio Classics” play up this less than cordial interpretation of the host relationship. In one, a visiting alien is “hosted” by Earthlings. A complex concept indeed.

At the other extreme of size, Science, July 15, 2016, has a Special Issue including “Thinking the Unthinkable,” by Julia Rosen. Natural hazards cited are everything from asteroids hitting Earth to volcanos to earthquakes—to storms.

The impact of a huge asteroid, perhaps six miles wide, ended the age of the dinosaur some 65 million years ago. However, surprisingly, in near-term chronology, the toll of extreme weather is high on the list of estimated deaths around the world. Earthquakes too are natural disasters of major significance.


Estimated deaths around the world. This and the following image by G. Grullón in Science, July 15, 2016.

Volcanic eruptions, though a lot more common than asteroid collisions, can be particularly destructive. The term “supervolcano” is reserved for a geologic event releasing more than 450 cubic kilometers/108 cubic miles of magma, the super-hot liquid rock beneath the Earth’s surface.


Magnitudes of some famous eruptions.

Some 74,000 years ago, Indonesia’s Mount Toba ejected 2800 cubic kilometers/672 cubic miles of effluent. Some scientists say this volcano’s disruption of Earth and its near-extinction of human life caused a genetic bottleneck still apparent in our DNA.

I recall photos of Washington state’s Mount St. Helens’ eruption in 1980. By comparison with supervolcanos, Mount St. Helens was a mere twitch of the Earth’s mantle.


Mount St. Helens, before and after its 1980 eruption. Image from

In an Editorial for this Science issue, Marcia McNutt wrote, “A natural hazard need not become a human disaster if society learns and applies lessons in preparation and resilience.”

McNutt is former editor-in-chief of Science magazine and now president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Having learned of dreadful things large and small, I’m comforted that such talented and thoughtful people can help in this preparation for disaster and resilience afterward. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays, 2016

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