Of Turpentine and Tapirs and Second Looks

Kage Baker was, as is well known,  fascinated with the unlikely preservation of “lost” objects. She was  equally fascinated by the sudden discoveries of things not only new, but unexpected. The sudden identification of something that turned out to have been scuttling round the world for simply ages (or sitting on a museum shelf misidentified as the wrong end of a dinosaur) was as thrilling to her as photos of the tidal flats of Titan.

One was as likely as the other, Kage reasoned. In fact, that the geology of rocky planets should follow a common pattern was perhaps even more likely than that a hairy decapod should be hanging out at the bottom of one of the more barren stretches of the Pacific.

Although, after all, why should there not be a fuzzy, eyeless, albino crab ( Kiwa hirsuta) in the ocean depths? She firmly held to the concept that damn near anything could be produced by the vagaries of the physical universe. Human experience gives us pretty stunted measuring tape, really.  Also, the imagination of mere man was not up to the weight of what blind chance does with breeding populations and shifting continental masses. Besides, that hairy, eyeless, albino crab was first found lounging around a thermal vent in the vicinity of Easter Island: and to Kage, the mere existence of such a beastie at the foot of that Island of the Weird was practically self-explanatory.

I always suspected that at some intellectual level, it was all faerie stories to Kage, anyway. She appreciated the photos of such astonishing finds, but maintained that actively searching for them exhibited a degree of faith rivalled only by theology students. Someone had to expect to find something. The weirder the expectation, the more fun in the finding. And when  they weren’t expected, the finds were even more fun.

For instance, there are amoebas a foot across at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Single-celled organisms 6 miles down, the size of softballs. No one was looking for them, either; but there they are. Son of the Blob, anyone?

In these modern times, there is an entire sub-species of graduate student who pursues their higher degrees by re-examining relics and fossils and ancient butterfly collections left hopefully to museums. Many of them are Company Operatives – the grad students, not the fossils. The Company goes to extreme lengths to make sure no bits are ever left behind; especially now that we can analyze genomes … there’s a story for that, in my files.

The tigrino species I mentioned a few days ago were long believed to be one species only: and as a matter of fact, they are visually identical. It’s only at that genetic level – which can only now be examined – that it becomes apparent that  there are two of the little beasties, and they never, ever, ever interbred.

A new species of tapir was just found and formally described; it breeds in Brazil, but it also inhabits shelves, in pieces, all over North America.

What were once thought to be several species of Triceratops are now being cautiously re-considered as being ONE species of animal with a wild variation in appearance over age. It’s as if specimens of aged humans were considered to be a separate species from those of young adults.

As a matter of fact, that very example was notoriously perpetrated on our relative Neandertal: the original skeleton from La Chapelle-aux-Saints was of an elderly, arthritic man. His remains were assembled by someone who somehow didn’t realize that fact (Pierre Marcellin Boule, who really should have known better). The resultant crabbed, crooked, stooped ape-like body plan was held as gospel until the late 20th century – when someone re-examined the bones, and discovered the Neandertals were, yes indeedy, human … and just this year, the original cave has also been re-examined, with modern tools and methods. The results are showing that our not-so-distant cousins are not only real members of the family, they were burying their dead with honours about 30,000 years before the rest of us wandered in out of Africa.

Kage loved it when the world turned upside down. That’s why she so loved the photographs from Mars, and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Some are just exquisitely weird, but others are fantastic because they are not exotic. Titan’s tidal flats look like Kage could have wandered across them, digging up clams – sunset on Mars resembles the same hour on a cold winter Mojave desert. Frost looks the same no matter if it’s oxygen or carbon dioxide; mud looks the same whether it’s soaked by water or liquid hydocarbons.

Photos have just been released of a huge system of lakes on Titan. Apparently the polar regions of that little world are like Wisconsin, with a surface cracked and caved and littered with lakes. Of course, the lakes are essentially turpentine … but apparently lakes act the same no matter what fills them. We’ve even been able to take peekaboo radar snaps of the bottoms, which look exactly like – lakes.

Cool beans, as Kage was wont to say. Let’s hear it for second looks.

About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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2 Responses to Of Turpentine and Tapirs and Second Looks

  1. Tom says:

    And where there’re lakes, there are bluegill and crappie and bass! Of the kerosene-breathing varieties, of course.


    • Kate says:

      There ought to be something worth fishing for in a lake, no matter what it’s made out of! And whatever the climate is at Titan’s North pole -the average surface temperature is around -179 degrees Centigrade – the hydrocarbon lakes are apparently normally ice-free. What the ice would be, I’d have to research … oxygen is a rock at those temperatures, I believe, way past ice crystals in density …


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