Another amazing issue of National Geographic hitting stands this week, and it starts off in true mind-expanding Geographica fashion with three little pieces on three different kinds of contamination.
First is the evil, lunatic idea being pursued by Project Tauros, a European scientific consortium currently dedicating their efforts towards using existing Limiana and Maremmana cattle-stock to bring an extinct form of cattle back into the world. The dead animal in question is the auroch, a massive bovine that once roamed Europe’s forests – the last remnants of its population died out many centuries ago, but Project Tauros wants to use bits of the animal’s DNA ginned up from miscellaneous auroch teeth, combined with the random auroch genes still carried by the aforementioned cattle-breeds, to breed the species again. Juli Berwald, the little article’s author, tries to put a positive ecological spin on things:
Aurochs were herbivorous behemoths, and in the past they browed on beech, a type of tree now choking Europe’s woods. Today such housecleaning would help regrow native flora – as one resurrected species gives other, threatened ones a chance at survival.
But you’d have to have the brain of an auroch to buy that for a moment. None of these Frankensteined creatures will ever come within ten miles of unrestricted European woodland – aurochs averaged half a ton heavier than modern cattle: these poor magnificent creatures are obviously being brought back from extinction in order to be crammed into slaughter pens and carved up alive to satisfy mankind’s endless appetite for cheap meat. And even if some ‘wild’ aurochs were released into those European forests, what they’d eat would be anybody’s guess – they fed primarily on beech centuries and millennia ago because it was natural for them to do so, in their natural environment. Maybe they hated it but had no choice because the enormous woolly rhinoceros of the time ate all the really good stuff. And even if they do somehow target beech, what happens when they do their job? Europe no longer boasts saber-toothed tigers or dire wolves capable of taking down a bull the size of an SUV - so we get just another hapless animal to cull whenever they decide to live in a way mankind finds untidy.
The second kind of contamination in this issue was certainly meant in a much lighter tone, although its implications are just as sickening – literally. National Geographic takes on the infamous “five-second rule” that states if you drop a piece of food onto the floor and immediately scoop it up, you can still safely eat it.
Not so, says Catherine Barker, this delightful piece’s author. It turns out “salmonella and other bacteria can survive up to four weeks on dry surfaces and transfer to food immediately upon contact.” The lip of a shared cup of water (or any other beverage – like all the cheap beer found in those innumerable red plastic cups going into use by the thousands in Allston and Brighton as we speak, it being a Friday night) can have more than 10,000 bacteria; even chopsticks can be swimming in germs (they don’t come in cellophane wrappers, after all). Barker doesn’t mention the risks you’d be running with your first auroch burger, but I wouldn’t be hopeful.
The third kind of contamination is of a decidedly bigger scale than the bacteriological. Michael Lemonick turns in a fascinating, disturbing piece on the vast shroud of man-made, man-launched, man-forgotten space junk currently orbiting the planet (and Sean McNaughton provides a fantastic graphic that will stop you dead in your tracks – it’s exactly the kind of weird, instinctively-effective visual at which National Geographic excels). The numbers are staggering: 11,000 objects in low orbit, and another 10,000 further out, all of them flying around at thousands of miles an hour, some of them slamming into each other harmlessly, but still … it’s only a matter of time until, say, five of them smash together simultaneously and give everybody a bigger problem to worry about than chopsticks.
Of course the rest of the issue is marvelous as well (National Geographic being, as I’ve said before, the world’s only actually perfect magazine)(sorry Open Letters! I calls ‘em like I sees ‘em!), including a very funny little essay by Virginia Morrell (with arresting photos by Tim Laman) about the male bowerbirds of New Guinea, who frantically, obsessively, and masterfully create elaborate nest-decorations in the hopes of attracting females willing to settle down and start laying eggs. The bowerbirds will use anything shiny to further their home-decorating efforts, including discarded CDs and, um, glistening caterpillar feces (the things you learn …), and reading about them is always a treat. And they aren’t even remotely endangered … which helps, in this day and age.