Giant, rotting, bloated whale carcasses washed up on beaches were one of this year’s top science stories. It seemed like at one point or another pretty much everyone was watching videos of them exploding their guts all over the place. Instead of covering the explosions themselves, I had the opportunity to get on the phone with Ari Friedlaender, an expert in marine mammal stranding, about what exactly happens when a dead whale washes up on shore. Which leads me one of my all time favorite things I’ve ever learned: dead whales won’t explode unless you poke them. And, in fact, the majority of whales that wash up on shores around the US rarely have a chance to get too nasty because teams of scientists are standing by to show up on the scene and necropsy them ASAP. They are eager to get a look at all the mammal’s guts because the insides of whales are impossible to study in the ocean.
Friedlaender, who has necropsied more than 500 whales in his life, uses a special tool called a flensing knife to get inside and learn as much as possible about how a whale works. He says that even once they’re vented, cutting them open can still lead to a volcano of guts. As far as I’m concerned, the only thing better than learning about how to deflate a dead whale this year would have been getting the chance to see it happen in person.
Making Humans Green
I had the enormous honor of writing the December 12 cover story for Newsweek Magazine this year. The story focused on how scientists are dreaming up a variety of geoengineering projects that may one day help the planet overcome doomsday climate change scenarios. But my favorite thing I learned while researching that story came from a chat I had with S. Matthew Liao, an ethicist at New York University. His idea of helping the planet is that instead of changing Earth’s systems we re-engineer *humans* to make ourselves more eco-friendly. Along with a few colleagues, Liao wrote a fascinating paper that focuses on real, legitimate science that could be used to change the human race so our impact on the planet will be less dramatic.
Some of his suggestions: Make humans shorter, because the smaller we are the less we’ll consume (we don’t get much of an evolutionary advantage from being as tall as we are now). Make humans averse to the flavor of meat, because cattle farming is one of the largest burdens on the planet and a huge contributor to greenhouse gasses. Change human eyesight so that we’re able to see better at night, because night vision would mean we don’t need to use as much electricity. And the simplest of all: educate all of the world’s women, because it has been proven that women with higher levels of education have fewer children, which would reduce the world’s population.
Liao argued that re-engineering humans would actually be more reasonable than geoengineering the planet because we’d be solving the source of the climate change problem -- we humans are cause of all the trouble. And, he said, when we’re facing the total destruction of Earth these ideas might not sound so kooky. It’s a way of looking at climate change I hadn’t thought of before: climate change isn’t an Earth problem, it’s a human problem. Maybe if we all looked at it that way we’d be more open to getting ourselves out of this mess. You can read his full paper here.