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The Sneaky Life of the World’s Most Mysterious Plant

It looks so ordinary, this vine. But it’s not. It is, arguably, the most mysteriously talented, most surprising plant in the world.

Photograph Courtesy of Ernesto Gianoli
Photograph Courtesy of Ernesto Gianoli

It’s called Boquila trifoliolata, and it lives in the temperate rain forests of Chile and Argentina. It does what most vines do—it crawls across the forest floor, spirals up, and hangs onto host plants. Nothing unusual about that.

Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich


But one day a few years ago, Ernesto Gianoli, a plant scientist, came upon a Boquila trifoliolata while walking with a student in the Chilean woods. They stopped, looked, and “then it happened,” Gianoli says. On the forest floor, they could see that the vine’s leaves looked like this, kind of stumpy and roundish:

Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

But once the vine climbed up onto a host tree, its leaves changed shape. Now they looked like this—much longer and narrower:

Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich


Both leaves came off of the same vine, but when the vine changed hosts, its newer, longer leaves matched its new surroundings. In Gianoli’s photograph below, the vine leaves are marked “V” and the tree leaves “T,” for “tree.” As you can see, it’s hard to tell them apart.

Photograph Courtesy of Ernesto Gianoli
Photograph Courtesy of Ernesto Gianoli

It’s almost as if the plant is camouflaging itself, changing shape to resemble its host.

As Gianoli walked along, he kept an eye out for Boquila vines climbing through the forest, grabbing onto tree after bush after tree, and it happened again! What he saw he found “astonishing.”

Photograph Courtesy of Ernesto Gianoli
Photograph Courtesy of Ernesto Gianoli

In this photo, the vine is on a different tree, and this time the tree’s leaves (marked “T”) are rounder, more like flower petals. And the vine (the leaf marked “V”)? Its leaves are now roundish too!

Woody Allen once made a film called Zelig, about a guy who takes on the characteristics of whomever he’s standing next to. The more Gianoli looked, the more Zelig-like this vine became, morphing over and over to look like one different host after another.

As my blog-buddy Ed Yong described it in 2014, when he wrote about this same plant, it has all kinds of moves: “Its versatile leaves can change their size, shape, color, orientation, even the vein patterns to match the surrounding foliage.”

On this tree, for instance …

Photograph Courtesy of Ernesto Gianoli
Photograph Courtesy of Ernesto Gianoli

… the tree leaf is jagged-edged, like a saw blade. (We’ve marked it with a “T.”) Our vine tries to create a zig-zag border (see the leaf marked “V”) and sort of pulls it off. Here’s a case, said Gianoli to Yong, “where Boquila ‘did her best’ and attained some resemblance but did not really meet the goal.”

Good try, though. It’s a crafty little vegetable.

But Why? How Does Mimicry Help This Vine?

The probable answer is that it keeps it from being eaten.

The forest is full of leaf-eaters. Imagine a hungry caterpillar wandering up to a tree:

Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

It loves eating leaves. It might find vine leaves extra tasty. But if our vine is hiding among the many, many leaves of the tree, each vine leaf has a smaller chance of being chewed on.

Or maybe the vine is assuming the shape of leaves that are toxic to the caterpillar. This is called Batesian mimicry, when a harmless species tries to look like a very bad meal.

Whatever the reason, mimicry seems to work. Gianoli and his co-author, Fernando Carrasco-Urra, reported that when the vine is mimicking its neighbors higher up, it gets chewed on less. On the ground, it gets eaten more. But what’s really intriguing about this vine is how it does what it does: It’s been called the “stealth vine” because, like the classified American spy plane, its inner workings are still a secret.

Learning Its Secret…

No plant known to science has been able to mimic a variety of neighbors. There are some—orchids for example—that can copy other flowers, but their range is limited to one or two types. Boquila feels more like a cuttlefish or an octopus; it can morph into at least eight basic shapes. When it glides up a bush or tree that it’s never encountered before, it can still mimic what’s near.

And that’s the wildest part: It doesn’t have to touch what it copies. It only has to be nearby. Most mimicry in the animal kingdom involves physical contact. But this plant can hang—literally hang—alongside a host tree, with empty space between it and its model, and, with no eyes, nose, mouth, or brain, it can “see” its neighbor and copy what it has “seen.”

How Does It Do This?

Gianoli and Carrasco-Urra think perhaps something is going on in the space between the two plants. They imagine that the bush or tree may be emitting airborne chemicals (volatiles) that drift across, like so …

Gif by Robert Krulwich
Gif by Robert Krulwich

… and can be sensed by the vine. How the vine translates chemicals into shapes and then into self-sculpture nobody knows. The signal could be written in light, in scents, or perhaps in a form of gene transfer. It’s a mystery.

“It’s hard for us to grasp that there are … ‘scents’ that we cannot smell, but which plants, noseless and brainless, can,” writes science journalist Richard Mabey in his new book The Cabaret of Plants. It’s against the rules to call a plant “smart” the way we might call a dolphin smart; brainless beings aren’t properly called intelligent. Intellect, we like to think, requires a nervous system like our own, which is an animal thing, except that, as Mabey writes, “[I]n being able to cope with unfamiliar situations, [this vine] is demonstrating the first principle of intelligence.”

Hmmm. A knock, knock, knocking on the animal kingdom’s door? Or do plants have their own secret ways of reckoning, totally unknown to us? If Boquila can do this, surely there are others.

This little vine is sitting on a gigantic secret. I can’t wait to find out what it’s doing, because whatever it is, it’s whispering that plants are far more talented than we’d ever imagined.

To find out more about Boquila trifoliolata, you can start where I did, with Ed Yong’s wonderful post from a couple of years ago, then go on to geneticist Jerry Coyne’s post, which asks a barrage of provocative and stimulating questions, and finish up with Richard Mabey’s short essay in The Cabaret of Plants. Or you can check out the science paper from Gianoli and Carrasco-Urra that started it all.

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Does the Loneliest Plant in the World Need Help?

One day in 1895, while walking through the Ngoye Forest in Zululand, southern Africa, a botanist with the oh-so-suitable name of John Medley Wood caught sight of a tree. It sat on a steep slope at the edge of the woods and looked quite unlike its neighbors, with a fattish trunk (actually it had two trunks) and what seemed like a splash of palm fronds on top.

It’s now called E. woodii, in Wood’s honor. It is a cycad. Cycads are a very old order of tree. They’ve been on the planet for roughly 280 million years, but this one is special—in a bite-your-lip kind of way. Richard Fortey, one of the world’s great biologists, calls it “Surely … the most solitary organism in the world.”

Illustration by Stocktrek Images, Inc., Alamy Stock Photo
Illustration by Stocktrek Images, Inc., Alamy Stock Photo

What Wood found may be the last surviving wild example of an ancient species of cycad, which stretches back in an unbroken line to the age of the dinosaurs. Now it’s all by itself, writes Fortey, “growing older, alone, and fated to have no successors. Nobody knows how long it will live.”

Unless there’s a twist ending. And thereby hangs a tale:

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

In the 1890s Wood, who made his living collecting rare plants (he directed a botanical garden in Durban), had some of this odd tree’s stems pulled up and removed and, in 1903, sent one of them to London, where it sat in a box in the Palm House at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. It was a very long sit, being on display—by itself—for the entire 20th century. It’s still there.

Two hundred million years ago, cycads were everywhere. The giant continent that includes today’s Greenland and Antarctica were covered with them. Pterodactyls flew between them. Big dinosaurs munched on them. During the Jurassic period, small, stumpy, palm-looking trees made up about 20 percent of the world’s plants.

Illustration by Stocktrek Images, Inc., Alamy
Illustration by Stocktrek Images, Inc., Alamy

Somehow these E. woodii survived the catastrophe that wiped out the dinosaurs, got through five different ice ages, learned to live with bigger, newer trees—conifers and leaf bearers, followed by a profusion of fruiting and flowering plants—then got pushed into smaller, then even smaller, spaces until there were merely tens of thousands, then thousands, then hundreds, and then, for this particular species, perhaps, just this one.

The problem is that these trees cannot fertilize themselves. Some plants contain male and female parts on the same individual. Not E. woodii. It is, as the botanists say, dioecious. It needs a mate.

Photograph Courtesy of RBG Kew
Encephalartos woodii, Photograph Courtesy of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

When a cycad is ready to reproduce, it grows a large colorful cone, rich with pollen or seed. It signals its readiness by radiating heat or sending out attractive odors to pollinators, who travel back and forth. Once fertilized, the seed-rich cone is ripped apart by hungry seed carriers (who’ve included, over the years, not just birds and insects, but also dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and bats—these trees have been eaten by just about everybody).

But what if you can’t find a mate? The tree in London is a male. It can make pollen. But it can’t make the seeds. That requires a female.

Researchers have wandered the Ngoye Forest and other woods in Africa, looking for an E. woodii that could pair with the one in London. They haven’t found a single other specimen. They’re still searching. Unless a female exists somewhere, E. woodii will never mate with one of its own.

But it survives. Plant geneticists have cloned it.

Photograph Courtesy of Mark W. Skinner, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database
Photograph Courtesy of Mark W. Skinner, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

Indeed, botanic gardens across the world asked Kew for clones, or “offsets,” and now you can see genetically identical versions on display in Europe, Australia, California, South Africa. The plant is frozen genetically. It’s a living fossil, “an example of the curious but expanding process of the democratization of rarity,” says science writer Richard Mabey. It might be terminal, but if you like you can shoot a selfie in front of its exact genetic doppleganger. Or visit the original. Or maybe even buy a clone for yourself.

Cycads (there are several surviving species) are popular garden plants. Some of the rarest are bought and sold secretly. “Enormous sums of money change hands,” says the Kew Gardens website, “and because of the rarity of the species and their colourful history, offsets can sell for as much as $20,000 each.”

Left: Photograph by Julian Parker, Getty; Right: Photograph by Todd Williamson Archive, Getty
Left: Photograph by Julian Parker, Getty; Right: Photograph by Todd Williamson Archive, Getty

The problem is serious, Kew says:

It is so serious that the San Diego Police Department in southern California assigned an officer to ‘cycad beat’ to monitor these precious plants. Elsewhere in the Hollywood Hills, Brad Pitt, Oprah Winfrey, [the late] David Bowie and Kevin Costner are among the celebrities that cycad-sellers report as collectors. ”I planted a huge grove of them in Brad Pitt’s garden,” says Jay Griffith, his landscape designer. ”And Brad flipped. He kept saying, ‘I want more and more.’ To me, they are most majestic when you plant gobs of them. You expect a triceratops to come around the corner and just gobble them up.” Brad is not infringing any regulations though: his cycads are the commoner cycad species, Cycas revoluta, the so-called sago palm.

Genetically Engineered Females

There is even a move, supported by Kew, to solve E. woodii’s problem scientifically. Plant geneticists have taken pollen from our still fertile surviving male and fertilized a very close cycad cousin, E. natalensis. The hope is, by “back-crossing” the two plants, they may eventually create a very close genetic approximation of a female E. woodii and so reboot the species.

This reminds Richard Mabey of “the scientific dream that woolly mammoth hybrids may be brought back from the dark world of the extinct by inserting fragments of fossil DNA into elephant genes.”

We’re trying it with animals. Why not with plants?

Yes, why not?

To Stay or Go?

Interesting question. On the one hand, we humans have crowded the world, hemmed in, poisoned and savaged any number of plants, denying them the space to grow and thrive, so shouldn’t we, when the occasion arises, repair what we’ve done? Restore when we can?

These cycads come down to us through a long tunnel of time; they’re like a chain letter from a “magical once” (as Oliver Sacks wrote). Somehow they’ve made it down to us, and isn’t our duty to keep them going, to not break the chain?

Maybe. But on the other hand, if the only way to keep them going is to take them to a lab, add a gene here, subtract one there, and try to engineer back what once was—what have we done? Is this still a “natural’ cycad? An almost-but-not-quite female cycad would keep the line going, but whose line is it then? Its own? Ours? Whose?

There’s something not quite right with scuffling through the scrapheap of disappearing plants and animals, choosing a favorite few, and “pickling” them, as Richard Mabey says, to preserve their ancientness, when we know full well that a truly living thing must make its way on its own, must adapt, mutate, crossbreed, or die. An “almost” version of a cycad may look right, but we know deep down that the chain has been broken. This is not a real descendant. It’s our clever substitute.

So I don’t want to rescue the loneliest plant in the world. I want it to get lucky.

Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Which could still happen. After all, there are acres and acres of uninspected bush in South Africa. Somewhere, on the side of a hill, tucked up against a rock, hanging in a shadow, I can still imagine a shy female E. woodii. She could be out there, waiting.

I’ve written about E.woodii before, so this is, in effect, a rethink, occasioned by my reading Richard Mabey’s wonderful new book of plant essays, The Cabaret of Plants (W. W. Norton & Company, 2016). The last time I wrote about the lonely cycad in London, I was all for saving it and unapologetically mournful. Now, thanks to Mabey, I’m finding this tale richer and harder to resolve. Which is a good thing. The great British biologist Richard Fortey talks about the London E.woodii in his classic Life: An Unauthorized Biography (Vintage, 1997). Oliver Sacks describes his personal encounter with the Kew cycad in The Island of the Colorblind (Vintage, 1997).


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The Fantastically Strange Origin of Most Coal on Earth

This is a story about trees—very, very strange looking trees—and some microbes that failed to show up on time. Their non-appearance happened more than 300 million years ago, and what they didn’t do, or rather what happened because they weren’t there, shapes your life and mine.

All you have to do is walk the streets of Beijing or New Delhi or Mexico City: If there’s a smog-laden sky (and there usually is), all that dust blotting out the sun is there because of this story I’m going to tell.

It begins, appropriately enough, in an ancient forest …

Artist's reconstruction of a forest during the Carboniferous period. From 'Science for All' by Robert Brown (London, c1880). Illustration by World History Archive, Alamy
Artist’s reconstruction of a forest during the Carboniferous period. From ‘Science for All’ by Robert Brown (London, c1880). Illustration by World History Archive, Alamy

… whose trees “would appear fantastic to us in their strangeness,” write Peter Ward and Joseph Kirschvink in their book A New History of Life.

Some of them were giants: 160 feet tall, with delicate fernlike leaves that sat on top of pencil-thin trunks. This was the age when plants were evolving, climbing higher and higher, using cellulose and a tough fiber called lignin to stay upright. Had you been there, you would have felt mouse-sized.

Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

These trees weren’t just odd looking. “One of their strangest traits was their very shallow root system,” write Ward and Kirschvink. “They grew tall and fell over quite easily.”

Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

So imagine, then, these stands of towering, fernlike plants mostly growing in swamps. The air is warm and moist, and the land (Europe, the Americas, and Africa were at the time one continuous mass) is covered by millions—no, billions—of trees that are sucking carbon from the air, growing, aging, dying, falling, and releasing oxygen. This is a world littered with dead trees piling on top of each other.

Carboniferous Forest Diorama. Photograph by John Weinstein, Field Museum Library, Getty
Carboniferous Forest Diorama. Photograph by John Weinstein, Field Museum Library, Getty

But when those trees died, the bacteria, fungi, and other microbes that today would have chewed the dead wood into smaller and smaller bits were missing, or as Ward and Kirschvink put it, they “were not yet present.”

Where Are They?

Bacteria existed, of course, but microbes that could ingest lignin and cellulose—the key wood-eaters—had yet to evolve. It’s a curious mismatch. Food to eat but no eaters to eat it. And so enormous loads of wood stayed whole. “Trees would fall and not decompose back,” write Ward and Kirschvink.

Instead, trunks and branches would fall on top of each other, and the weight of all that heavy wood would eventually compress those trees into peat and then, over time, into coal. Had those bacteria been around devouring wood, they’d have broken carbon bonds, releasing carbon and oxygen into the air, but instead the carbon stayed in the wood.

Artist's engraving of a carboniferous forest circa 1754. From The Universe by FA Pouchet (London, 1874). Photograph by UniversalImagesGroup, Getty
Artist’s engraving of a carboniferous forest circa 1754. From The Universe by FA Pouchet (London, 1874). Photograph by UniversalImagesGroup, Getty

We’re talking about a spectacular amount of carbon. Biochemist Nick Lane guesses that the rate of coal formation back then was 600 times the normal rate. Ward and Kirschvink say that 90 percent—yup, 90 percent!—of the coal we burn today (and the coal dust we see flying about Beijing and New Delhi) comes from that single geological period, the Carboniferous period.

That’s why it’s called “carboniferous”—because it produced so much carbon. “The Carboniferous period was the time of forest burial on a spectacular scale,” the writers say.

Take Off Your Helmets and Say Thank You

And therefore, in a just (and biologically aware) world coal miners everywhere would be doffing their helmets to salute the tardy arrival of those teeny earth creatures, the wood-eating bacteria. By not being there 350 million years ago, and by not arriving for another 60 million years, giant seams of black coal now warm us, light us, and muck up our atmosphere. Equal numbers of environmentalists might spend the day throwing darts at these little guys for showing up so late.

A coal miner plants explosives in a coal mine. Photograph by H. Mark Weidman Photography, Alamy
A coal miner plants explosives in a coal mine. Photograph by H. Mark Weidman Photography, Alamy

And Now … in Spectacular Magnification, Let Me Introduce …

But enough of me talking about them. It’s time for you to take a close—and I mean close—look at these amazing wood-eaters. They come in many forms, but I’m choosing microbes called Trichonympha because they’re so tiny, so squirmy, and so, well, crazily busy. They’re single-celled and can be found, yes, inside a termite gut. They look, says photographer Richard Howey (who studies them), like teardrops, or pears “wearing wigs.”

Here they are in this Nikon Small World award-winning video by Danielle Parsons and Wonder Science TV:

When I first saw this video, I was shocked by the commotion. I had thought wood-eaters would be mellow, sluggish, and, well, a little less clumped together. So I had questions. A web search brought me to Richard Howey in Wyoming, who has written about and photographed Trichonympha, and I asked him to take a look at the video so I could pepper him with questions. Which is what I did …

Me: Wow! This is crazy. So much motion!
Richard Howey: Yes, it looks almost like a game of bumper cars.
Me: So why are they so squished together?
RH: I’m not sure. I was really stunned [when you showed this to me]. It seems like Macy’s on Christmas Eve. [Pause.] I know they reproduce at an incredible rate.
Me: What do you mean? Are we watching them having sex?
RH: They might be [laughs]. Their reproductive process is incredibly complicated … [goes on to discuss mating types]
Me: But mostly they’re eating, right?
RH: Oh, definitely. You see those little white crystals jiggling around?
Me: Yeah, those shiny, stonelike things? What are those?
RH: Those are little cellulose bits; the termite has chewed and shredded the wood, and now these bits have reached its intestines. The microbes scoop them up …
Me: And once they get them inside?
RH: They produce a dissolving agent that’s going to reduce those bits to starches and sugars that the termite can eat.
Me: I like their little wiggly nose-like tops.
RH: Those aren’t noses.
Me: Well, heads then …
RH: Actually … They’re kind of like legs. They have little locomotive hairs, flagella, attached there, and that’s how they propel.
Me: It’s weird. It looks like they know where they’re going …
RH: That’s an illusion. I think they just … go.
Me: Why don’t they stop? Do they ever rest?
RH: No, those flagella are very motile—they keep moving and moving and eating and eating …
Me: That’s it?
RH: That’s what they do. Always.

And we should be oh-so-thankful they do it. Because of them, dead trees get recycled. Soil gets replenished. Smaller organisms get fed. And miners can mine—which is only to say: Sometimes very little creatures make a very big difference.

Editor’s Note: The image of coal featured in this post was updated for accuracy.

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Murder by “Blob”—the Miniature Version

It’s all so sudden.

The victim is on the left side of the screen—a single-celled little pulse of life, floating about in pond water somewhere. It’s got these little hairs called cilia. You don’t see them at first. They can turn into oars. Oars for escaping.

But it doesn’t know.

The killer comes in from the right, turning lazy circles in the water, like nothing’s going on. But that’s an act. As we’ll learn later, it is getting into position, moving close, finding an angle so it can point its … its what? I see no weapon. Does it have a weapon?

“I don’t know about this exact type of ciliate,” microbiologist Patrick Keeling wrote me, “but I know about other similar predators,” and at the very end of its snout-like appendage, it’s probably packing a bunch of “poisoned harpoons.” At nine seconds into the video, you can see it aim straight at the victim …

… There’s a shudder. The victim, which has been paddling along, suddenly gets smaller—much smaller—and stops moving. I saw no harpoon, but the water is muddy. If there is a needle, it would be very hard to see. “The poison,” Keeling figures, “causes paralysis where it hits.” But only for a beat.


Very quickly, the victim bounces back, gets larger, sticks out its cilia and begins paddling furiously, trying to get away. It’s beating so fast, its oars become a blur on its exposed side—but then comes the second blow.

This happens 15 seconds in; when I looked close, there’s a second snout, inside the killer’s body that grabs onto the victim, pulls, and fires. Is there a second dart? A bite? (It has no teeth, so it can’t bite.) But the victim now goes all quiet. The cilia disappear. This is a big catch. It would be like you or me eating an entire goat. “They eat by phagocytosis,” Keeling says. These small bits of pond life have cell walls, but those walls (if you’ve seen the 1956 horror pic The Blob, you know how this goes) can suck in and extend at the same time. The killer slowly surrounds, then pulls in its victim, like this:

GIF by Robert Krulwich
Phagocyte surface receptors lock and pull their prey in. GIF by Robert Krulwich

Can it stuff everything in? Won’t it gag? No, biologist David Caron wrote me. “Our (human) perception is that food particles have to be a small fraction of our own size. Not necessarily true to many single-celled organisms which can expand their membranes quite a bit to accommodate large prey items.” (Really large. This victim is roughly half the size of its killer.)

Well, at least it’s still. I wouldn’t want one of those things jiggling inside me. But here’s the thing: The victim, now stitched into a sack of its own, called a vacuole, may not be dead. That other yellowish package, already floating in there, both biologists say, is a previous victim, now awaiting “further breakdown.”

Still Alive?

“The prey is indeed alive when it gets eaten,” Keeling wrote. Does it stay alive?

“When a cell ‘dies’ is a hard question,” he says, “Some cells stay alive inside others for a long time, even after partially being digested.” There are single-celled creatures that feed on algae but leave the parts that turn sunshine into food—the chloroplast—alive and working for long periods.

So at the end of the video, neither Keeling nor Caron could say if the victim is dead. “Every food vacuole has its own processes … and its own timing,” Caron writes. It will die eventually, dissolved by acids, the unused bits flushed out. “Yes, essentially, they defecate,” Caron says, but how long that takes, we don’t know.

The victim, of course, has no questions. One moment it’s free, paddling about, then, in a flash, it’s shot, grabbed, swallowed, walled-in, and stuck. “What just happened?” it should wonder. But it can’t. Single celled creatures don’t wonder. At least I presume they don’t.

We do. Being three trillion cells bigger, we have the machinery to call experts, email videos, figure out motive, cause, possible weapon—and even, if you’re me, feel bad for the victim. This takes a lot of cells.

Not to brag, but when it comes to murders, this is an advantage we humans have over pond scum. It’s just better to be multicellular. (Unless you’re the victim. Dead humans and dead protozoa are pretty much the same—dead.) But alive, it’s people, not protozoa, who can enjoy a good murder mystery. That’s why my audience, small as it is, is (like you, I presume) entirely multicellular.

Thanks to the University of British Columbia’s Professor Patrick Keeling, who argued with me about my headline. He doesn’t think “murder” is the right word for what happened here. “I don’t think of it as murder,” he wrote me; it’s “more like hunting. I see it as being like the Serengeti on a small stage, where the lions and zebras all have their roles to play and there is no moral message in any of it.” I suppose that’s fair, but when I saw Wim van Egmond’s gorgeous video, what got me fascinated was how the killer killed. I couldn’t figure out how it did it. Having a very Agatha Christie reaction, I chose very Agatha Christie language. That, alas, is my excuse.

Thanks also to Professor David Caron at the University of Southern California, who on Christmas Eve watched the video and answered my questions so promptly, and to Elio Schaechter of the Small Things Considered blog, who told me who to call. And most of all, a pop of flashbulbs to Wim van Egmond, one of the world’s great microbiology photographers, who won first prize in 2015’s Nikon Small World video competition for this video of a single-celled Campanella ciliate being swallowed by a Trachelius predator. Apparently, he had scooped some pond water from a local pond, thinking he would show someone how to look through a microscope. When he leaned in and saw one protist swirling suspiciously close to its neighbor, he thought, “Eh, something’s up. I’m going to shoot this.” And he did. And he was so right.

Oh, and one last thing. Sometimes ciliates get inside their food AND GET OUT! This is Win van Egmond’s true-life video of two ciliates feasting on a baby copepod, and they both wiggle out—through a tiny hole …

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Can a Plant Remember? This One Seems to—Here’s the Evidence

There’s this plant I’ve heard about that had a really bad afternoon a few years ago. It was in its pot bothering nobody and then, suddenly, it fell. Not once, but 56 times. (I’ll explain in a minute.) But it’s a plant. Things happen to plants, and as far as I know, they go on as before. They don’t have brains. They have no way to “remember” anything. They’re not animals. So I figure even 56 consecutive falls left no lasting impression.

I figured wrong. I just read an eye-popping paper by Monica Gagliano, associate professor of biology at the University of Western Australia. She’s got a plant that not only “remembered” what happened to it but stored that memory for almost a month. She saw this happen! Here’s the plant:

Picture of mimosa pudica leaves folding in after they are touched
Sensitive plant, shame plant (Mimosa pudica), flower and leaf, leaves sensitiv, leaflets folded after touching
Photograph by blickwinkel, Alamy

Gardeners call Mimosa pudica “the sensitive plant,” because if you touch it even lightly or drop it or disturb it, within seconds it folds its teeny leaves into what looks like a frightened or defensive curl. It’s fun to watch it get all shy (two and a half million people have seen this pokey, pokey video. You don’t have to watch it all, but it’ll get you in the mood.)

OK, so it’s highly sensitive. Knowing this, here’s what Gagliano did: She got a bunch of Mimosa pudicas, put them in pots, then loaded each one onto a special plant-dropping device using a sliding steel rail that worked like this:

Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Each potted plant was dropped roughly six inches, not once, but 60 times in a row at five-second intervals. The plants would glide into a soft, cushiony foam that prevented bouncing. The drop was sufficiently speedy to alarm the plant and cause its teeny leaves to fold into a defensive curl.

To “Eeek!” or Not to “Eeek!”

Six inches, however, is too short a distance to do harm, so what Gagliano wondered was: If she dropped 56 plants 60 times each, would these plants eventually realize nothing terrible was going to happen? Would any of them stop curling?

Or, to put it another way: Could a plant use memory to change its behavior?

To find out, she kept going with her experiment. And, as she writes in her paper, fairly quickly “observed that some individuals did not close their leaves fully when dropped.” In other words, plants seemed to figure out that falling this way wasn’t going to hurt, so more and more of them stopped protecting themselves—until, as she later told a room full of scientists, “By the end, they were completely open … They couldn’t care less anymore.”

Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Is this evidence of remembering, or is it something else? Maybe, skeptics suggested, all we’re seeing is a bunch of exhausted plants. Curling is work. It takes energy. After 60 drops, these plants may simply be pooped out—that’s why they don’t trigger their defenses. But Gagliano, anticipating this question, took some of those “tired” plants, put them in a shaker, shook them, and instantly they curled up again. “Oh, this is something new,” she imagined them saying, something that hasn’t happened before. That sense of a “before,” she said, is the best explanation for the plants’ change in behavior. They didn’t curl up again because “before” they’d learned there was no need. And they remembered.

A week later—after the shakings—she resumed her drops, and still the plants failed to get alarmed. Their leaves stayed open. She did it again, week after week, and after 28 days, these plants still “remembered” what they’d learned. That’s a long time to store a memory. Bees, she noted, forget what they’ve discovered in a couple of days.

But Without a Brain, How Do They Do It?

“Plants may lack brains,” Gagliano says in her paper, “but they do possess a sophisticated … signaling network.” Could there be some chemical or hormonal “unifying mechanism” that supports memory in plants? It wouldn’t be like an animal brain. It would be radically different, a distributed intelligence, organized in some way we don’t yet understand. But Gagliano thinks Mimosa pudica is challenging us to find out.

Michael Pollan, writing in the New Yorker, hung out with Gagliano last year, went with her to a science meeting, and vividly describes how she was roundly dismissed by many biologists, who bridle at the idea that any plant could be “intelligent.” Plants, they insist, are mainly genetic robots—they can’t learn from experience or change behavior. To say they can “generates strong feelings,” Pollan writes, “perhaps because it smudges the sharp line separating the animal kingdom from the plant kingdom.”

Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Plants have always been the bronze medalists, one step down from the animals, two steps down from us, the golden ones. By giving plants animal-like talents, Gagliano is mucking up the hierarchies, challenging the order of things.

We like to think because we have such big brains, we’re exceptional. Our trillions of neurons are keys to memory, feelings, consciousness. Brainless creatures by definition can’t do what we do—so of course, plants can’t “remember.”

But Gagliano says maybe they can.

“What we have shown here,” she says at the end of her paper “leads to one clear, albeit quite different, conclusion: the process of remembering may not require the conventional neural networks and pathways of animals; brains and neurons are just one possible, undeniably sophisticated, solution, but they may not be a necessary requirement for learning.”

And who knows? Maybe she just found the plant that will one day prove her right.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published with a photo of a plant that was misidentified as Mimosa Pudica. We have since updated the post with a new image.

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How a 5-Ounce Bird Stores 10,000 Maps in Its Head

It weighs only four or five ounces, its brain practically nothing, and yet, oh my God, what this little bird can do. It’s astonishing.

Photograph by Diana Tomback
Photograph by Diana Tomback

Around now, as we begin December, the Clark’s nutcracker has, conservatively, 5,000 (and up to 20,000) treasure maps in its head. They’re accurate, detailed, and instantly retrievable.

A Clark's nutcracker with a thought bubble full of maps
Photograph by Glenn Bartley, Alamy; Maps courtesy of jaffne, Flickr; GIF by Becky Harlan

It’s been burying seeds since August. It’s hidden so many (one study says almost 100,000 seeds) in the forest, meadows, and tree nooks that it can now fly up, look down, and see little x’s marking those spots—here, here, not there, but here—and do this for maybe a couple of miles around. It will remember these x’s for the next nine months.

How does it do it?

32 Seeds a Minute

It starts in high summer, when whitebark pine trees produce seeds in their cones—ripe for plucking. Nutcrackers dash from tree to tree, inspect, and, with their sharp beaks, tear into the cones, pulling seeds out one by one. They work fast. One study clocked a nutcracker harvesting “32 seeds per minute.”

These seeds are not for eating. They’re for hiding. Like a squirrel or chipmunk, the nutcracker clumps them into pouches located, in the bird’s case, under the tongue. It’s very expandable …

Drawing of one clark's nutcracker bird without seeds in its cheeks, and another clark's nutcracker with its cheeks full of seeds
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

The pouch “can hold an average of 92.7 plus or minus 8.9 seeds,” wrote Stephen Vander Wall and Russell Balda. Biologist Diana Tomback thinks it’s less, but one time she saw a (bigger than usual) nutcracker haul 150 seeds in its mouth. “He was a champ,” she told me.

Next, they land. Sometimes they peck little holes in the topsoil or under the leaf litter. Sometimes they leave seeds in nooks high up on trees. Most deposits have two or three seeds, so that by the time November comes around, a single bird has created 5,000 to 20,000 hiding places. They don’t stop until it gets too cold. “They are cache-aholics,” says Tomback.

When December comes—like right around now—the trees go bare and it’s time to switch from hide to seek mode. Nobody knows exactly how the birds manage this, but the best guess is that when a nutcracker digs its hole, it will notice two or three permanent objects at the site: an irregular rock, a bush, a tree stump. The objects, or markers, will be at different angles from the hiding place.

a drawing of clark's nutcracker looking at a tree stump and a mountain in the spring, with arrows pointing between the bird, the mountain, and the stump
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Next, they measure. This seed cache, they note, “is a certain distance from object one, a certain distance from object two, a certain distance from object three,” says Tomback. “What they’re doing is triangulating. They’re kind of taking a photograph with their minds to find these objects” using reference points.

Psychologist Alan Kamil has a different view. He thinks the birds note the landmarks and remember not so much the distances, but the angles—where one object is in relation to the others. (“The tree stump’s 80 degrees south of the rock.”) These nutcrackers are doing geometry more than measuring.

a drawing of clark's nutcracker looking at a tree stump and a mountain in the rain, with arrows pointing between the bird, the mountain, and the stump
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

However they do it, when the snow falls and it’s time to eat, they’ll land at a site. “They will perch on a tree,” says Tomback, “on a low branch, [then light onto the ground, where] they pause, look around a bit, and they start digging, and in a few cases I’ll see them move slightly to the right or to the left and then come up again.”

She’s convinced that they’re remembering markers from summer or fall and using them to point to the X spot—and, “Lo and behold, these birds come up with their cracked seeds,” she says. “And it’s really pretty astounding.”

In the 1970s, Stephen Vander Wall ran a tricky little experiment. He shifted the markers at certain sites, so that instead of pointing to where the seeds actually were, they now pointed to where the seeds were not. Like this …

Picture of a clark's nutcracker standing between two X's and looking confused
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

And the birds, as you’d expect if they were triangulating, went to the wrong place.

But at sites where he left the markers untouched, the birds got it right. That’s a clue that each of these birds has thousands of marker-specific snapshots in their heads that they use for months and months. When the spring comes and the birds have their babies, they continue to visit old sites to gather seeds until their chicks fledge.

The mystery here, the deep mystery, is how do they manage to store so much data in their heads? I couldn’t possibly do what they do (I can’t even remember all ten digits in a phone number, so I’d be one very dead nutcracker in no time). Is their brain organized in some unique way?

Is their brain plastic? Can it grow more neurons or more connections when it needs to? Chickadees are also food hiders, and they do grow bushier brains when they need to, expanding in the “remember this” season and contracting afterward. Do Clark’s nutcrackers do that? We don’t know.

Whatever it is they do, I want what they’ve got.

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An 80-Year-Old Prank Revealed, Hiding in the Periodic Table!

You wouldn’t know it, because it’s hiding down there at the bottom of the periodic table of elements, but it’s a prank—something a five-year-old might do—and the guy who did it was one of the greatest chemists in America. It’s pure silliness, staring right at you, right where I’ve drawn my circle, at element 94.

Periodic Table Courtesty of DePiep, CC
Periodic Table Courtesty of DePiep, CC

It says “Pu.”

“Pu” stands for plutonium, the element named for Pluto, back in 1941 the newest, teeniest planet in the solar system. The American chemist Glenn Seaborg came up with this name after his colleagues found neptunium (element 93) the year before. He and his team at Berkeley had a cyclotron that smashed particles together and so they had an incredible run of discoveries: americium (95), curium (96), berkelium (97), californium (98), einsteinium (99), fermium (100), mendelevium (101), nobelium (102), and finally (and he’s the only guy who got his name on an element while still alive), seaborgium (106).

[Learn more about plutonium and other man-made elements in “Twenty-Six New Elements.”]

Seaborg and his colleagues at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory filled so many once empty boxes on the periodic table that it was said you could write him a letter addressed entirely in his own chemical elements, like this:

Illustration by Robert Krulwich
Illustration by Robert Krulwich

So the man knew his periodic table. But could he spell?

Let’s go back to Plutonium, which, I don’t have to tell you, is spelled P-L-U. There’s an “L” after the “P”. It’s not Puto, it’s Pluto. Now look back at the abbreviation on the Periodic Table. What happened? Why no “L”?

When Plutonium was discovered America was about to go to war. In 1942, Seaborg moved to Chicago to join the top secret U.S. effort to build an atomic bomb and helped produce a miniscule amount of plutonium fluoride (about a millionth of a gram). His team found that an isotope of plutonium, Pu-239, could be split, releasing an enormous amount of destructive energy. The Fat Man bomb, dropped on Nagasaki in 1945, had a plutonium core.

Glenn Seaborg
Glenn Seaborg
Photograph by Fritz Goro, Getty

The scientists who worked on the A-bomb were not allowed to call element 94 “plutonium.” Every ingredient in the bomb was top secret, so they gave it a false cover; they called it “copper.” When they had to use actual copper in some of their experiments, they called that “honest-to-God copper.” Only when the war ended was Seaborg allowed to publish his discovery, and that’s when plutonium became an official element.

Discoverers can not only name their elements, they can also choose the abbreviated symbol that goes onto the periodic table alongside the atomic number. It has to be very short, usually two letters.

There’s a naming committee that reviews and blesses the abbreviations, and so, Glenn Seaborg was free to choose.


He—nobody else—chose Pu. But why? Two colleagues, writing in Los Alamos Science, a journal published by the famous science lab, say he told them it was a crazy impulse. “The obvious choice for the symbol would have been Pl,” wrote chemists David Clark and David Hobart in 2000, “but facetiously, Seaborg suggested Pu, like the words a child would exclaim, Pee-yoo!” when smelling something bad.”

When I talked to Seaborg’s son Dave, he said the same thing. His dad had a weird sense of humor and “he just thought it would be fun” to treat this element as if it were stinky. You know the face kids make when they say pee-yoo (a la Calvin)? He wanted to sneak that into the periodic table.

Illustration by Robert Krulwich
Illustration by Robert Krulwich

It wasn’t an antinuke idea (though Seaborg opposed dropping an atomic bomb on Nagasaki and signed a letter saying so to President Truman). It wasn’t a comment on plutonium’s destructive power. It was just a prank.

What did the naming committee say when Seaborg handed in his abbreviation?

“Seaborg thought that he would receive a great deal of flak over that suggestion,” Clark and Hobart wrote. One imagines the members weren’t exactly a wild and crazy bunch, and yet, for reasons we will never know, “the naming committee accepted the symbol without a word.”

And there it remains. So any time you like, you can look at one of humanity’s greatest intellectual creations, posted in classrooms all over the world, a table that organizes all the stuff of the cosmos into a coherent map, and smack dab at the bottom, somebody’s whispering, “pee-you!”

Periodic Table Courtesty of DePiep, CC
Periodic Table Courtesty of DePiep, CC
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231 Varieties of Rain: Frogdrops Keep Falling on My Head

Poor Rob McKenna. He drives a truck, so he’s constantly moving, never in the same place for long. And yet everywhere he goes—city, country, near, far, morning, afternoon—it doesn’t matter, wherever Rob is, it’s raining. He can turn, reverse, zigzag, it doesn’t matter. Clouds just follow him, and to prove it (because who would believe this?) he keeps a log and shares it with his friend Arthur Dent, who says, You should show this to scientists. He does, and the scientists tell him, Rob McKenna, we know what you are. You are a Quasi Supernormal Incremental Precipitation Inducer.

What’s that?

He’s a “Rain God.” That’s the gist. Clouds see him and can’t help themselves. They love him and want “to be near him, to cherish him, and to water him.” And the worst of it is, Rob (a totally fictional character in Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) hates rain. Can’t abide it. But the rain doesn’t care. So Rob tries to get along. He turns his curse into a part time job: Hotels and vacation spots pay him not to go there. He becomes a regular at a pub called the Thundercloud Corner, where he sits, grimly staring out the window at … well … at scenes like this:

GIF by tkyle
GIF by “tkyle

But because he spends so much time staring at rain, Rob learns to see rainfall as no one has seen it before; he sees its many shapes, moods. He realizes, in the words of poet Conrad Aiken, that raindrops are “the syllables of water,” that rain can take hundreds of different forms.

There’s lashing rain, sheets of rain, rain pissing, bucketing, pouring. There are drizzles. There are mizzles. But Rob McKenna likes superspecific categories. He’s a taxonomist. And so he creates his own rain glossary; it’s described in So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish—the fourth book in the Hitchhiker’s Guide series—with its 231 different rain types:

There’s “light pricking drizzle which made the roads slippery” (type 33).

There’s “vertical light drizzle” (type 47).

There’s “heavy spotting” (type 39) .

There’s “regular” cab-drumming and “syncopated cab-drumming” (types 126 and 127).

There’s “dirty blatter blattering against his windscreen so hard that it didn’t make much odds whether he had his wipers on or off” (type 17).

I love parsing through Rob’s categories. Being a rain gazer myself (and rain, by the way, feels especially noticeable here in New York, where I live) …

The wonderful graphic designer T. Kyle MacMahon—known as “tkyle”—is especially good at capturing the joys of rain-gazing.
The wonderful graphic designer T. Kyle MacMahon—known as “tkyle”—is especially good at capturing the joys of rain-gazing.
GIF by tkyle


GIF by tkyle
GIF by “tkyle

… I couldn’t help but notice that something is missing from Rob’s list. He limits himself to one kind of rain—the kind that rains water, what you might call “raindrop rains.” But, in fact, there are other kinds.

In her book Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, Cynthia Barnett mentions Jonathan Swift’s fanciful metaphor “raining cats and dogs” (a coinage from 1738), but she then goes on to describe actual, unfanciful, documented rains of—and I kid you not—golf balls, fish, and, though I’ve heard about this before, frogs. As in, raining frogs (or toads).
Frog rain is shockingly normal.

Drip, Drop, Thunk

Barnett writes that in June 1954, Sylvia Mowday and her kids were in a park in Sutton Coldfield, just north of Birmingham, England, when it began to rain. They opened their umbrellas and were heading for shelter when all of a sudden they felt “gentle thuds” on their umbrella tops, “too soft for hail.” When they looked, they saw tiny frogs, “wee bodies” falling from the sky.

Maybe that’s what you’re seeing in this video—posted from Knox County, Ohio, on June 11, 2012—which shows (after the filmmaker, “MrKoozzz,” focuses) teeny frogs, all facing the same way, after a rain. (Alternate explanation: Could they be migrating? Hopping from one pond to another? Nope, they arrived by rain, writes MrKoozzz. “That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.”)

In 1873, Scientific American ran eyewitness accounts of a frog rain in Kansas City, Missouri. It happened again, Barnett writes, in 1901, in Minnesota. There are ancient accounts, medieval accounts, even battlefield stories. During a French/Austrian battle in 1794 …

“A hot afternoon was broken by such heavy showers that 150 soldiers had to abandon their trench as it filled with rainwater. In the middle of the storm, tiny toads began to pelt down and jump in all directions. When the rain let up, the soldiers discovered more toads in the folds of their three-cornered hats.”

Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Assuming that all these stories—or at least some of them—are true, how do hundreds of toads manage to get airborne? Little toads—teeny as they are, are much heavier than raindrops. “Modern meteorologists,” Barnett explains, believe that “tornadoes and waterspouts are the most likely culprits.” High winds, especially whirlwinds, pick up water, toads, frogs (fish, golf balls) and all, and whisk them across the sky for a little while, then lose speed and dump the contents on, for example, Sylvia Mowday and her kids.

(Though, Cynthia wonders, if a whirlwind can pull a frog up into the sky, where’s the algae, the other pond plants, the fish? Why didn’t the Mowdays get hit with pond scum? She doesn’t know.)

But frog rain happens. Maybe not as often as rain type 49 (“sharply slanting light drizzle”) or type 51 (“light to moderate drizzle freshening”) or a “dirty blatter battering,” but frogs have been falling from the skies often enough, long enough, that I think they’ve earned the right to be called precipitation.

It’s odd that Rain God Rob MacKenna would leave them out. But he’s a lesser deity. The Big Guy, as you may recall, was more frog-friendly. Just ask Pharaoh …

For the best, craziest, most over-the-top frog rain ever (particularly the slack-jawed look on Philip Seymour Hoffman’s startled face when giant toads begin falling from the sky into his brilliantly lit swimming pool), there is nothing better than Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 movie Magnolia. If you dare (and I suggest you do … but it’s pretty graphic …) take a look …

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What Halloween Decorators Know About Spiders (Oddly, a Lot!)

Here was my Halloween plan: not original, I know, but classic, effective, and cheap.

My front door, I decided, would become a lush, over-the-top spiderweb, a luxuriant Donald Trumpian display of muchness, which means … I would need two, maybe three, stretch-to-fit spiderwebs.

I don’t know the dimensions of my door (does anyone?), and I didn’t want to think about this for more than, oh, two minutes, so after a quick (and useless) trip to the Halloween section of my local drugstore, I jumped to the other web, the worldwide one, where I found (yes!) a nonflammable “Stretchable Spider Web” 12-pack for $10.99, with (yes!) a complimentary half-inch plastic spider, which (yes!) works out to about 90 cents per web (not including thumbtacks or tape). Good price. But—when I opened it—bad web.

It’s one of these …

A spider web decoration spreads across the ceiling
Photograph by VirtualWolf, Flickr

I was hoping for a classic, top-of-the-line spiderweb with a cool hole in the middle and surrounded by radiating spirals of silk, like the ones you see on trees, bushes, and the cover of Charlotte’s Web, capable of having “Terrific!” or “Some pig!” written on them, what arachnologists call an orb web, like this …

Picture of an orb spider web in Dover, Delaware against a black background in an outdoor setting
Photograph by George Grall, National Geographic Creative

But Halloween orb webs are pricey. Target wants $14 for just one. (It comes with lights, but still …)

Instead, what I got in my nonflammable 12-pack was a lesser design. They call them tangle webs or, worse, sheet webs, like the ugly one here …

a sheet spider web spreads across a bush
Photograph by Paul R. Sterry, Alamy

These messy, disorganized clumps are the work, I imagined, of low-rent “beginner” spiders who haven’t yet learned how to do it beautifully. So I was a little bummed. I even went to a couple of spider sites to see what evolutionary losers inspired my 12-pack.

But what I found shocked me.

Orb webs are not considered spider masterpieces. Not by spider scholars. Don’t be fooled by how beautiful, symmetrical, and lyrical they are. Spiders have moved on.

“More advanced spiders,” says Paul Selden, a spider paleontologist at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, “have gotten rid of [orb webs] and developed something else.”

It’s true. I found a bunch of papers that say orb webs are very ancient creations. These days, they’re considered “primitive.”

Turns out that webs like Charlotte’s require a fairly big spider (many spider species are small); worse, these webs need their spiders to stay close, which means they can be spotted and eaten by predators; still worse, they’re not that easy to navigate. Some of them have really sticky parts that can trap their spider. Which is why more highly evolved spiders have stopped making them.

So what are more evolved spiders making instead?

Unbelievably enough, they’ve moved up (up?) to sheet webs and cobwebs—the hideous things I found in my 12-pack!

An extensive survey of newer species found that the spiders that used to make orb webs have stopped, switched, and evolved into sheet and cobweb makers. Two of the fastest growing spider types, says biologist Jon Coddington, “are linyphiids (sheet webs) with 4,378 extant species, and theridiids (cobwebs) with 2,310 extant species.”

A cobweb on a lightbulb
Photograph by sogni_hal, Flickr

That means the little web you keep sweeping away in the corner of your garage or up in the attic, that sad little thingy that looks like it should stay in the corner, is—who would have guessed?–a considerably improved bit of spider design. Cobwebs, says science writer Sue Hubbell, are “more elaborately engineered, denser, safer for the spider and more efficient for trapping prey.”

So what if they’re ugly? Spiders aren’t trying to please me. They’re trying to get dinner. Ugly webs, apparently, are just better for spiders than beautiful ones, and if you doubt that, all you have to do is look at an evolutionary tree of spider webs.

Just tap on my “cover” tree (it’s a hyperlink that will take you to the tree I want you to see) and look for the orb webs. They’re not at the top … not at all …

Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Which means I’m reconsidering the biological sophistication of the Halloween decoration industry. I don’t know how many arachnologists my local drugstore has on staff (zero?), but what they’re selling this year is biologically, and evolutionarily, top of the line. What’s more, you can get a dozen of these gems for the low, low price of 90 cents.

This is a great country we live in.

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Whoops! A Millipede Toddler Learns to Walk

Ivan the Terrible? He was pretty terrible. Alexander the Great? Pretty great. (At least at conquering.) Their names seem to fit their deeds. But here’s a name that doesn’t: Millipede. I’m talking about those many-footed little guys you sometimes see on the forest floor chewing on leaves, the ones that sometimes curl up into tight little spirals when you disturb them.

Picture of an orange and black millipede rolled up into a ball on a green leaf in Indonesia
Glomeris (Glomeris sp) millipede rolled into a protective ball, Kalimantan, Indonesia
Photograph by Cyril Ruoso, Minden Pictures

Yes, millipedes have feet, lots of them, so I’m good with the last syllable, ped, Latin for foot. But the first syllable, milli, Latin for a thousand? That’s a crazy exaggeration. Millipedes don’t have a thousand feet. Not even close.

The Embarrassing Truth About Millipedes

It turns out the world record holder, the most leggy millipede ever seen by scientists, says zoologist Rowland Shelley, is a little guy found in San Benito County in California in the 1920s. It had 750 feet. That’s a lot, but it ain’t no thousand. “It would have [had] to grow by another one-third … to become a true ‘thousand legger,’” Shelley says.

The sad fact is most millipedes (and there are thousands of varieties) are more “centi” than “milli”; they have fewer than a hundred feet. So as busy and as useful as they are (this time of year they are busy cleaning up our yards munching, munching, munching leaf bits), they aren’t anywhere as footy as they seem, and yet … here’s the surprise: When you think about millipedes too much, as I did today, you discover there’s an early moment in a millipede’s life when the most curious thing about it is not how many, but how few feet they have.

I’m talking about what a millipede looks like on its birthday—when it hatches and joins the world with its original set of baby legs. Say hello to a millipede toddler …

Illustration of a millipede toddler
All Drawings by Robert Krulwich

Millipedes are built in segments. Like repeating Lego pieces. Each segment (after the first few) is a fused combination containing two pair of legs, like this …

Illustration of a segment of a millipede

Put them together, and you have a working animal.

Illustration of a millipede

As a millipede grows, it molts, throws off its outer hard cuticle, or skin, and adds segments, so over its life, it adds more and more parts with more and more legs.

Photograph of the underside of a reddish-colored millipede, showing its many legs
Photograph © Bill Hilton Jr., Hilton Pond Center

But when it’s a hatchling, a baby, it starts with a head (no legs), a helmetlike segment (no legs), and then maybe a preliminary segment (one pair of legs) plus a very few regular segments—which means it starts life with astonishingly few limbs.

Count the feet on this birthday boy (thank you Petra Sierwald, zoologist at the Field Museum in Chicago)—and you will see, Sierwald figures, roughly “six or eight” feet.

Illustration of a baby millipede, showing only six legs

That’s not a lot.

Millipedes don’t hop. They can’t slither. They don’t walk like we humans do, one foot in front of another. “They move several legs together,” Sierwald says. “It’s a coordinated movement,” and that requires legs to work in teams. Three legs forward, three legs back—that sort of thing.

So how does a baby with six to eight legs create leg teams? Do they have enough legs to move, or do they spend their first weeks stockstill, staring at the world? “I don’t know,” Sierwald told me on the phone. “We have a bunch of toddlers here at the museum. We’ve never looked to see, but maybe we should.”

I think they should. Sierwald found an old paper by Danish zoologist Henrik Enghoff, who says most millipede babies stay put for their first few weeks, waiting for their next molting. Some though, with eight legs, do venture about, but either way, what we have here is an animal famous for its legginess—too famous, really—beginning life with a leg deficit. This makes me wonder: Do toddler millipedes fall over? Do they bump into roots? Get toppled by buttercups? Do they behave like baby humans and have to learn how to get places?

Just the thought of it makes me smile.

Drawing by Robert Krulwich

I got thinking about millipedes while reading Sue Hubbell’s Waiting for Aphrodite; Journeys Into the Time Before Bones. She describes herself as a giant “stumbling around in the world of little things,” which include sponges, sea urchins, bees, spiders, and, to my delight, these many-footed millipedes who’ve “been creeping around on this planet” for 400 million years.

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My Manic-Depressive Cereal Spoon Just Lost Consciousness

I’ll get to the spoon in a minute. But first I’d like to mention zippers. Because the guy who made the spoon once had a problem with zippers. He thought he could make a better zipper. Here’s what he came up with:

Illustration of a man walking out of a door with his fly zipper down, and then a beep going off reminding him to zip it up
Illustration by Dominic Wilcox
Illustration by Dominic Wilcox

OK, the advantage gained may be awkwardly small (or just awkward), but that’s Dominic Wilcox. He’s part artist, part satirist, part engineer, part maniac. He likes to make things better, though “better” to him may feel suspiciously un-better to you.

illustration of an engagement ring with a ring on either sign that have signs pointing to the engagement ring, to draw attention to it
Illustration by Dominic Wilcox
Illustration by Dominic Wilcox

Still, his ideas keep coming. I’ve got two favorites. The first is his GPS Shoe, a gorgeous pair of real soft leather shoes with teeny LED lights embedded in the leatherwork. Dominic says he “thought about The Wizard of Oz and how Dorothy could click her shoes together to go home,” and so in this video, he shows us a pair of self-directing shoes that would take someone “home” (or anywhere else they might want to go). He went to a Northamptonshire shoemaker, then to a computer-savvy engineer, and together they came up with a pair that, like Dorothy’s ruby slippers, allows you to click your heels, which then links your shoes up to a GPS satellite. If you’ve told your computer the street address of where you’re going, all you have to do is walk outside and look down.

Video still showing a pair of shoes with red, blinking lights that tell directions embedded in the toes
Video Still from “No Place Like Home,” by Dominic Wilcox
Video Still from "No Place Like Home," by Dominic Wilcox

Your left shoe points (with a teeny winking light) in the proper direction; your right foot indicates how far you have to go. In the video Dominic’s shoes take him across Northamptonshire straight to the gallery where they will be displayed. He comes to several corners and park paths that fork, and his shoes make all the choices. He just walks. He calls this project “No Place Like Home.”

Video still of a man at a fork in the road, looking down at his shoes for direction
Video Still from “No Place Like Home,” by Dominic Wilcox
Video Still from "No Place Like Home," by Dominic Wilcox

Dominic Wilcox works mostly in London, takes commissions, and hires his designing brain out to big companies for what I imagine are big bucks. There is something deeply radical about this man. I can’t put my finger on it, but his inventions are in no sense tame. When a company hires him, he delivers their message, but he does it with such crazy power, such force, that instead of giggling and moving on, he makes you wonder, Are they mad? What were they thinking? The messages hit, but a little too hard. Which is his secret power. Dominic is so good, he’s subversive.

OK, now we’re ready for the spoon.

Dominic made it for the Kellogg’s cereal company. It’s a spoon with two googly eyes. Cute to look at and designed to be adorable, it’s a breakfast spoon for eating cornflakes or Rice Krispies. He calls it the Get Enough Robot Spoon.

But here’s the thing about this spoon. He’s given it moods. It starts sleepy, with its eyes closed. When you put it to use, when you scoop it into a bowl, it seems to awaken, drawing power from repeated scooping. The more you eat, the more awake it gets, to the point that—at the height of breakfast—its eyes start to roll in its head. It seems to be on a crazy cereal high, driven wild by consumption. But once you put it down, or should you choose to carry it with you all day long—yup, dedicated cereal eaters must always be prepared; see the video below—the spoon grows quiet from disuse, and falls eventually into a haze, then a heavy lidded quiet, and then into something that feels like a depressive sleep. I may be reading too much into this, but take a look. See what you think.

Do you get the feeling that if you stop eating cereal, you may be killing your pet spoon? I’m just asking.

The double-edgedness of his work doesn’t seem to hurt. Companies love him. He keeps getting commissions, keeps getting attention, and keeps producing new, startling experiments. He’s come up with a way to switch how his ears work, so the left one hears what the right one should hear, and the right one the left. He’s imagined a hotel elevator like no elevator in the world; he’s created the world’s first upside-down bungee jump, where instead of leaping off a cliff attached to a cord, the cliff … wait, I don’t want to tell you. I want to show you. His blog is where you can find most of his inventions, but probably the most pleasing way to discover Dominic is to walk straight into this short, beautiful video from Liam Saint-Pierre. But I’d avoid the square peas.

If you want more (and I’m thinking you do), there’s a Dominic Wilcox book, chock-full of drawings and imaginings, called Variations on Normal and that’s where you can find another part of him: his gift for getting even. While gentle in appearance, Dominic has a little Chuck Norris or Arnold Schwarzenegger in him; it comes out when he’s punishing people in his mind. Check out how he’d solve the guy-who-doesn’t-shut-off-his-cell-phone problem, and how he’d punish a litterer. He can be clever. Even fiendish.

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Every Solar System Image You’ve Ever Seen is Wrong. Till Now.

So which one are we (we human beings, I mean)?


String scale


Subatomic scale























Well, it depends on who’s asking. To a virus, we’re colossal, even vast. To a giraffe, we’re small. If it’s me asking, a virus looks microscopic (minuscule?), while the solar system—ah, the solar system—has gotta be in the colossal-to-vast range, but I really have no idea. I can look up at what might be Mars (the rosy-looking one) in the night sky, but I haven’t the imagination, the metaphor, the math to make sense of that distance. All I know is what Doug Adams says in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is.” Yup. That’s how I measure deep space: I don’t. My mind just boggles.

But this week, along with a million or so other folks, I saw the light. Or rather, I saw space. I saw, maybe for the first time, how hugely mindbogglingly big space is. Two wonderful filmmakers, Wylie Overstreet and Alex Gorosh, figured out what’s wrong with every image of the solar system we’ve ever seen. In every one, they say, space gets cheated. Planets get exaggerated. And in their short film To Scale: The Solar System, they fix that.

What they do is build our solar system with the heavenly bodies true to scale, which means the sun, Mercury, Venus, and, all the way out, Neptune (sorry, Pluto) are crazily small. Space, meantime, gets back its vastness. As you see here, their Earth (this is Overstreet demonstrating) is a little marble.

A man holding a marble in his hand against the sky
Film Still Courtesy of Wylie Overstreet and Alex Gorosh
Wylie Overstreet Holding a Marble in His Hand Against the Sky

Using a ten-foot chain-link fence hooked to the back of their car, they created the orbits of all eight planets on a dried lake bed in Nevada (Black Rock Desert, home to Burning Man), carving ellipses into the sand. Then, when night fell, they drove the orbits, Gorosh holding a large lamp out the car window. The resulting time-lapsed film was composed into a carnival-looking, swooshing solar system, with teeny planets poised on poles, each a pinpoint of light.

showing a person holding up a model sun as the real sun rises, appearing the exact same size, in the east
Film Still Courtesy of Wylie Overstreet and Alex Gorosh
Showing Model Sun Before the Rising Sun in the East

The most wonderful moment comes at the very end, when we stand nose to nose with the marble that is Earth and look back at the actual sun coming up in the east and, astonishingly, their model sun and the real sun … match! They’re the same size. So the model suddenly feels real, and that’s when Overstreet takes Earth and tosses it along the desert floor so it rolls into orbit, and you see, really think you see, how small (minuscule? tiny? Lilliputian?) our little planet—home to all of us—actually, really is.

It’s lip-bitingly beautiful.

WATCH: A group of friends build a scale, illuminated model of the solar system stretching seven miles across a dry lakebed in Nevada. Video courtesy Wylie Overstreet and Alex Gorosh

My list of little to big words comes from Michael Hatch’s Order of Magnitude: Methodical Rankings of the Commonplace and the Incredible for Daily Reference, by a Man of Extraordinary Genius and Impeccable Taste. It’s a delightful compendium that jumps from subject to subject, each time with a stack—a very tall stack—of related words. You can find Overstreet and Gorosh’s “how we made this” video here.

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The First Time Oliver Sacks Saw Heaven (1964)

My friend Oliver Sacks was at home, hoping to glimpse the color of heaven. It was 1964. He was in his kitchen in Topanga Canyon, preparing a cocktail. It wasn’t an ordinary cocktail, being part amphetamine (“for general arousal,” he told me), part marijuana (“for added delirium”), and part LSD (“for hallucinogenic intensity”), and his plan was to gulp, wait … and then command heaven to appear.

A color portrait of neurologist and author Dr. Oliver Sacks
Portrait of Oliver Sacks, Photograph by Joost van den Broek, Hollandse Hoogte, Redux
Portrait of Oliver Sacks, Photograph by Joost van den Broek, Hollandse Hoogte, Redux

Oliver was not a believer. I’m sure he didn’t imagine a heaven with white clouds and angels darting about. White wasn’t his color. If heaven existed, he thought it would be bluish—not a pale blue, but “true indigo,” a rich, intense, deep blue that he had never seen. Nor had anyone. The great painter Giotto had tried to paint heaven in indigo. He worked with a number of powders but hadn’t found the right formula. Oliver imagined it to be an “ecstatic blue,” bluer than the lapis lazuli stone favored by the ancient Egyptians, a blue inspired by the seas of the ancient Paleozoic (“How do you know that?” I asked. “I just do,” he said). He wanted, desperately, to see it.

This was a brazen desire. True indigo is the unicorn of colors, maybe hidden from us, Oliver thought, “because the color of heaven was not to be seen on Earth.” But he would try.

He swallowed his cocktail. He waited for 20 minutes. Then he turned to a blank white wall in his kitchen and shouted (“To whom?” I asked. “Eternity,” he said), “I want to see indigo now—now!”


All of a sudden “as if thrown by a giant paintbrush,” Oliver remembers that a “huge, trembling, pear-shaped blob” of color appeared magically on the kitchen wall. It was a miracle of blue. It was, he says, “luminous, numinous; it filled me with rapture.” It stayed in place for a very little while, and then, just as suddenly, vanished.

Where Have You Gone?

Come. Gone. He looked around, puzzled, as if his prize had been “snatched away,” and yet … he had seen it. He knew that, “yes, indigo exists, and it can be conjured up in the brain,” and having had a first “sip,” as he called it, he eagerly wanted more. So he went hunting. He visited museums, walked beaches, looked at gems, at shells. One time, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he got another very short glimpse in the sheen of an Egyptian jewel, but when he turned away and then looked back, he found only “blue and purple and mauve and puce—no indigo.”

That was 50 years ago. He never saw indigo again. Unless (and I can’t help thinking this), now that he’s left us, (Oliver died this week), he may be up there floating in an indigo-rich Paleozoic sea, surrounded not by angels but by pale blue cuttlefish, his favorite cephalopods. And looking up at him, winking quietly, I see a small crab, very much alive, that may be the only creature on Earth to experience Oliver’s favorite color all the time. I recently made this discovery (that heaven may be hiding here) in a poem by Mark Doty.

I wish I’d shown this to Oliver. A few years ago, Mark came upon a half-eaten crab on a beach somewhere, turned over its shell, peeked inside, and saw this:

an overturned crab shell lying on rocks reveals the beautiful indigo color inside
Photograph by Gregory Wake, Flickr

A Green Crab’s Shell, by Mark Doty

Not, exactly, green:
closer to bronze
preserved in kind brine,

something retrieved
from a Greco-Roman wreck,
patinated and oddly

muscular. We cannot
know what his fantastic
legs were like—

though evidence
suggests eight
complexly folded

scuttling works
of armament, crowned
by the foreclaws’

gesture of menace
and power. A gull’s
gobbled the center,

leaving this chamber
—size of a demitasse—
open to reveal

a shocking, Giotto blue.
Though it smells
of seaweed and ruin,

this little traveling case
comes with such lavish lining!
Imagine breathing

surrounded by
the brilliant rinse
of summer’s firmament.

What color is
the underside of skin?
Not so bad, to die,

if we could be opened
into this—
if the smallest chambers

of ourselves,
revealed some sky.

Mark Doty’s poem comes from his collection, Atlantis, published in 1995 [published by HarperCollins. Copyright © 1995 by Mark Doty.] Oliver Sacks wrote about his search for indigo in his book Hallucinations and we talked about it together on “Radiolab.”

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Golf, Sex, and Death: Why They Don’t Get Along

He was looking down, which is what he likes to do in the forest. On his knees, squatting, peering under the leaves, and there—wedged in the mud—was the invader. The Thing From Elsewhere.

It was a golf ball.

A golf ball lying on the ground, covered in autumn foliage
Photograph by Martin Paul, Getty
Photograph by Martin Paul, Getty

David Haskell is a biology professor who recently wrote a little book about a small patch of Tennessee forest and the animals and plants that live there. Living things fascinate him. Golf balls? Not so much. “When a golf ball in the woods strikes my eyes,” he writes, “my mind condemns the ball, the golf course, the golfers, and the culture that spawns them all.”

So he’s not a fan. We’ve all met people who hate golf. Nothing new there. It’s the subtle, complicated way he hates golf—that’s what got to me.

He despises its biology.

A worker from the Las Vegas water authority xeriscapes a golf course
Photograph by Pete McBride, National Geographic Creative
Photograph by Pete McBride, National Geographic Creative

Golf, Sex, and Death

A golf course, he declares, ruthlessly erases two rhythms fundamental to the natural world: death and sex. Every golf course, he says, is designed to be sexless and deathless—and to stay that way. Which, he believes, is deeply “unnatural.”

Hmmm. Let’s think about this.

It’s true that if you step into the woods that surround a golf course, you’ll find trees that release seeds (sex!), that have pollinating flowers (sex!), and that have birds flitting about singing mating songs (sex!) and that then build nests (post-sex!). But back on the golf course, saplings, branches, nests, seeds, flowers—things that muck up the grass—are removed by the ground crew. So yes, that’s an erasure.

A manicured golf course and fall foliage
Photograph by Raul Touzon, National Geographic Creative
Photograph by Raul Touzon, National Geographic Creative

As for the grass itself, it isn’t allowed to grow to produce seed heads (sex!). Instead, it’s constantly mowed to keep it in a truncated, “youthful” state. (Haskell calls this the grassy version of “perpetual childhood”). The same goes for putting greens, where the grass is cut back even more radically and the root system is kept intentionally shallow so that it grows laterally, making for a dense, soft, youthful cover.

Botanically, I guess, Haskell is right. Evidence of aging and sex is suppressed at the golf course. But that’s also true of baseball diamonds and football fields. As for death—well, step back into the woods and everywhere you look, you see decay (rotting wood, falling leaves, the browns, reds, and yellows of autumn). Death and dying are everywhere.

For example, tree stumps. A tree takes roughly the same time to disintegrate as it does to reach its full height. So in any patch of woods, dead trees stick around, showing off their “dead verticality,” as the poet Gary Snyder once put it.

“How curious it would be to die and then remain standing for another century or two,” Snyder said. “If humans could do it, we’d hear news like, ‘Henry David Thoreau finally toppled over.’”

But there is no toppling on a golf course. Everything is too young to topple. Old things are removed. “The golf course has been sanitized,” Haskell writes, “by the puritan life-police.” Be young or be gone.

A golf ball in the grass at the Hard Rock Golf Course in Punta Cana
Photograph by Raul Touzon, National Geographic Creative
Photograph by Raul Touzon, National Geographic Creative

This is the deep mindset of golf course design—which is strange, since (unlike baseball and football) it is famously a game that attracts 50-, 60-, and 70-year-olds. Why protect them from what they already know? Ah, well, maybe that’s the key. Maybe a golf course is a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” stage set designed to soothe folks who don’t want to be reminded of what’s coming and what’s waning.

The forest is different. It’s orchestral. It emerges, writes Haskell, “from the give and take of thousands of species; a golf course’s ecological community is a monoculture of alien grass that emerged from the mind of just one species.” The one species that can see death coming.

What to Do With the Invading Golf Ball?

So when David Haskell finds a golf ball in his forest patch, he gets rid of it, right? He’s going to do what the golfers do—he will sanitize.

Ah. Not so fast. Haskell is a complicated man.

“Should I remove the balls or leave them nestled in place?” he asks himself. They’re not going to decompose any time soon. Golf balls are strengthened thermoplastic, which means they can’t be eaten by bacteria or fungi. Biologically, they “have nothing to contribute,” Haskell writes, and yet (you can feel him struggling here), what’s the point of removing the ball? Yes, taking it away removes evidence of human influence, but humans are constantly visiting, altering, shaping the woods. We hunt, we chop, we crush, we litter, we pee in the woods. Are we invaders? Is that the right word?

“Such a view drives a wedge between humanity and the rest of the community of life,” Haskell writes. Instead, he looks down at the ball and thinks, “A golf ball is the manifestation of the mind of a clever, playful African primate. This primate loves to invent games to test its physical and mental skill. Generally, these games are played on carefully reconstructed replicas of the savanna from which the ape came and for which its subconscious still hankers. The clever primate belongs in this world. Maybe the primate’s productions do also.”

OK, so the golf ball is a human dropping. But it’s also a lost ball, out of bounds. So what does he do? To pluck or not to pluck? Haskell gives it one last ponder. And then walks away.

The ball stays.

“(T)o love nature and to hate humanity is illogical,” he writes. “Humanity is part of the whole … Nature does not need to be cleaned of human artifacts to be beautiful.”

Golf courses, on the other hand, need to cleaned of woodland artifacts to be beautiful.

Interesting difference.

David Haskell’s wonderful book The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature has been mentioned here before, but it taught me so many things about trees, leaves, light, snails, flowers, little mammals, twigs, buttercups, photons, and on and on, I haven’t stopped thinking about it. It’s not like I don’t read other books, I just can’t stop thinking about this one.

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Who’s the First Person in History Whose Name We Know?

Editor’s Note: This post has updated to clarify a sentence about the gender of the ancient writer.  

“It’s me!” they’d say, and they’d leave a sign. Leave it on the cave wall. Maybe as a prayer, maybe a graffito, we don’t know.

This was 30,000 years ago. Writing hadn’t been invented, so they couldn’t chalk their names on the rock. Instead, they’d flatten their hand, blow dust over it, and leave a silhouette like this:

a handprint is outlined in an orange/red pigment on the reproduction of the prototype fac simile of the cave Chauvet
Prototype fac simile of the cave Chauvet—Pont d’Arc, negative hand painted by blowing pigments. Photograph by Laurent CERINO, REA, Redux
Photograph by Laurent CERINO, REA, Redux

And for 30, 40 centuries across Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Australia, this is how cavemen, cavewomen, cave kids, hunters, nomads, farmers, and soldiers left their mark.

Picture of layers and layers of hands painted onto a cave wall in Argentina
Cave of the Hands, Patagonia, Province of Santa Cruz, Argentina. Photograph by
Javier Etcheverry, VWPics, Redux
Photograph by Javier Etcheverry, VWPics, Redux

Every one of these handprints belonged to an individual, presumably with a name, a history, and stories to tell. But without writing, we can’t know those stories. We call them hunter-gatherers, cave people, Neolithic tribes. We think of them in groups, never alone. Tens of thousands of generations come and go, and we can’t name a single person before 3200 B.C., not a one. Then, in Mesopotamia, writing appears, and after that people could record their words, sometimes in phonetic symbols so we could listen in, hear them talking and, for the first time, hear someone’s name—our first individual.

So who was it?

Who is the first person in the recorded history of the world whose name we know?

Just Guessing Here

Would it be a she or a he? (I’m figuring a he, because writing was a new thing, and males are usually the early adopters.) [*Please see note at bottom of post for more on this.]

Drawing of of man and a woman, the woman is crossed out.
All drawings by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Would he be a king? Warrior? Poet? Merchant? Commoner? (I’m guessing not a commoner. To be mentioned in an ancient document, he’d need a reputation, tools, and maybe a scribe. He wouldn’t be poor.)

Drawing of a king, a warrior, a poet, a merchant, and a commoner, with the commoner crossed out

Would he be a person of great accomplishment or just an ordinary Joe? (The odds favor a well-regarded person, someone who is mentioned often. Regular Joes, I figured, would pop up irregularly, while a great king, a leading poet, or a victorious general would get thousands of mentions.)

Drawing of a king sitting in a chair with a trident-like stick, looking at writing in front of him

So I trolled the internet, read some books, and to my great surprise—the first name in recorded history isn’t a king. Nor a warrior. Or a poet. He was, it turns out … an accountant. In his new book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari goes back 33 centuries before Christ to a 5,000-year-old clay tablet found in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). It has dots, brackets, and little drawings carved on it and appears to record a business deal.

Picture of an ancient tablet depicting beer production Inanna Temple in Uruk
MS1717, © The Schøyen Collection, Oslo and London http://www.schoyencollection.com/24-smaller-collections/wine-beer/ms-1717-beer-inanna-uruk
© The Schøyen Collection, Oslo and London

It’s a receipt for multiple shipments of barley. The tablet says, very simply:

29,086 measures barley 37 months Kushim

“The most probable reading of this sentence,” Harari writes, “is: ‘A total of 29,086 measures of barley were received over the course of 37 months. Signed, Kushim.’ ”

Drawing of a man facing the viewer with a speech bubble over his left shoulder that says " of “Oh, Kushim!”

So who was “Kushim”? The word might have been a job title, not a person (maybe kushim meant “barley assessor”) but check the video down below. It suggests that Kushim was indeed a guy, a record keeper who counted things for others—in short, an accountant. And if Kushim was his name, then with this tablet, Harari writes, “we are beginning to hear history through the ears of its protagonists. When Kushim’s neighbours called out to him, they might really have shouted, ‘Kushim!’”

It’s pretty clear Kushim was not famous, not hugely accomplished, certainly not a king. So all of my hunches were off.

But wait. The Kushim tablet is just one of tens of thousands of business records found on the deserts of Iraq. A single example is too random. We need more. So I keep looking and find what may be the second, third, and fourth oldest names we know of. They appear on a different Mesopotamian tablet.

Ancient stone tablet featuring a male figure, hunting dogs, and boars from Mesopotamia
Administrative tablet with cylinder seal impression of a male figure, hunting dogs, and boars. 3100-2900 B.C. Jamdat Nasr, Uruk III style, southern region, Mesopotamia. Clay, H. 2 in. (5.3 cm). Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY
Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY

Once again, they are not A-list ancients. Dated to around 3100 B.C.—about a generation or two after Kushim—the tablet’s heading is, “Two slaves held by Gal-Sal.” Gal-Sal is the owner. Next come the slaves, “En-pap X and Sukkalgir.” So now we’ve got four names: an accountant, a slave owner, and two slaves. No kings. They don’t show up for another generation or so.

Drawing of four individuals: an accountant, a slave owner, and two slaves

The predominance of ordinary Sumerians doesn’t surprise Harari. Five thousand years ago, most humans on Earth were farmers, herders, and artisans who needed to keep track of what they owned and what they owed—and that’s how writing started. It was a technology for regular people, not a megaphone for the powerful.

“It is telling,” Harari writes, “that the first recorded name in history belongs to an accountant, rather than a prophet, a poet, or a great conqueror.” Most of what people did back then was business.

Kings come, kings go, but keeping track of your barley—your sheep, your money, your property—that’s the real story of the world.


*Note from Robert Krulwich: I see that this column has offended a whole bunch of you. Yes, as many of you point out, my viewpoint was white, male (and hung up on fame and power) and many of you have serious, and totally legitimate arguments with my assumptions. Now that I read your comments, I’m a little surprised, and a touch ashamed of myself. But the thing is—those were my assumptions. They were wrong. I say so.

This is a blog. So it’s designed to be personal, and confessional. So I want you to know who’s talking to you, and if you think I’m way off base, by all means, let me know. And in the end, if you read the totality, my column and your responses, the story I wrote gets deeper and richer. You call me out on my assumptions, you offer some of your own, and what actually happened, what it was really like to be alive 5,300 years ago becomes… well, an argument among moderns about ancients that we will never meet.

Scholars aren’t unanimous about who’s name is oldest in the historical record. Yuval Noah Harari’s new book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind gives the crown to Kushim. The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago goes for Gal-Sal and his slaves in their 2010-2011 annual report. Andrew Robinson, in his Writing and Script: A Very Short Introduction also champions Gal-Sal, but his book came earlier, so maybe Harari has scooped him. Here’s the video that argues for Kushim:

If the name Gal-Sal strikes some of you as familiar, it appears in the title of a 1942 Rita Hayworth/Victor Mature movie, My Gal Sal, about a songwriter who falls crazily in love with a singer on the vaudeville circuit named Sal (short for Sally Elliot). I watched it. It’s terrible. Kushim, meanwhile, survives. According to the blog Namespedia, it turns out that lots of Russian families call themselves Kushim to this day, and in the U.S., it’s a relatively popular first name. They’ve even got Kushim bar graphs!