Letters to the Editor (the Quipu Science Supplement)

I resisted doing a letter column for a long time, because I wanted to keep Quipu thin, and thus cheap to mail outside the United States. But you all kept writing me nice letters anyway, so I'm going to do the proper fannish thing, at least this time. My comments are in the traditional ((double parentheses)).

Sheryl Birkhead writes: The study of a chrysalis itself is a wonder--such detail and perfection! It seems sad that the beautiful flyers live such a short while, but some are certainly spectacular. If I remember correctly, I once found a Prometheus moth on a screen and it seemed to be as big as my hand, a grey/brown and pink, I believe--perfection. ((I must admit to being easily seduced by bright colors; I shall have to go back, on a weekday I think, and look at chrysalises this summer.))

Lyn McConchie writes that: one of the reasons [the Martian meteorites] were discovered is global warming. Whether this is sparked by the greenhouse effect or not, the warming is a fact. N. Z. scientists have been down in the Antarctic for a long time but many discoveries never reach the media, just the scientific papers. One of the latest pieces of information which has reached the media is hardly new either. It's been the result of putting together old maps, new satellite scans, and research from the men on the ground, but the implications are a lot bigger than the media realize.

Basically an enormous area of ice-shelf has been quietly disappearing. Back in 1843 the first recorded visit to the Prince Gustav Ice-Shelf had it about the size of a US state. ((I wonder which US state: we have an enormous size range.)) By late 1995 it had vanished completely with an increasing acceleration of this trend by the 1980s. Scientists say that what once fell as snow and only added to the size and density of the shelf, now falls as rain which has speeded up the shelf's disappearance. Greater and greater areas of bare rock have also been exposed in the same area and fossils are being found which make it clear the area was once swamp and forest. Still more interesting, with more rock exposed, plants are moving into these areas where it has been millennia since anything grew.

E. B. Frohvet writes: Our take on the life-on-Mars thing was similar to yours. That there is life elsewhere in the universe may be taken as axiomatic; to find it next door, so to speak, tends only to confirm the obvious. The thing that bothers us is: how do they prove this particular chunk of rock got here from Mars? We've read the explanations, which seem--how shall we put this delicately-- more imagination than probability.

((As I understand it, this is one of the benefits of the Viking lander. We have a very good idea of what Terrestrial rock looks like. We have a decent idea of what Lunar rock is like, thanks to the Apollo missions. And Viking didn't find any life, but it did analyze rocks. And this particular meteorite apparently resembles Martian rock, and doesn't match Earth, Lunar, or for that matter the general run of (probably asteroid-derived) meteorite rocks. In any case, the key point, imho, is that (from location and chemistry) these are clearly not Earth rocks: if there are really fossils in them (something I suspect will be argued over for years), that's proof of extraterrestrial life, and whether it's Martian is less important than that it's not from Earth. What's an axiom to you, and has always seemed a probable hypothesis to me, is a very strange and implausible idea to millions of people.))

Bridget Hardcastle writes (on a postcard, with the bottom lines canceled by the Royal Mail): You make being on panels sound so easy! ((Well, it depends: at Wiscon 20 I got lucky with good fellow-panelists and good topics.))

Museums and exhibitions are so much better than when I was young (or is that to do with me?). There is more encouragement to take an interest in the exhibits in the way of engaging captions and interactive displays, than the Victorian thinking that dusty treasures should be interesting for their own sake. The warm weather over here means we're getting butterflies even in London! It's a real sensawunda for a townie like me. ((To be fair to the Victorians, they didn't have the technology. I also wonder if some of it is the difference between a photo of someone I know and a photo of that person's great-grandmother: connections and interests that were obvious to the Victorians may have worn away over time. Or maybe they were trying to be scholarly, and didn't want large numbers of tourists and schoolchildren getting in the way while they examined those old bones. Like Bridget, I prefer the modern approach.))

Buck Coulson writes: I guess I'm a homovestite: for one thing, women's clothing doesn't look very comfortable and Juanita assures me that it quite often isn't. I don't much give a damn what I look like, but I intend to be comfortable. ((I think homovestism is an attitudinal thing: if you were visiting a female friend, felt chilly, and were offered a sweater, would you care whether it was hers or a man's, as long as it fit?))

Harry Warner writes: I remain utterly baffled by the much-publicized meteor from Mars hype. Nothing that has appeared in the local newspapers nor anything I've heard over the radio has enabled me to figure out what the commotion is about. Did Martians a couple billion years ago find a meteorite, rub it over a sick Martian, arrange for him to breathe onto it and spit onto it, then put it into a cannon and shot it to Earth, aiming for the South Pole where they assumed temperatures would encourage intelligent life?

((No. When a large meteorite hits something, it can knock loose other rocks. Once in a while, those rocks reach escape velocity-- this is easier with a smaller world, but the current popular theory is that Earth's moon coalesced from material knocked loose from the Earth very early in our history. Once the rocks are loose in the solar system, they can wander around, and maybe eventually reach another world. As for how the fossils got in there, micro-organisms, at least here on Earth, seem to be tough and fairly ubiquitous, and a crack in a rock is a plausible habitat. Apparently all you really need is a bit of liquid water and an energy source: and if there's no sunlight and no organic matter, hydrogen will do. There are some nice articles on this in Science 276, 5313, 2 May 1997, a theme issue on "Frontiers in Microbial Biology."))

The butterfly preserve also makes me wonder about the logic of things. How do butterflies fit into Darwinian evolution? They have no apparent way to defend themselves against any sort of attack, they can't fly fast, most of them are so conspicuous that they must be instant targets for predators, they don't form part of communal groups that would help to keep their race alive, and yet a lot of them must survive long enough to keep butterfly progeny coming, generation after generation. ((An effective defense against predators is to taste bad. Really. That's what the monarch butterfly does: the caterpillars eat milkweed, which is distasteful if not poisonous to most predators. Once in a while a butterfly gives its life to prove that you shouldn't eat butterflies: and all its hundreds of brothers and sisters are safe from that predator. There's more to it than that, including that the bright-colored butterfly you see is only a very short time in the animal's life, and that even the brightly-colored ones can often cling to a branch, fold their wings together, and look like a bit of dead leaf.))

Lloyd Penney writes: The idea of life from outside our world, from Mars, bounces off our SFnal hides, and we say, "We suspected it all along." And then, we suffer a pang of regret as we remember our goshwow days, and wish we'd experienced a little goshwow when the news broke.

I also heard from Mae Strelkov, who sent a wonderful long letter, which I'd blush to quote here; Karen Pender-Gunn; Catherine Doyle; George Flynn; Leon Marr; Sandra and Larry Taylor; Dave Langford, who admitted to "a soft spot for slim fanzines that pack a lot in"; Murray Moore; and the Unemployed Entomologist.

If you want to loc this issue, click here or use the paper address at the beginning of the zine.

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