The Hardest Part About Dying…

…isn’t that the party is over, but that it will continue without you long after you’ve been abruptly kicked out.

The somewhat lighthearted party analogy aside, I think that that truly is one of the greatest tragedies of death: the world, and all the beauty and experience it has to offer, will leave you behind. It will grow and change in ways that will forever be inconceivable. Think of the millions of people who ever lived, and how different the world now is from when they were alive. Imagine what it’ll be like centuries after I expire (if it’s still around).

Who knows what I’ll miss out on once I die. It kind of pains me to imagine the possibilities that may eventually come to fruition, if only I’d lived to see them. Now that I think about it, I realize that, in a strange way, our own death means the end of the world as we know it. Without consciousness, the world effectively ceases to exist, just as it does when we sleep (minus dreaming of course).

I’m not quite sure what spurred on this train of thought, though it’s nothing new. This seems like an odd topic to reflect on right before heading to a party, so I’ll probably be revisiting it later. In any case, please, share your own thoughts on this matter, and my apologies to anyone who finds all this to be despressing.

A Lost Bug is Rediscovered

A science blog from NPR by Robert Krulwich reported on a very rare but wonderful occurrence: re-discovery of a species previous thought extinct, in this case the Lord Howe stick insect. With so many species threatened or going extinct, this is a nice change of pace.

It’s a great story, and if I had the time, I’d elaborate on it here. I recommend you guys give it a read. Below is a video of one of these little guys hatching. If you’re not as interested in bugs as I am, you might find it squeamish. Regardless, I think we can all agree it’s beautiful to see a previously “extinct” animal come back to life, so to speak.

A Strange But Familiar Fear

A disturbing thought sometimes seeps into my mind while I try to fall asleep: what if I never wake up? What if something happens to me while I’m unconscious and this moment before ends up being my last? It’s a bizarre thing to consider before bed, but my mind tends to wander the moment it’s given a pause from the daily concerns that occupy it.

Few people ever go to sleep or wake up wondering what day will be last. For obvious reasons, most human beings tend to avoid such thoughts, even though death is always omnipresent. Too many people die random and pointless deaths, never having fair warning or a chance to prepare. It scares me to no end to know that this could happen to me at any moment, even as I write this. There are so many ways for our fragile lives to end.

I wonder what the end would be like. As an atheist, I obviously don’t envision a world beyond this one, although I’m open to the possibility, however unlikely. So if we don’t enter another state of existence when we die, what happens? Does everything just go black? The only reason anything exists to me is because I am a conscious and cognitive being: if that awareness ends, then what? What would it feel like to be nothing? If there is no feeling, how does one imagine not feeling it or seeing it coming?

It’s ponderings like these that not only keep me up at night (literally) but that make understand why so many people believe in an afterlife. It’s difficult to wrap one’s head around non-existence.

In the meantime, I’ll keep making the most of this persistent neurosis by trying to live each moment like my last. It’s a morbid thing to consider, but it really helps me enjoy life to the fullest. As far as any of us knows for certain, we have but one life and one Earth, and it’s best not to take any chances as far as squandering them – including through nerve-wracking but aimless thoughts like these.

Post Script:
I apologize to any long-term readers who have already read similar musings on here before. As you can imagine, this is a recurring issue for me. But since this is partly an online journal, expect me to share what’s on my mind for it’s own sake, rather than for an intended audience.

 

John and Joe

This is another tear-jerker from StoryCorps, from where I previously posted an equally affecting video, Germans in the Woods. Like that one – and all the narratives the group collects – this story is brief but very emotive, as you’ll hopefully experience when you watch it below.

 
His closing statement had some of the truest and most beautiful words I’ve heard in a while. Ultimately, he and his sons got to exchange something many of us treat as perfunctory, if not bothersome, for the very last time. Yet as is always the case, these feelings come to have the greatest significance once the person is gone. It was a very raw deal, but I could think of no better silver lining.
 
Don’t hold back your expressions of love. You’ll never know if it’ll be the last time for either you or your loved ones. For that matter, don’t let petty grudges fester, as every second on this Earth is too precious and fragile to be wasted wallowing in negativity. It’s easier said than done, but its well worth the effort.
 
This may be a morbid thought to keep in mind, but that’s just the nature of the world we live in. All we can do is work around. All each of us have is one another and the tenuous moments we briefly share just once. Please make the most of them all. You just never know.
 

All Living Things

If you want to brush up on you phylogeny, check out this detailed and easily accessible tree of life, provided by Discover Life, an online encyclopedia of Earth’s organisms. This tree, like the rest of the site, seems very accessible and navigable for laymen, as this convenient introduction shows:

Phylogeny is the organizing principle of modern biological taxonomy. A guiding principle of modern phylogeny is monophyly. A monophyletic group is considered to be one that contains an ancestral lineage and all of its descendants. Any such group can be extracted from a phylogenetic tree with a single cut.

The tree shown here provides a guide to the relationships among the major groups of extant (living) organisms in the tree of life. The position of the branching “splits” indicates the relative branching order of the lineages of life, but the time scale is not meant to be uniform. In addition, the groups appearing at the branch tips do not necessarily carry equal phylogenetic “weight.” For example, the ginkgo is indeed at the apex of its lineage; this gymnosperm group consists of a single living species. In contrast, a phylogeny of the eudicots could continue on from this point to fill many more trees the size of this one.

The glossary entries that appear below the tree are informal descriptions of some major features of the organisms described. Each entry gives the group’s formal scientific name, followed by the common name of the group. Numbers in square brackets reference the location of the respective groups on the tree.

It’s great to see how every living thing that’s ever existed is interconnected in some way. To think that all the beauty and biodiversity we see around us represents only 1% of all life that has ever existed; that all of it began with a humble collection of protein constituting primitive, single-celled organisms. Nature, by its very existence, is a miracle.

Attachment to Life and Inspiration from Death

One of my most profound fears is losing someone I love. It’s something that has disturbed me since I was very young. When I first became aware of mortality – I can’t specify a time or incident – I very soon realized the implications, even at my young age: I would some day die, whether I want to or not. So would everyone and everything I’ve ever known and will know. It was a disturbing realization, and one that has since resurfaced regularly thanks to my tendency for neurosis. Were it not for the human capacity to disassociate from such concerns and focus attention elsewhere, I’d probably be driven to a consistent state of chronic depression and nihilism.

But it does keep me up some nights, and I do endure bouts of sadness as I reflect on the inescapability of death. Nothing I can do will stop my loved ones from perishing one by one. Nothing I can do will save me either. Everyone I see today will eventually disappear, the following generation replacing the previous one, only to be superseded itself some day, and so on and so forth for as long as our species continues. I dread the day when I have to worry about my parents or older relatives deteriorating. I’d rather not even write about it.
 
While some very few of us will live on through memory, the majority of us will forever cease to exist after a few generations. There will be only faded tombs or memorials, if even that. It’s a terrifying prospect to wrap my head around, and one that partly explains why so many people seek the comfort of faith and an afterlife (indeed, that’s arguably why such concepts were universally developed by humans in the first place).
 
The invincibility and permanence of death are not what terrify me the most, but the sheer randomness of it. There is nothing to stop or prevent death. You can reduce its probability but never eliminate it. I know of all kinds of stories of people dying arbitrary deaths in the most unlikely circumstances. Few people wake up in the morning knowing that they’ll die – heck, few people wake up really thinking about death at all. The fact that anyone I know, myself included, could die at any given moment is a disturbing realization, not helped by the fact that I have a graciously wide circle of people that I love. We go about our business with death looming over us at all times, never certain who, when, and where it’ll strike. Most people don’t think about it, but those of us that do find the concern nerve wracking, even if it’s fleeting.
 
I have an intense love of life. I imagine most humans do as well, of course. But I’m referring to something deeper than merely the act of living. I want to consciously enrich my life. I love and cherish every human experience: the expansion of knowledge, the meeting of new people, the exchange of good dialogue, the taste of good food, the sound of good music – all of it is what makes living precious. These aren’t just hedonistic indulgences, but the most vital element to being alive. Our times are brief, and our senses and perceptions are all we have to embrace the time we spend here. The more we stimulate them while we can, the better. When we grow old and reach the precipice of our demise, all we’ll have are these memories (or what is left of them).
 
To that end, love and compassion are equally valuable. As far as I’m concerned, a life lived well must encompass some degree of empathy for others. The time we spend with other humans (and animals) is the spice of life. As a social species, we are intrinsically reliant on one another to survive, not only in the most basic sense – for food, shelter, etc – but also for emotional and mental well-being. Without some degree of love, friendship, or empathetic interaction, we become troubled and even psychologically ill.
 
We’re all in this together: whatever our differences in this world, we all share the same fate. Death is the great equalizer. But most of us also share in common the gift of life as well. We share this Earth. We bear a responsibility to enhance and deepen one another’s experience, and in doing so, become surrounded by pleasant people who care about us and provide us with companionship. We seek better this world for our friends and children, and as we become more interconnected and intimate with one another, we expand this circle of responsibility to include entire regions, continents, or the human race.
 
In other words, all we have – to the best of our knowledge – is this one life, this one Earth, and this one generation of fellow humans who share it all with us, and who are in the exact same predicament. At any given moment, all of this can be taken away from us. There doesn’t have to be any warning, or pattern, or reason. This is frightening to me, but also empowering. It gives me a sense of purpose. I can either wallow in despair at the seemingly nihilistic nature of our existence, or I can make the most of my finite and fragile existence on this planet.
 
I want a life that is wealthy with happiness, experience, and friendship. I want a legacy that will endure for generations, if only for at least a handful of people. Simply put, I want a life lived well. Any minute, my life can take a turn for the worse. As morbid and disconcerting as this might be, it’s as good a reason as any to make sure I can squeeze the most out of every second.

Paedophryne Amauensis

That is the scientific name of the world’s smallest vertebrae, a frog that was formally described and classified only a few days ago. It was discovered in the summer of 2009 in Papua New Guinea, a region known for it’s almost unparalleled level of biological diversity – dozens of new and fascinating species have been discovered during the past couple of years.

That's a dime that it's sitting on.

It’s fascinating that despite how small and well-explored the world has become, it’s still yielding it’s beautiful bounty of life. The area where it was found isn’t even particularly large or well-known. Yet it’s one of the most biologically dense ecosystems in the world.

If you want to read a bit more about this amazing little creature, click here. Nature never ceases to astound me with its treasures. Even something as small as this can be greatly uplifting to behold.

Reflections on the Death of My Pets

I have always had a great fondness for animals, and until a few months ago, I had worked at a pet store for a full six years. Subsequently, I collected my fair share of pets during my tenure, and at one point I think I owned just about every major kingdom and phyla you could legally find for sale.

Sadly, as my schedule became busier and my resources scarcer, I had to give away a lot of my animals, or opt not to replace them when they died. That eventually suited me fine, since I could devote more time to my two favorite kinds of pets: my fish and my birds.

Maintaining my aquariums and bowls – I have two of the former and six of the latter – remains a soothing hobby, despite the time and expense. I love constructing ecosystems from scratch, and being able to watch little microcosms of nature remain self-contained within a glass frame. I always use natural rocks and plants to keep it as sustainable and conducive to life as possible.

I also love bird keeping, as I’ve long had ornithological leanings (a fancy term for the study of birds – I rarely get to use it, so pardon the pretentiousness of doing so). Birds are fascinating to me, with their beauty, variety, intelligence, and personality. Their behaviors and interactions are fun and relaxing to observe, and I used to wile away my spare time just watching them go about their day. I currently have two cockatiels and had had three parakeets (I’d definitely get more variety if I had the space and money).

Unfortunately, all my parakeets (also known as budgies) were killed over the weekend. I’ll avoid the messy details, but the poor things were slaughtered by, of all things, a bird of prey, probably a falcon. They’re not uncommon around where I live, but in all the years I’ve had these and other pets outdoors, I’ve never had one attacked by a wild animal. The find was shocking and heart-wrenching; especially since I could have saved the last one had I made it in time (the other two were killed long before).

Admittedly, I remain dejected by this. These birds were among my first pets when I started working at the pet store. I spoiled them with high quality food, a big sturdy cage, and at least a dozen toys. I enjoyed caring for them paternalistically, and had even planned on getting them a bigger cage in a couple of months. To see them mangled in such a horrible way, and feel them limp in my hand, and to see their now empty cage, is all thoroughly unpleasant, to say the least. Perhaps most upsetting was the fact that they were trapped – they were in a cage after all, and couldn’t break free, which ultimately killed them. Being intelligent animals, I could only imagine the terror they felt in such torturous encounter. Even discounting the human tendency to anthropomorphize – that is, to bestow human qualities to non-human things or animals – birds are still developed enough to feel something akin to fear or sadness. That fact made their deaths all the more upsetting to me.

I’m not sure I want to replace them. Aside from the cost, which I can’t afford just yet, I’m too afraid to take the chance (take note: I’ve already brought the cockatiels, which were unharmed, inside). What the hawk did was instinctual, but the unusualness of its targets suggests that they may be having a harder time finding natural prey, which isn’t surprising given the rapid level of development that has reduced their ecosystem. Even so, it was a terrible way to be reminded of the cost of environmental degradation. At this rate, I’m sure there will be future attacks now, until – morbidly – continued habitat loss wipes out birds of prey in the area (rest assured, by the way, that I am not advocating a vengeful hunt or wishing for that to happen, though I won’t deny the initial, anger-fueled temptation).

Its strange how much I feel for these animals, and how terribly I miss them. They were just birds after all, right? Humans die by the millions every year, yet I’m morning the loss of little animals. There are millions of these creatures being bred annually, and they’re practically expendable given their cheapness and numbers. Logically, it makes no sense to be so emotionally invested and distraught. My presumed inclination to be rational is in conflict with a seemingly childish attachment to something meaningless.

But such a cold calculation misses the point: we humans are social beings. We’re hardwired for empathy, kinship, and altruism; at the same time we have a great capacity for higher thinking, cognition, and abstract thought. I don’t want to delve too deeply into the science of all this, but the conclusions is that humans fundamentally yearn for and need something to love.

Notions of gods, spirits, talking animals, and other anthropomorphic manifestations of intelligence are merely projections of us. We’re alone as a sapient species (as far as we’ve ever known), so for as long as we’ve been human, there’s always been this universal tendency to attribute phenomenon to an intelligent agent, or to bestow human-like qualities to the elements of nature around us (commonly animals, but also trees, mountains, and the natural world itself).

I’ve often wondered why humans have pets, or why I myself did. A cynical suggestion would be that we simply enjoy exerting control or power over something else – the same reason slavery, territorial expansion, and warfare were nearly universal. It could be an extension of our paternal instincts: as social creatures, we’re inclined to care for other people, and perhaps this became extended to non-humans as we began to anthropomorphize the world around us. Maybe it’s just a bit of both.

Whatever the scientific details – which I’ll leave for another post – all I know is that I feel a great bond with other forms of life on this planet, and I know I am not alone in that. I love taking care of living things, including plants (of which I also maintain many). It brings me inexplicable joy to see an animal grow, thrive, or go about its existence with my assistance. Maybe it’s a projection of my paternal instincts or maybe deep-down it is a twisted form of authoritarianism. Whatever the case may be, and whatever your own personal take on it, all I know is that I miss my birds terribly, and find the suffering or death of a living thing unbearable to any degree, from human and below.

While I think it’s a beautiful thing for us to have such a bond with nature, I also find it terrifying – if I’m this distraught over the death of some pets, imagine the grief I’ll feel when I inevitable begin to lose the loved ones in my life. That’s a morbid and disquieting thought I’ll save for another post – assuming I dare to confront it.

In Medias Res

We all in the end die [in] medias res – in the middle of a story. Of many stories.

Mona Simpson, in a eulogy for her brother, Steve Jobs. The phrase, in medias res, is Latin for “into the middle of things” and in it’s original context, it pertains to the artistic and literary convention in which the telling of a story begins at the mid-point or at the conclusion, rather than at the beginning.

I find its application in the quote to be highly appropriate, as it reminds us that the passage of time is but a grand narrative, comprised of numerous other stories that overlap and connect; they do so in ways our limited perceptions scarcely ever noticed.

Our individual life is itself a story. It has all the trappings of any play, novel, or sitcom. We have twists, recurring characters, rising action, and climaxes. We have heroes, villains, allies, adventures, and pitfalls. There is sometimes action, often times comedy, and no doubt – for most of the world – tragedy.

And of course, like all things, from the universe down, there is an end. Every story must conclude, sometimes too soon, other times much later than expected. Ideally, our living narrative can remain immortalized by others, perhaps tweaked and edited and subjected to varying accounts and interpretations.  Being remembered is the closest thing we have to eternal life; in light of this, being forgotten can arguably be a fate worse than death. 

As I noted before, no narrative transpires in isolation. Everything and everyone is connected: each event, action, relationship, or interaction imprints itself on another person’s experiences, sometimes in a miniscule way, other times more profoundly. Think of the thousands or even millions of stories we inavertedly play a role in some way or another – the many people of varying importance to our lives who we interact with throughout the course of our existence.

Frequently, especially before bed, I look back on all the friends, acquaintances, and lovers I ever had, and still do. My life has been touched by a lot of people, and I’d like to think I’ve reciprocated that in turn. The sheer variety of personalities, wisdoms, perspectives, experiences, advice, and memories that comprise my time in this world is astonishing and comforting. In my relatively short life, I have come to know and experience so much more than I could’ve imagined – far more than most of my fellow humans ever had a chance to know.

I’ve forged social ties that have enriched my life in ways I may not yet even realize. A good story needs an interesting cast of characters and an exciting plot. While my life is hardly extraordinary, it’s been filled with more than enough wonderful occurrences, people, and sensory experiences to make it something great to look back on. If this fortunate trend continues, and I am lucky enough to live into old age, I know I will finish my story with utmost contentment.

This entire metaphor isn’t entirely romantic or reassuring, however. Among the greatest fears I have besides death itself, is dying without having lived my life to its fullest. As close friends and long-term readers know, I am well aware of my own mortality, and that leads to a fair share of anxiety in my life. There is so much to do and see and learn. There are many personalities out there to meet. The more my life is enriched by these things, the more of it I crave, and the greater I fear never getting to experience what I want in this grand universe of ours before I expire. As with everything, there is a cost and benefit, and so it goes with living a fulfilling life (though I’d happily trade fretfulness for the life I’ve lived thus far any day).

I don’t want to perish with my life incomplete. I don’t want to miss out on the great things that life has to offer. In all of human history, I am one of a select number with the fortunate circumstances to enjoy life to its fullest. I don’t want that to be squandered. It’s a rare gift that deserves to be utilized to its maximum potential.

Then again, does anyone ever die with a “proper” ending? How many people reach a point where they say, “I’ve done, seen, and learned all I want or all there is. I’m ready to go.” Certainly, some people do feel this way, though often it is not their choice – they’ve been constrained by factors beyond their control. But I think that most of us feel driven by this human need to be and to do.

I think of the artists with their unfinished paintings, the writers with their fragmentary works, or the musician with their incomplete compositions. Just about every intellectual, innovator, thinker, and creative mind left behind some uncompleted task or objective. They kept on doing what they devoted their lives for, literally until the very day they died. Like most people, they died in medias res – in the middle of things.

As always, I can find a silver lining in this difficult endeavor. It is true that none of us will ever finish everything we start, or do everything we’ll ever want, before we leave for good. But I’d like to think that that make’s life all the more precious. We have a small window of opportunity to make the most of our single life.  We must cherish every moment of our narrative, which could end at any moment, and make sure that when that time comes – whenever it may be – we’ve made it as satisfying as possible.

When we die, our part of the grand narrative of this world may be finished, but it lives on – so to speak – in the lives of others’ in which we played a role. Going back to the quote, we die in the middle of many stories. We’re part of so many other people’s lives, or have the potential to be if we’re not at that point yet. To live on through our impact on other people is the best thing we can hope for. Let the show go on, in a sense. 

Perhaps that is a gratifying perk to trying to make the world a better place – or at the very least, positively affecting the lives of a few of its denizens.

The Universe Yields Building Blocks of Life

Astronomers have recently made a fascinating discovery: the existence of complex organic compounds throughout the universe, despite the absence of life. As Science Daily reports:

Prof. Sun Kwok and Dr. Yong Zhang of The University of Hong Kong show that an organic substance commonly found throughout the Universe contains a mixture of aromatic (ring-like) and aliphatic (chain-like) components. The compounds are so complex that their chemical structures resemble those of coal and petroleum. Since coal and oil are remnants of ancient life, this type of organic matter was thought to arise only from living organisms. The team’s discovery suggests that complex organic compounds can be synthesized in space even when no life forms are present.

A short time ago, I posted about the vital role that stars played in creating our universe and forming the elements that led to life on Earth. As it turns out, stars are not only producing the basic elements for life – such as carbon or oxygen – but  they are also producing more complex components for organisms themselves.

The researchers investigated an unsolved phenomenon: a set of infrared emissions detected in stars, interstellar space, and galaxies. These spectral signatures are known as “Unidentified Infrared Emission features.” For over two decades, the most commonly accepted theory on the origin of these signatures has been that they come from simple organic molecules made of carbon and hydrogen atoms, called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) molecules. From observations taken by the Infrared Space Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope, Kwok and Zhang showed that the astronomical spectra have features that cannot be explained by PAH molecules. Instead, the team proposes that the substances generating these infrared emissions have chemical structures that are much more complex. By analyzing spectra of star dust formed in exploding stars called novae, they show that stars are making these complex organic compounds on extremely short time scales of weeks.

As the excerpt noted, stars are actually emitting this organic matter into the vacuum of space regularly. Whereas I previously thought that it was upon a star’s death, billions of years later, that such matter was ejected, it seems their releasing it as a constant by-product. Needless to say, this has vast implications for the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe, as well as for abiogenesis – how life on Earth first began.

Most interestingly, this organic star dust is similar in structure to complex organic compounds found in meteorites. Since meteorites are remnants of the early Solar System, the findings raise the possibility that stars enriched the early Solar System with organic compounds. The early Earth was subjected to severe bombardments by comets and asteroids, which potentially could have carried organic star dust. Whether these delivered organic compounds played any role in the development of life on Earth remains an open question.

One we’re closer to solving perhaps. I’ll certainly reserve my excitement pending more verification from other researchers, but this is certainly a fascinating prospect. That the building blocks of life could spontaneously – and regularly – emerge from stars all across the universe may significantly increasing the chances for life elsewhere in this universe – and perhaps finally explain why we’re all here to begin with.