What causes seasons on Earth? Our planet's axial tilt! But what might life be like on a world with no tilt at all?
HOSTED by Moiya McTier (@GoAstroMo), astrophysicist and folklorist
Maureen Kahiu is a Masters student of plant sciences at Penn State with a focus on turf grass pathology. She also has experience working as a golf course supervisor, a field dominated by men. You can follow Maureen on twitter at @MaureenKahiu.
Ferris Jabr is a science writer who has contributed to the New York Times and Scientific American. He's also currently writing a book about the coevolution of Earth and life! You can follow Ferris on twitter at @ferrisjabr and learn more about his work at ferrisjabr.com
Learn about the Refugee and Immigration Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) at raicestexts.org. And you can donate to the Families Together Fund at raicestexas.org/ways-to-give/families-together-fund.
Hello, and welcome to Exolore, the show that helps you imagine other worlds but with facts and science. I'm your host Moiya McTier. I'm an astrophysicist who studies planets outside of our solar system. Those are called exoplanets. And I'm also a folklorist who specializes in creating and analyzing imaginary worlds. And this podcast is my way of sharing those worlds and that knowledge with you. Today, we have another panel episode where I invite a couple of smart expert guests to help me imagine what life might be like on another world. Today, we're dealing with a world that has no axial tilt. And I will tell you what that means and what some of the consequences are, as we get into the discussion, but you are in for a treat. Some of the things we talk about in this episode are the pros and cons of genetic memory. If you are watching "Stargate SG-1", if you're following along with my binge of the entire series, you'll know that the Goa'uld have genetic memory so they remember everything that their ancestors did. And we talked about what that might mean for a species. We also talk about the different ways of perceiving and measuring time, there's so many different ways that we could do that. And I think it's often really difficult to do the mental exercise of figuring out what it might be from someone else's perspective. So that's a fun part of the conversation. We also just really get into imagining the biology and the physical characteristics of this life form on this world, it's interesting. So without further ado, let's get to some introductions. I'll start with Maureen, could you tell us who you are, what you do, and some fictional worlds you've been inhabiting lately, whether that's books or movies or games, or whatever.
My name is Maureen Kahiu. Currently, I'm a graduate student at Penn State, focusing in turfgrass pathology. My fictional world -- I'll mention two. One is... because I work with diseases and pathogens [and] it's like they have their own little world, if I plant them on a petri dish. So I try to kind of live in that world, [where I'm] observing them under different conditions. Secondly, the credit system in America which I'm not used to; [and] so for this past year, it seemed like a fictional world for me.
I don't understand the system, so I can't even imagine what it would be like to try to navigate it when you haven't grown up, ostensibly seeing other people try to navigate it. Good luck. Are you reading or watching anything? Do you like fantasy or sci-fi?
Not at the moment cause sorry, grad school.
You know what? That's a really fair answer. Grad school kind of takes over everything. So reading can come later. Ferris, what about you? Who are you? What do you do and what fictional worlds have you been inhabiting lately?
My name is Ferris Jabr. I'm a science writer, I mostly write for the New York Times Magazine where I'm a contributing writer. Basically, if it involves the earth or living things, I'm interested in it so I usually write in the Earth and Life Sciences arenas. I'm currently working on my first book, which looks at the coevolution of the planet and life, so many of the ways that living creatures have completely transformed the atmosphere, the continents, the oceans, throughout the planet's history, including of course, us.
Yeah, it's a really fascinating subject. And lately, some fictional worlds have been happening. I read "Dune' for the first time [it was] long overdue, but I finally read that. I watched "WolfWalkers", which is the final movie in this animated trilogy that kind of draws on a lot of Irish and Celtic folklore, and some really beautiful animation techniques. And I've been reading Kim Stanley Robinson's "The Ministry for the Future". [I] actually listened to the audio version, which is interesting [cause] they have different people doing different voices that kind of has that theatrical aspect to it.
That's awesome. I've had a really hard time getting into audiobooks, I just can't focus the same way. Do you find that you have a different experience? Like what is the difference in your experience reading vs. listening to an audio book?
I really like it when the book itself is really amenable to audio adaptation. So I think my favorite example is George Saunders' "Lincoln in the Bardo", which has a crazy number of characters. And it's this really interesting, almost spiritual book where you have people in limbo between life and death, including both, you know, real people like Lincoln and his son and fictional characters. And the audio version is just incredible because they have really talented actors and voice actors doing all the voices and it feels like a personal play and I would listen to it in the evening when I was tired, not quite falling asleep, but kind of settling down for the night. It was just a wonderful experience. And yeah, some books, you can't quite do that as well. But when it works, it works really well.
Yeah, I like what you said, you know, some books lend themselves better to this. Awesome. Alright, well, thank you for sharing your fictional worlds with me. Now we're going to build one together. So to give you a little bit of background about this world, one of the most common misconceptions about astronomy here on earth is that its seasons are caused by the planet being physically closer or farther away from the sun at different points of the year, which is just totally not true. The reason we have seasons here on earth is because the Earth's tilt or obliquity - is the sciency jargon term, the earth obliquity or tilt is at 23 degrees. So sometimes the North Pole of the Earth is tilted towards the sun, and at other times it's tilted away, which means the South Pole is tilted towards the sun, not trying to be, you know, Northern Hemisphere centric here. And it is that tilt that causes the seasons. So today, we're going to imagine a planet that doesn't have an axial tilt, it has an obliquity of zero degrees. And so on this planet, you don't have places that experience seasons in the way that we do because the temperature doesn't shift over the course of a year, even the amount of sunlight that you get doesn't shift over the course of a year. So every point on this planet gets the same duration of sunlight, like 12 hours every day. And I think that there are going to be some amazing consequences to that. So let's dig into it. First, I want us to decide -- and our decision here will kind of determine a lot of the characteristics that we discussed later. But first, let's decide if we want our planet to be relatively close to its star, or relatively far away from its star. What do you think?
If we choose a planet that's more or less the same distance as Earth is from the sun, it would make imagining certain things easier, because we'd have more analogues on earth to work with. My understanding is if we choose too much of an extreme, it basically doesn't matter because what does the concept of seasons mean on like Pluto, or Uranus? I would be in favor of something approximately earth-like, but totally open to other possibilities to
Maureen, what about you?
I think I would rather stay where we are or maybe just go a bit closer, because I'm thinking some sections of the Earth will make more warmth. Warmth is better than cold in my thinking. So let's go closer to the sun in my world.
All right, yeah, let's do that. So I asked this, because when you are dealing with a planet that doesn't have any axial tilt, you have to think about what the different environments will be like on that world at different latitudes. So since we do have a planet that's closer to its star than our Earth is to our sun, then the poles, like the north and south poles of this planet will be where it's more habitable, because the equator is going to be really hot. It's always getting bombarded by direct sunlight. So the equator on our world is probably going to be too hot for human-like life. And the poles are going to be more habitable for something that looks human-ish. But one of my favorite things about the show is that we very rarely build worlds that are best for humans. So we can imagine whatever we want on this world. Where do we want life to start? Do we want it to start at the poles that are going to be kind of more habitable [and] have a more temperate climate? Or do we want to start at the equator where it's going to be really hot?
How hot are we talking?
That's the thing without talking about exact numbers for how close the planet is to its star, it's hard to say. But I don't know. Let's say that the equator on this planet is like 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
Then we definitely want life to start [at] the tropics of Capricorn and Cancer. The temporary region, and probably the creatures that are humans or whatever, maybe even humans and would have other functions maybe have a skin that would be more adapted or something. Maybe as they grow older, they move towards the sun.
So like starting at the poles and then moving towards the equator.
Yes, like as they grow old, they can [with]stand [the] heat more.
Do you mean as individual people grow older or as the species evolves and grows older?
As the species [does], not an individual, but the whole species got it.
I would also love it if individual people changed over their lifetime so that as you got older you moved closer and closer to the warmth. I think that'd be fun. Ferris, what do you think?
Yeah, that's interesting. Well, on Earth, we have so many incredible like extremophiles, micro organisms. And you know, there's even some researchers who think that maybe they were similar to the very original life-forms, or the least the very original cellular life- forms. And, you know, there's even microbes that live way down in the subsurface a lot closer to Earth's geothermal energy, and they can withstand temperatures and pH and salt and everything that most of us cannot deal with. So it could be interesting, if on this planet, life started in the really hot [places]... maybe it's something like those deep sea event microbes or ocean creatures. [The creatures are] in some like, crazy boiling ocean or something with like, a lot of energy exchange going on, and they evolve there. And then, over time, they learn to go to the more temperate areas. But I also love the idea of starting at the poles and going warmer, because I feel like that's a really cool analog for what we've now forced upon our planet, [where] we now have to continually adapt to more chaotic conditions. So yeah, both of those sound equally interesting to me. I think they could both go really well.
Cool. Well, the coolest thing about this exercise is that, you know, there's not just going to be one species on this world life can evolve multiple times in different locations. But I do like to focus on just one, since both of you are interested in life, starting at the poles and moving towards warmth, as people age, let's run with that. So life is starting at the poles, which might take some time to wrap your head around the fact that the poles aren't cold on this world, the poles are warm. And so what physical traits do we think they might evolve to have in those environments?
I would say, because you're moving from the poles towards like, the more heated interior region skin, or the outer covering, whether it's mammals, amphibians, or whatever it is, this skin would need to be thicker or maybe scaly, would scales do better with it.
I don't know.
Or maybe like, a turtle shell, like as you grow, you grow that and maybe doesn't keep the heat, so you're not born with it. Or when the organism is small, it doesn't have the scale of the hard part covering. But as it grows old and moves towards the equator, the skin keeps growing and becomes more like, wood, or whatever it is.
Oh, I love that. Yeah, I'm imagining this creature. And we can add more layers and features to this creature as we discuss, but I'm imagining this creature that is born near the poles, and then as it slowly creeps its way towards the equator, it eats stuff in the environment that gets added to like a shell almost to protect it in the hotter environments. And that way, you can almost identify how old one of these creatures is by how thick their outer layer is. That sounds really fun to me.
That's really cool, because I think there are some crab species or some other ocean creatures that will literally stick like anemones and other organisms onto their backs for camouflage and protection. And then there are some insects that will use whatever materials are around them to construct little cocoons or nests, even if you give them some precious minerals. They'll make like a glittering, gem cocoon or something. So that could be really interesting. An organism that integrates its environment into its anatomy and its biology as it goes. That's awesome.
I love anything that adds in opportunities for individuality. Okay, cool. Any other traits? Do we think they're big or small?
Ferris & Maureen 13:41
Maybe being bigger.
Oh, consensus, I like it. Okay, why big?
Well, I'm just thinking about different periods of Earth's history. There have been times in Earth's past where the poles had crocodiles and palm trees. And we're very tropical, because it was a hothouse state. But I'm also thinking about [how] during Ice Ages, we had these scores of massive creatures that would sort of continually move because even during an Ice Age, you have these pretty big oscillations between warmer times and colder times. And so they would have to kind of move around and adjust to that. And I feel like certain types of large herbivores are pretty good at that because they actually change the environment around them, you know, through their physical movements and their insatiable appetites, they're really changing the environment around them so I could see that really fitting in well with this idea of an organism that as it migrates is changing itself and changing its environment making it all kind of work better for itself.
Maybe some sort of sentient, you know, mastodon creature.
Yeah, Maureen, why did you say big?
I'm thinking big because if it has to keep adding layers to itself, we definitely want the layers to be as big as it can get to offer like maximum protection for the elements, and I'm also wondering, in our new world, do the oceans exist as they are? Does the land exist as it is?
Yes, that's a great question. I don't think that obliquity - the tilt of a planet would have any sort of effect on internal geological mechanisms, not like a noticeable one. So let's say that this planet has the same land and ocean distribution as Earth, but it's just instead of like, tilted on its side, it's just straight up and down.
I'll still go big.
Cool. Awesome. So we have these big, kind of scaly creatures, but they get their scales and shells over time. What do they look like when they're born? Are they just like naked little alligators? What does that look like?
Going back to what you were saying before about this idea of if we eventually get to humanoid forms, or whatever it might be, but even what we're talking about now, sort of going through changes as they move if they had stages of metamorphosis, so that they are they're creating like layers or cocoons, and then at certain periods along their migration, they're "turning into something else", that's better suited for the next stage of their migration. So if that were the case, a lot of organisms that go through metamorphosis start out with sort of aquatic larval phase of some kind. I can imagine like a newt type thing [with] frilly gills in the water that later becomes something much scalier and bigger.
Yes, I love that. Let's go through these metamorphosis. So they start out as newts with little frills and then they emerge from the water. So they start out as amphibians, I guess, a newt is an amphibian, right?
Ferris & Maureen 16:39
Okay, cool. And then as they metamorphosize, what comes next?
Maybe something like an iguanadon/Komodo dragon type thing? Maybe not fully scaly yet, but somewhere in between the smooth you know, mucosal texture of a newt and a fully scaled on creature. So somewhere in between there. Yeah.
I love that. And then the final stage would be basically that but with a thick shell like a turtle-crocodile mix.
Yeah, like an oyster Godzilla or something.
Incredible. Any other features we want to just tack on? I mean, can they read minds? Do they have little tentacles on their bellies that like feed them as they crawl across the land? Like we can make up anything here?
I'm thinking about their limbs? Do we want them to have like many limbs because they might need support with the heavyweight coming from how big they are. Yes. So that's my thinking that we need them to have so many legs. Let's call them legs.
So like six or eight?
Let's stick with eight.
Cool. So now we're dealing with crocodiles-spider turtles. Amazing. Anything else you want to add Ferris?
Well, I was thinking that maybe they'll have to have something specifically for the heat that they're going towards if they're still moving towards this, you know, 200 degree equator. And also maybe we should talk about, you know, what are they going to encounter? Like, is this planet belted by a lush rich jungle? Or is it like an arid, inhospitable environment? What are they actually moving towards? Because that might sort of help us figure out what they will look like in that final stage.
That's a great point. I think it's going to be symmetric in a way that our planet isn't necessarily. I'm picturing like a desert at the equator, and then like a tropical zone going north and south. So desert and then tropical zone and then at the poles. I don't know, just like, whatever 45 degree latitude is here on Earth, I think that's what the poles are going to be like. So there are some jungles there are some prairies and fields, but that depends on where on a particular landmass you are.
That's really interesting. So you know, if they're moving towards this really harsh tropical belt part of the planet, and they already are kind of forming this shell or kind of scale layers, you know, maybe they're moving towards something like a tardigrade, you know, cyst like ability where they can kind of hunker down for long periods of time in sort of a dormant state to survive alternating droughts and flooding periods. Because often around the equator [and] around the tropics, you have alternating monsoons and dry seasons. A lot of plants and other organisms will evolve the ability to deal with both of those conditions. So that could be interesting. If, you know the beginning stage of its life is actually its most dynamic and versatile. And then as it gets older and gets towards the equator, it becomes more amenable to sort of just sitting in place when conditions aren't great. And maybe there's like a reason for it to reproduce over there. And maybe there's some nutrient it needs at the center that it needs to go there for that. I could see the the shell and the layers fitting into that kind of dormancy -like ability.
I really like that.
Yeah. I think that's funny because I was thinking of how would they feed? What do they feed on if this place is so harsh to life? I was thinking as we get them as newborns, they can feed on each other. They can be like, cannibals or feed on other organisms. But as they grow older, they change and can only feed on like plants that would be there. So they start as meat eaters, but as they grow older, they have to be vegetarian so that they can survive the conditions there.
What if they even became part vegetal as they got closer to the equator? Because we know there are some animals like certain salamanders that will have algae in their embryos. So they're actually like photosynthesizing. And they're sea slugs like the Emerald Sea Slug that has algae in its cells and its body. So it's also kind of part plant. So what if on their cocoon layers, they were accumulating moss and lichen and vegetation as they got closer. And somehow they were getting energy, you know, from the photosynthesis as well. So they start out animal and become more plant-like as they go, that'll be interesting.
I love this so much.
And that would help with the cooling the most. Whenever they get any amount of moisture, it keeps the moisture in it. So [that] would help with the 200 degree weather as they go closer to it.
That's great. And I think this really ties everything together it motivates them for why are they trying to get to the equator, because if they're part photosynthetic, then they want to be where there's a lot of direct sunlight. And also, it makes sense that if they're going to the equator, there's probably not going to be much other animal life in this really extreme hot desert environment that they can eat. So it also makes sense that they would move towards eating plants as they get there. You're great. This is already so nice to see it coming together. I want to talk more about the plants and the crops because in my mind, plants come in seasons, there are some plants that are around all the time. But all plants do have to deal with the changing of the seasons here on earth. And I'd love to understand what it might be like to have plants that always experience the same amount of sun. Do you have any insight on that, Maureen?
Yeah, of course, cuz the equator passes right across my country. And I'm going to use an analogy of the golf course. It's [the] type of grass that we grow in my country that is fully adapted to sunlight throughout.
And for the listeners, can you say where you're from?
Oh, sorry, I'm from Kenya, in East Africa. So the equator passes right across our country. It like divides it in almost half. So we grow [this type of grass] and it grows very well compared to any other kind of grass around there. And it doesn't like it when it's cold.
That makes sense.
So it does very well with warm, sunny season[s] in just a little bit of water. The same grass brought into the USA, we struggled so much to keep it growing because of the sunlight. It just doesn't do well without enough sunlight. You know how we have long days in the summer and short days in the winter? It just doesn't like that. It wants to get like 12 hours of sunlight every single day.
Okay, so we have a lot of that grass here.
So we might need that. And we might need things like cacti, but I'm imagining cactus without thorns to just give these creatures an easier life.
Oh, you're so kind.
I mean, that's the only thing they have. It's not like they think the next season is coming. We don't have seasons, so let's be kind to them and give them cactus without thorns.
What about the tropical jungle-like regions that we might find in the mid latitudes on this world?
I'm thinking a lot of rainfall, cause you know how we say the rainforest. It almost always rains in the rainforests. So also due to the abundance of plants and trees in a very rainy area, we will definitely have competition. So they become very tall because they're competing to get to the sun. And of course they have less sunlight in this region than the equator.
Yeah, less direct sunlight.
Yeah. So they would be competing to be taller than the rest to get more sunlight. So would have very huge forests. Huge in terms of the components of the forest are big, like the big trees in California.
I love this. Are those the redwoods? I can totally picture our little spider-crocodile creatures because at this point, they don't have their shells right when they're passing through this jungle region. I can totally picture them just like standing next to 1,000 foot tall tree.
And it's good because they need that protection [because] at this time, they don't have the shell. So they're passing under shade, shade and rain so they don't dry out.
Yeah. What about behaviors? I'm trying to think of how they might act socially with each other, or any sort of norms that they might follow? Let's imagine them as social creatures, because then it's just more fun.
I think they want to be friends since they're not feeding on each other.
But they did early on, right? When they were closer to newborns closer to the poles they might have fed on each other?
Yeah, but this could be the discussion of the winners like, "yeah, we made it". It was hard, but we made it and like they need[ed] to survive the harsh conditions.
Do you have thoughts Ferris?
It seems like they're kind of becoming more social and peaceable as they go. We were talking about them starting out a little bit cannibalistic, more competitive, and then I would imagine during the migratory period, cooperation could definitely be beneficial. And then I'm sort of imagining their final stages as like incredibly zen, they're almost becoming these rock-like parts of the landscape. [They're] maybe even changing the weather in the environment in some ways, just by being there and being so big, but I can see them maybe like octopuses. When octopuses are born, [they're] these tiny, planktonic creatures, [that] will eat each other. And they kind of have, you know, a reputation as being very asocial and solitary as they get older. But we're finding more and more exceptions of them interacting with each other and other creatures, in interesting ways. So maybe they could be a little bit like that, where they're kind of forced into competition in the very beginning. And then as they go, there's more opportunities and reason for them to be more cooperative with each other.
Yeah, for sure. One thing I just realized [that] might be a little wrench in our world here. When do they have babies? When do they reproduce? And if it is later in life, how do those offspring get to the poles?
That's a good point.
I think like the first quarter of life, let's give them 100 years of survival, just to use as an example. When they are around 20-30 years, when they are halfway through the migration, so that the young ones will tend to move towards the super region for them, because they don't have the hard shell, in the old ones will move in the opposite side towards the hotter region.
Got it. So there's not much parenting, it seems for this species, if the offspring are expected to kind of go on their own way early on?
No, no parenting, I mean, they're going to be hardy creatures. By nature, they're gonna survive.
I could also imagine, [that] maybe they could have like a dual migratory lifecycle. So at the same time that we have, the young coming from the poles to the equators, the adult stage at the equator is actually reproducing, leaving, their offspring that then do the exact opposite journey. So they would be like almost a completely different creature, but still part of the same life cycle, this one organism kind of the way that like a butterfly is, you know, completely different from the caterpillar, different functions, different anatomy and everything. But still [is] obviously the same organism and species. Imagine [that] we have these kind of rock-like, scaly things at the equator, and they're part plant, maybe they're giving off spores or cysts of some kind that are windborne or something, you know, and they can make it all the way back.
Yes. All right. You solved it. Would the wind go from the hot part to the cold parts, or is it the other way around?
Yeah, that's a good question because that's one of the things like when you change one variable, it gets so complicated, so fast. That's something I've been struggling with trying to learn about, you know, "climate science". And it's so hard to model and predict that stuff. And I think changing the axial tilt would definitely have a big influence on, you know, how air currents and ocean currents are moving and [the] distribution of temperatures in both atmosphere and oceans. And that would definitely change how winds are flowing. But I think there [would be] some sort of trade winds or some sort of currents [that] would still be there, that if it didn't take them all the way they could still make use of I think, in some way.
I'm also thinking that the winds could come from the hotter air, and into the poles, but they would cool along the way, since they're coming across the big forests or whatever, you want to call that, they would cool along the way. And they will get this pause there and give them [the] ability to reproduce, rather than them reproducing in the hot area.
I love this too, because if the spores get carried up into the atmosphere, they'll get into the clouds and then they'll rain down into the lakes so that they can start their life off in this nice aquatic newt shape. I think you're naturals. You're naturals at figuring out how to make everything tie in together.
I want to take a little break and then when we come back, we'll talk about the culture on this world. I'm gonna use this break to thank my new patrons Katie, Sydney, Becca, Ross, Nina and Lovis, thank you all so much for supporting the show. If you want to join them in supporting my worldbuilding work, you can head on over to "patreon.com/goAstroMo". My first ever dragon level patron Meredith is so nice. I asked what benefit she'd like to see offered at the dragon level. And she asked for two things. One is a story set in the world of freedom from Episode Six. And I promise I'll get started working on that when I'm done with my dissertation. The other was a shout out to the nonprofit RAICES, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services in Texas. They provide legal representation and social services to people who are immigrating or seeking asylum at the Texas border. Meredith specifically wanted to highlight The Families Together Fund, which works to keep families together, hence the name as they navigate the immigration system. It's a really great organization with an important mission, you can donate on their website, "raicestexas.org". And I'll also be including links to that and The Families Together Fund in the show notes. Thank you, Meredith, for that amazing suggestion. And you'll get that story soon. Everyone will. But let's get back to the show now.
Welcome back from the break, we're going to talk about culture. And the first question I have about culture, obviously, is going to be about how they measure and perceive time? I have always thought of the year in terms of the seasons, like breaking it up into the seasons, and they just won't have that. And Ferris, I invited you on to the show, because I found this really awesome article that you wrote about how different cultures throughout time have perceived seasons and the seasons that they've come up with. So what do you think life on this world would do to measure time?
Yeah, I think a lot of people think about a planet without an axial tilt without seasons, as we know them, it almost a feels instinctively like, so much of time is a race, [and that] nothing's going to change. It's monotonous, it's all the same all the time. But then when you think about what seasons really mean on earth, and how different they are in different parts of the planet. And the very different ways that people have of dividing up the year and thinking about changes, you realize that there's still a lot of diversity. And I think what we've been sort of honing in on is that even though you don't have that same temporal variations in rhythms, you have immense geographic stratification and diversity. And we've created a creature that follows that right there. They're constantly on the move, so I think that their sense of time would be directly tied to their migration. So instead of being in place and moving through time, they're moving through space. And that is sort of for them the same thing as moving through time like it is, it's sort of even more intimately connected than it is for us. So yeah, they're changing the world around them, as opposed to just watching it change around them. [They're] creating the change, really, they're sort of making their own seasons by moving, [and] by changing location.
Yeah, that's a really great point. I love how you said it, that time and space are connected in this way. And as an astronomer, dealing with, you know, the finite speed of light and looking at objects that are millions of light-years away. I also like to think about this connection between time and space. Maureen, what do you think?
I'm gonna say what Ferris said. I had not thought about it that way, but what he says totally makes sense for our world.
What do we think they might call it? Because obviously, they would have a different language, if they have language at all, but instead of getting bogged down in the verbal part of it, how would they communicate that they are in different times and places in their life because everyone is migrating at their own speed? So it seems like this system of timekeeping wouldn't be standardized across everyone. So how do they manage that - do they manage that?
I can almost imagine them having like a mythology, which would help them with that, you know, something sort of like "the hero's journey", but for an individual's lifetime, so their children learn that, you know, this is what it means to be a whatever we would call this creature, as you you have these distinct phases and these different challenges along the way. And not everybody's going through them at exactly the same time. But everybody will go through those stages at some point in their life. And so you know, maybe those different period[s] like we have teenagehood, adulthood, infancy - maybe they would have correlates for that that are matched to their location, and then the obstacles they're going through at that time.
Yeah, that's a great point. Maureen?
My thought would be something we call "age sets", that is like we say "teenagehood". So if they were born around like our 10 years range, they are part of an age set that normally goes through the same kind of thing, but those that are like just above you understand what you're going through and those that are right below you can look up to you and see what they're going to become.
That brings up an interesting point because you see people that are very close in age to you, right? People that are physically near you, because you're like in the same part of the planet, I feel like this means they don't necessarily interact with people who are much younger or much older than they are. So there aren't elders, right? As a young spider-crocodile-turtle person, you don't have access to your elders, and what would that mean for the development of this species if they can't, like pass on knowledge in that way?
I'm thinking that let's say the 70 year old is passing it to the 60 year old, [and] the 60 year old, is passing it to the 50 year old [that] it might not happen at the same time for the 60 year old and the 10 year old to get advice, or to see how the 70 year old is leading their life, but they will carry through those traditions or skills that they needed to go through by age set.
Yeah, I still have in my mind, the sort of final stages this sort of sage-like/Zen-like creature and maybe they sort of stay in the equator, and they they eventually die there, but they become part of the environment, almost like little mountains. So maybe there's a part of their life cycle where the generation just before them that's kind of coming to the equator, spends some time learning from them. We can also think, though, about like, more biological mechanisms like epigenetic inheritance, especially if they're going through metamorphosis, like maybe their environments are impinging changes epigenetically on to them that the offspring can then inherit. And that would really make sense for their second part of their life cycle where they kind of fly back to the poles, because they can kind of genetically carry that information with them because the generation before them have learned what the migration was like most recently, you know, if the planet's gone through any changes, so they can fly back to the poles and use what they've learned to sort of do it better the next time.
I love that. I've been watching a lot of "Stargate SG-1" lately, and the Goa'uld were the symbiote species, the parasitic species in "Stargate". They have genetic memory. They remember everything that their ancestors know. Yeah, that would be really useful here.
Well, it would also be useful in our real world.
True. This has a lot of really interesting consequences because if you remember things that even just your recent ancestors have learned there's no school, which is useful. I didn't want necessarily to imagine our spider-croc-turtles stopping in a school house in the middle of the jungle on their way to the equator. What other consequences of this do we think there might be?
There might also be harbored an enmity, because if you don't forget what your ancestors went through, you will always remember. If we say that they are cannibals at the beginning, so if someone's brother or sister was eaten by someone else, and maybe in the future would have been friends, I will not be able to forget maybe, "his ancestors ate my ancestors brother' or something like there will be like this harbored an enmity amongst the creatures.
That's a really good idea, and if you're holding these petty grievances, based on genetic memory, and you are in an environment where you have to fight other people around you to survive, that's definitely going to add some fuel. Love it. Ferris any ideas for other consequences of genetic memory?
Yeah, I mean, inheriting trauma, I guess, kind of goes along with that, because I guess there's benefit to forgetting, you know, there's the importance of forgetting as well. So I wonder if, over really long periods of time, they could have developed a more selective epigenetic inheritance more adapted to the useful information and not retaining absolutely everything, there certainly are correlates in sort of our neuroanatomy, where, you know, there are periods of infancy that we just can't remember at all, because those neurons got wiped out or rewritten, or whatever happened. And I wonder if they could go through something similar epigenetically, where they're only remembering what's actually useful for helping them to make it through the next time.
I love the idea of the species learning over time that if you only pass on some information that it actually makes it more likely for the species to thrive. That's really cool. So if the spider-croc-turtle people are being born at the polls, and they're moving towards the equator, that means that we're going to have these different populations, some from the north and some from the south that meet in the middle, what would that look like? Especially since by the time they get to the equator, they've reached as you said, Ferris, this "Zen state", where they are less combative and might be more open to actually peacefully interacting with others.
My thoughts are, since we spoke of spores, like all the generations produce some kind of spores... So maybe the population from the North Pole, when it's at the equator, gets blown to the South Pole and maybe the other way around. First of all, they would have to be viable, both of them so that they can interact and produce an offspring.
Yeah. So they would be able to integrate. So probably, eventually, we would have what we call a "monoculture" [where] there would just be one type of creature.
Especially if there's this genetic memory component because whether you're born at the South or the North Pole, you remember what it was like in the middle of the equator. I'd love to think about recreational activities for these spider-croc-turtles. I wrote down sports because I think it would tie in really nicely to Maureen's golf background, but not every species has to have sports. So let's start with what do we think they would do when they're not just trying to survive, or when they eventually get to the point where the entire species can focus on recreation?
My first thought is swimming because we have the oceans. I don't think they would consider it a sport, but it's a way to just maybe relax themselves. I also [don't] think they [would] think [of it as a sport] if they are too heavy, or if the shell [is] light like a turtle's shell, so that it's not too heavy to bring them down.
I think they'd all be really great swimmers, especially since they start life off in the water, then maybe they carry a fondness for swimming with them through their lives.
Yeah, I was thinking the same thing that if they started as a newt-like creatures, they might do surfing or some sort of ocean activity. But I also think that as a species, they'd be really into like orienteering and navigation and maps, because their whole existence is all about migration and moving and I could see them also turning to that for recreation, you know, some sort of elaborate scavenger hunts, or like, just creating maps of unknown areas, like something oriented around that kind of navigation type skill.
I freakin love scavenger hunts so much. And you're right, especially if they have the memory. Why not? It's a great idea. I feel like we should do something with all of their arms. They have eight legs, they can do a lot of stuff with it. What activities might lend themselves really well to having lots of limbs? Can they stand, like alligators or crocodiles, they can't stand up on their hind legs.
Yeah, because of the structure. I was thinking the legs would be a bit taller, not like alligators, but just a little bit taller. And I was wondering, did we give them wings?
We didn't do you want to?
I want to give them capabilities.
Okay, what kind of wings like bird wings or beetle wings or what?
I suppose beetle wings will be better because they have a shell. So they would be able to get them out and then retract and get under the shell. So yeah, let's go with that.
Any thoughts on wings Ferris?
Well, I was wondering if you know, if they're going through forests for a significant part of their life, you'll be wanting to make them partly arboreal. And then I was thinking like, maybe the many legs could be like a millipede like thing that's helping them climb up the trees. But if we're giving them wings as well, then they could be more easily arboreal, you know, now we're getting into like, partly avian territory. So maybe they have some really interesting nesting and flying habits when they're sort of in that migratory forest phase. And that would also be kind of a nice transition to the later airborne planktonic spore phase of their lives. So they're kind of getting used to the air bit by bit as they go.
Yeah. And the wings can also maybe help them stand up on their legs so that they can do stuff with their forelegs. Their six forelegs. Ferris, you mentioned mythology earlier, which implies storytelling and that they can create, do you think there might be a lot of bards or something in this world?
Yeah, I was wondering what kind of art would they be most drawn to and I was thinking about music and dance because to me, they seem like a very kinetic tactile species. We haven't talked [about it] specifically, but I'm not imagining them with very dexterous hands or so they can't really manipulate maybe necessarily that finely, but they can certainly make music and move and dance and such and that could be a great way for them to tell stories and kind of carry culture along. There's a dance called "the tarantula", [and] when you have that many legs, you can come up with some pretty cool dances. And I can also imagine them doing some sort of stridulation, like crickets or something with their legs and their shells, their shells could be like a whole musical part of their culture. And maybe their wings are like thrumming, [and] making background drumming sounds, or some sort of string instrument-like sounds or something.
Yeah, and since they're so big, I'm imagining them as like very long. So they might have the very deep grumble type of voice or a low roar type of thing that they can use to vocalize.
Oh, like a lion-turtle type.
How many animals can we fit into this one creature? Maureen, any thoughts on their art?
I also want to go with music, because I feel like any kind of creature would enjoy music. And with so many parts, they will be able to make different [sounds with their] legs, their wings, and also the hardshells. So the music [would] do well for them.
Yeah, absolutely. Moving on a little bit from art. With this planet not having any sort of axial tilt, I imagined that it might also have more of a stable climate and stable weather patterns in a way that makes meteorology not as important on this world. Like maybe they never even considered meteorology. Like why would you try to predict the weather if it's always predictable? So what other science or research or just like knowledge fields do you think might be really big on this planet? Or what do you think they might not have on that planet that we have here on Earth?
Yeah, the meteorology is particularly interesting and tricky on a planet with no axial tilt. I was reading a little bit about the intertropical convergence zone on Earth, which is where the trade winds meets. And it's sort of partly responsible for this alternating of monsoons and drier periods in the tropics. And the zone can kind of drift north and south. And that sort of determines where monsoons are happening. And so I was wondering, like, would there be a really intense version of that on this planet? Or would the whole mechanism get disrupted by not having the same temperature and light distributions as we have on a planet with a tilt, if it were a planet where there was not as much changeable or chaotic weather as we have on Earth, I could imagine them being really into geology, like kind of the fundamentals like soils, water, that gets much more sort of like play space than it is temporal. So it's like, you know, "what do we know about this region of the planet that we're in during this life phase"? That kind of ecological groundwork type knowledge as opposed to predicting changes throughout the year all the time?
Yeah, that's a really great point. Maureen?
My first thought was would they be living in caves? Can they consider that a science, like do their own living spaces?
Maybe not necessarily a science but like architecture? It's definitely at least a trade. Right? And we never talked about that. Yeah. What do we want them to live in?
I don't know why it came to my mind, but an underground kind of structure.
Like they burrow?
Yeah. And I know that will be hard, because they're really big. But I thought that would be cool.
Especially if you can choose to live underground, or you can choose to live above ground, I think that it adds to the cardinal directions in this world. There is north south, east west, or whatever their versions of that may be but there's also like up because they can fly and they can go into the trees and there's down if they can dig underground. I like that they might think in these multiple dimensions in a way that humans don't always.
Yeah, and there were giant ground sloths, I think giant armadillos or something similar on earth with massive claws, and they dug huge burrows that are basically caves that are still preserved here in South America. So I could totally see them doing something like that. And we've created a creature that's totally defined by change as it migrates, so I think they could have very different dens or burrows or living quarters, you know, at different periods of their life. They start out aquatic, then maybe they're like trees and burrows, depending on the conditions then they're like, self protected, you know, layered, scaly mountain things and then they're airborne wisp so they have so much going on, which is so cool. But yeah, they're incredibly versatile.
I think they'd really be into plant science. I think you and these creatures could talk about a lot Maureen, especially since they have to incorporate it into their bodies to survive. So could you share a little bit about how plant science happens here on earth? Like, what's your job like?
Basically, plant sciences, anything and everything about plants. So the first thing is how do these plants grow? Let's start with existing plants. It's the question of the egg and the chicken, let's start with an existing plant, it's close, it produces flowers and fruits and seeds. Seeds are then the progeny that is going to be used for the next generation. Right? So for these creatures, we say they would have moss or algae, which keeps a lot of water. So like I said, it will help them with cooling the body, since it's a very hot region. Secondly, the plants would feed on the cacti or the desert plants that I mentioned before.
Without the thorns and the spikes.
Yeah, and I know, some plant scientists will be like, "well, the cactus won't do well without the thorns because it needs protection", but I'm imagining where they are growing wildly, like too many sets, and they need the creatures to eat them to control their population. So also the trees, the bark of the tree, I'm thinking it would be good if the creatures will be eating this because some trees can regenerate their bark. So you can feed on the bath and it gets regenerated, but you can't feed into it too much, because you're going to then eat the food production system. So you just want to eat a little bit and leave the rest for the plant to keep growing and producing more.
That leads into a question about norms, that makes me think that there would be a norm around, you know, making sure that you don't over utilize any of these resources. I imagine there would be a lot of like restraint. I think that's the word I'm looking for a lot of restraint among the species as they're going into these more tropical and then into the desert environments. What other norms do we think they might have or follow?
I thought they would need some empathy for each other. I don't know you would consider that a norm, but because they don't have a real societal arrangement, they would need like empathy to be able to survive together.
I think empathy is going to be a lot easier for them if they can literally remember the life experiences of their ancestors. I hope that empathy would be easier.
Yeah, that makes sense.
Ferris, any thoughts on norms or social rules?
Yeah, I was thinking that, as a creature that goes through so much change, maybe they would be more open-minded to individual differences in general - that somebody or something that is different is not bad, that is just different; [and] so maybe they would be less prejudiced in some ways than we're used to here on earth. We were [also] talking about areas of knowledge, and your idea of restraint, and I was thinking, since they live so symbiotically with plants, maybe they're really into ethno botanical medicinal knowledge, and they have this whole culture of saving what needs to be saved, [and] preserving important resources, but also a really fine tuned, incredibly specific knowledge of the plant life around them that's been inherited over and over again, through the generations and refined [in] so many ways, so they know exactly what to use and exactly what it does best.
That's great. Any last thoughts or impressions that you have about this world? Something that you wished we talked about that we didn't before we wrap up?
When these creatures die and they form that literally mountains or whatever, rocks? Do these rocks weather eventually? Or do they just stay forever, in that [state]? [Are they] maybe rocks of a certain ancestry? Maybe it forms in this way, in the other ones are maybe a different color or a different shape and size? Or whatever it is? I don't know what you guys think,
Yeah, I was imagining, you know, they're sort of like a mountain building species in the end. They're literally changing the terrain of the equator over time. And they're also kind of creating their own fossil library, because they're kind of accumulating layers of themselves over geological time, which maybe they would learn to read. Maybe the species learn how to read over time, and that kind of becomes their physical library, in addition to their epigenetic inherited one. But I love the idea of them actually changing the planet's atmosphere or weather patterns in some ways by creating a mountain range of themselves at the equator. And you know, they'd have to deal with that eventually. But yeah, interesting.
That's a great point. Just like we are changing our world and our climate, they can do the same thing, without intending to [or] without meaning to or without being malicious about it. It's a really great point. Ah, wow, this was really fun. Thank you. I I want to be a spider-croc-turtle. I love the idea of being able to experience so many different ways of living in one lifetime. I absolutely love this creature that we've just imagined. So thank you. We are at the end of the episode. So if people want to learn more about you and what you're doing if they want to follow your work, how can they do that? Ferris, why don't we start with you?
I am on Twitter @ferrisjabr. It's also my websites it's "ferrisjabr.com". That's probably the two best places.
And what should people be watching out for?
I usually publish one or two articles in the New York Times Sunday magazine every year. And then my book probably will be a few years in the making ,the pandemic kind of slowed down travel based reporting, but it'll get out there eventually.
Awesome. I'm looking forward to it. It sounds really cool. Maureen, what about you? How can people learn more about you and what you're doing?
People can find me on Twitter and Instagram @MaureenKahiu, there you'll find everything about me. You can also just Google my name, you will find it and you'll find the links there on publishing and all that. I haven't looked that way a lot, but I am going to publish a few papers this year. My name is pretty unique, so you'll just find it. Yeah.
Awesome. Any projects that you're really excited about right now?
Oh, yeah. Like I told you my fictional world is living with plant pathogens [and] evaluating the use of fungicides [that] are used to control fungi.
Like pesticides, but specifically for like fungus?
Yes. So I'm really looking to see the effect of resistance, because the more you use the chemicals, the pathogen develops resistance, that's why I say that I kind of live in that world because it really fights back. A pathogen fights back and mutates, just like you're saying with COVID-19. It mutates and develops some different things to combat what their chemical or their treatment is doing to it. So I'm really excited to see how that turns out.
Cool. Thanks for sharing. The last thing I'll ask you is that I always try to leave my listeners with a creative prompt that they can work on if they're trying to, you know, like practice writing, or writing songs or drawing or whatever. So if you had to come up with a creative prompt, based on this world and this discussion, what would that be? Do you have any ideas?
This is something that I've been thinking about as we were having our conversation. I was wondering, what would a world be like if it was almost completely an ocean planet with just sort of strings of islands? Or conversely, if there was just like a massive landlocked single continent? You know, how would that change weather and seasons and ecology and all of that? It just got me thinking about alternate Earths, like what other big variables could you shift? And then what would the consequences be?
Yeah, it sounds like we should do another episode about a big landmass planet, or these tiny islands - future episode idea right there. Maureen, what about you? Do you have any ideas for prompts?
Since I'm in plant science, what if we think of plants feeling pain? Whenever you pass next to a shrub and you pluck a leaf, the plant would cry out? What would life be like?
Now I'm going back and thinking of all the times I've ever picked a flower or moved a branch out of my way in the forest and I'm picturing it screaming at, but yeah, it's a good exercise. For my prompt, I'm kind of sad that we didn't end up exploring some of the mythology on this world as much as I would have liked to and I would love for our our listeners to imagine what if the winged spider-crocodile-turtle creatures did have a religion? What type of god or gods do we think they might worship? What would those gods look like? What would they do? What parts of nature or life would they have control over? Come up with a Pantheon for these spider-croc-turtle people? Alright, well, that's all I have. Thank you again, so much, Maureen and Ferris for joining me. I hope you had fun.
Yeah. Thank you for having us. This was great.
Yeah, this was awesome. Thank you, Moiya.
Thank you so much to Maureen Kahiu and Ferris Jabr for introducing me... for bringing this winged spider-crocodile-turtle creature into my life. I didn't know that that's what my life was missing. But now I do and I never want to let it go. Thank you for listening. If you want to support my worldbuilding work, the first way to do that is to rate and review the show on Apple podcasts. It's free and I know I say this every time but like it actually does make a difference. And I really enjoy reading them. I enjoy reading the nice ones but so far I've only had nice one. So let's keep that going. Second, you can support me on Patreon which would, you know make it possible for me to keep the lights on in the proverbial Exolore home. You can do that by heading on over to patreon.com/goAstroMo, if you're able, I know, times are hard. This episode of Exolore was edited by Mischa Stanton. The cover art is by Stephen Reisig. The transcription was done by Iesir Moss and the music is from "purple-planet.com". Exolore is a member of "Multitude" which is an independent podcasting collective and production studio. If you want to check out the other Multitude shows you can do that by typing "Multitude" into the search bar of your favorite podcast app. If you liked this episode, and I hope you did, be sure to share it with your friends and subscribe to the show because that way you can catch me next time in season two on another world. Thank you so much for being with me for season one. I really appreciate it. See you soon or talk to you soon.