Episode 4: The World of Dancing Seals
The shape of Earth's orbit has NOTHING to do with our seasons, but what if there was a world where the orbit shape DID affect its climate? Apparently genital size on that world would depend on tooth size just like it does here on Earth... for some reason.
1. Misha Grifka Wander is a getting their PhD in English at Ohio State University. They're the cohost of the podcast Big Dice Energy and you can follow them on twitter at @MishaGrifka.
2. Shannon Odell is a neuroscientist and comedian in NYC. She cohosts two different podcasts, Fun City Ventures and the Science of Self Care. You can follow her on twitter at @shodell
3. Kyle Marian is a comedian and former physical anthropologist. She introduces academics to the world of stand up comedy in her show Symposium. You can follow her on twitter at @kylemarian
Hey there, nerds. Welcome to Exolore, the show about facts based fictional world building. I'm your host Moiya McTier, and today I'm joined by an English PhD student, a neuroscientist, and a former physical anthropologist, her words, not mine. Today we're imagining the life and culture on an alien planet that has a very eccentric orbit. So, let's get started. Let's start with introductions so that everyone knows who you are, and what you're doing here. Misha, you're at the top of my screen. So do you want to start by telling us who you are and what you do and something that you're reading or watching right now?
Sure, um, my name is Misha Grifka Wander, and I am an English grad student at Ohio State University. I focus on media from web comics to videogames and speculative fiction, so sci-fi and fantasy with a special focus on sort of gender, race and environmental issues. And what I'm reading right now is actually a really cool academic book that I'm writing a review on called, "The Paradox of Blackness [in] African American Vampire Fiction", I believe, which is using stories about African American vampires as a lens to explore what it means to be black in America.
That's amazing. I don't think I've ever even read or seen something with black vampires.
Yeah, that's one of the things they investigate. They're like, if you think vampires, you think it's white thing, right? It's really cool, and I can talk about it for hours. We can do that off recording.
Please, I would absolutely love that. Shannon, do you want to go next?
Who are you? What do you do, and what are you reading or watching?
Yeah, I'm Shannon Odell. I am a neuroscientist. I just finished my PhD in neuroscience in December.
No big deal.
No big deal. I studied memory. Um, right now, I am watching a lot of Tara's House, the last season - the latest season that is. I'm almost done with the episodes that are out on Netflix, and then I guess there's some like episodes they have in like the backlog, but then it gets shut down. So anyway, I've been loving it. I love Tara's House.
Awesome. Kyle, what about you?
I'm Kyle Marian. I am a science communicator, a comedian like Shannon, shout out.
Oh yeah, I'm a comedian, too. I forgot.
Plug, plug right? And I used to study Physical Anthropology, Human Evolution, and I taught Human Gross Anatomy for a while at Stony Brook University. And yeah, I know a little bit about a lot of stuff that I don't know is relevant anymore. So
I realized I didn't do we didn't do pronouns mine are, they-them.
And I'm also she-her.
So my name is Moiya McTier. I'm an astrophysicist and a folklorist. So that's what I'm bringing to this, my pronouns are she-her, and hers and I am reading "The Poppy War" by R.F. Kuang, and it's given me very like, "The Name of the Wind" vibes, which is one of my favorite books by Patrick Rothfuss. So I recommend, it's pretty good. It's like, "The Name of the Wind", but better and by a woman and it's like set in kind of East Asian cultures with myths and it's really cool, the world building is pretty good which is relevant to our discussion.
Oh, did I share what I'm like watching reading? I don't think I did. So the last thing that I watched was "Portrait of a Lady on Fire", which was very beautiful. Um, but I feel like my actual reading time is spent playing Catan. Relevant? Yeah, yeah. Okay.
I've been doing a lot of that too, so I get it.
I also could have included, like what are you playing? What other worlds are you inhabiting in your brain? Alright, so let's get started on the planet. So ... you may have seen in the subject line of the email that I called it "Eccentric World", which I realized might not be very clear. So the planet that we're building today is a planet that has an eccentric orbit, which essentially just means that instead of an orbit, that's a circle, the orbit is an oval if I can make that shape with my hands. So it's an oval, and one side of the oval is much closer to the planet star than the other side. So over the course of its year, the planet spends most of its time very far away from its star, and it spends a little bit of time very close to its star. So summer on this planet is like a few weeks long, and over the course of its year it experiences extreme temperature and brightness swings. So when the planet closest to its star, the star looks two times brighter. It looks twice as bright as our sun does, and the temperature is about 20% higher than we get here on earth. And when the planet is the farthest away from its star that it gets, the star looks very dim. It's about a tenth as bright as our sun looks, and the temperature is like half the temperature that we get here on Earth. So that's what we're working with. Let's get started with questions. So the first thing that I usually start with is thinking about the biology, and what the aliens on this planet would look like. So what types of physical traits do you think the aliens on this planet might evolve?
So funny? I think well for me, one of the things is like okay, so if on this planet some sort of humanoid like, actually evolved on it. It's interesting because the relationship that we have with the sun, there are hypotheses out there about why humans ended up bipedal, and why we chose to do that in our evolutionary history of our ancestors. One which, our ancestors evolved in Africa, particularly in like savannah areas that had some trees and not and so like, prior to getting on two feet, there's a hypothesis that we were arboreal, so living in trees swinging and trees more like chimpanzees, bonobos. And so like there was a point where we moved on from that kind of tree environment and that kind of ... pushed us to evolve to walk on two feet. And so I wonder what that would mean in terms of like, not having too much sun? In which case, you didn't need to have, like a pressure to be on two feet and and be less exposed with the heat or not have as much hair, for example, for your thermo regulation. So, maybe these are just like, hairy, like surface dwellers, or maybe they're naked underground people. I don't know.
That's what I was thinking a lot about the temperature swings and like what that means and because, you know, like, most species kind of like homeostasis, you know, they like things to stay the same. So I'm wondering ... do the species like all live underwater, like deep underwater all the time, so they don't really have to be affected by the change in temperature, or like, are they super mobile in terms of like, they go up high into the mountains when they're in the hot time; and then you know, when it's colder they go back to ... not the mountains? Why can't I speak? But like trying to think of how they would want to regulate their temperatures, and how that would change their behaviors, not just like, whether they have theater or not, or like what they look like, but also like, I'm of course thinking about their behaviors because neuroscientists.
I was just thinking like, we have animals that hibernate during the coldest part of the winner. And maybe in this world, I wonder if we instead would have animals hibernating during the hottest part of the year because most of the year is the coldest part of the year.
Yeah, um, and to add to that, too, like, a lot of animals, especially mammals are like either diurnal, so during the day, animals or nocturnal during the night and if they evolved eyeballs like many of us, they would have giant pupils because they're probably more accustomed to darkness. That sort of thing so like, super cute anime like giant pupils.
Like then if it was twice as bright as our sun, I feel like it would be really hard on your eyes that had evolved for mostly like a tenth of our sun's brightness.
Or like two weeks, they're just like walking around with their eyes closed.
Or maybe -
I mean, that's hibernation., right?
Or thinking about hibernation and life cycles, maybe ... the life cycle only lasts the warm season. And you know, maybe it's a species that lays an egg and the egg, you know, kind of just sits there the whole winter and then only hatches. That would be kind of fun. I would love to live in an egg.
I feel like that would make sense that there were these species that do have that like really short, just for a summer lifecycle, but then I feel like the vacuum left, the rest of the year will be filled by something right?
The night walkers and the day walkers.
So there are obviously going to be a lot of different species on this planet. I'd like us to focus on what type of species and what traits and behaviors we think would lead a species to be the most dominant on the planet like the human equivalent? It doesn't have to look like humans. In past Exolore episodes, we've decided turtles, moles, like various creatures that are based on animals here on Earth, rose to power because their traits just made them more successful. So can you think of any animals here on earth that you feel would do very well in this environment?
I think that you have ... two potential options right, or the like animal that's like well adapted to the cold part of the year and is able to sort of hide or hibernate or move to withstand the warm part of the year. Or highly adaptable animals more like humans, I guess that are able to survive throughout the year through use of mobility or tools or something like that. I feel like you could follow either path.
Yeah, I haven't done anything with migratory animals yet in an Exolore episode; so maybe they migrate because just like we have here on Earth, different latitudes experience seasons differently. And so you can have an animal that just moves to a different latitude during the hot seasons. It moves to one of the poles.
Yeah, I like that. I like a migratory animal. I'm trying to think of what animals are the most migratory. It could be fun to do like, a goose or something like a bird, or like a butterfly, I don't know.
I would love to do like giant geese. Giant geese would make me so happy.
I think one of the things that like popped into my head too is even if they're migratory what their skin or exoskeleton might look like, because the more that they can easily thermoregulate or like it might be that during the times when the planet is farther away from their star, that you know they have softer skin and like you know, but then during the times when they're closer to the star they have, you know, they look like the Tesla new Monster Truck thing.
Are there any biological mechanism I can actually make that happen?
In humans, I mean a lot of animals. melanin is a huge player for allowing our skin to be adaptable, right? Um, so I'm kind of curious what that means for animals that would then have to deal with, like, extreme seasonality. I'm trying to think. I don't know. Not sure what comes to mind.
Okay. Misha, what were you gonna say?
I was thinking that I don't remember who I think was maybe Shannon mentioned underwater? Living in water is like a potential way to help with the homeostasis issue. Um, because you know, water I believe.... I'm not the scientist here [but] water heat up less fast than land.
Very scientific, hundred percent.
So that like animals ... like seals, for instance that are able to pack on the blubber for the cold time of the year, and then maybe these animals would be able to like dive and spend those two weeks of the summer like pretty deep, where the sunlight can penetrate as much and so the heat from that really close star would not be as big a deal for them.
Yeah, yeah, let's go with that. Let's go with seal people.
Also, it's cute.
So cute, and maybe during the summer weeks, they can find like cute little underground or like underwater caves? So they can still breathe because they breathe air right?
Seals? Yeah. Seals are mammals, yeah?
They're mammals. Yeah. I was confused if you meant like, this new creature on your planet is air breathing in which case, I don't know. Your choice.
Do we know what the atmosphere is like?
That's the great thing about this.
Do we know?
You can assume that everything except for what we decide is different is exactly like Earth. Okay so we have settled on seal people, so they can put on blubber when it's colder and they can migrate pretty easily through the water. I absolutely love this. Let's move on to talking a bit past their biology let's think about their culture. Kyle, you look like you have something to say.
I'm so glad that you said that because as soon as we started talking about sort of, like what is called phenotypes so like what something looks like. Immediately in my head and like, oh, sexual selection! You know, like during the winter months versus during the summer months of two weeks, like when do they mate? And also, what is like the signal of like, "hey, I'm hot"?
Let's talk about you know what would that be? What would a mating ritual on this planet look like?
I was thinking about like, if you're talking about underwater caves. I kind of liked the idea of having that time when in the summer when you like, go down into the depths, and it's like two weeks that are like totally different from the rest of the year. And I feel like that could feel sort of like a sacred time of the year or potentially that's the time when you're like, "hey, I found a really cool cave. Come on, check out this cave I found".
I love that. And that reminds me of my favorite animal behavior that I can think of, which is bowerbirds that create the ... bowers. Does anyone else know this?
I'm not familiar.
Um, so bowerbirds, they're birds, and they like use twigs, or they'll use anything they find to create like, a beautiful little space in the forest, and that's how they attract mates. It has nothing to do with the mating, it's just they create a beautiful space. And then the mates come and they check it out. And they're like, "oh, I don't like it" or "oh, I like it". And I just love that idea.
That's perfect. I love that because it's like the sexual selection is can you signal to others that you can make the coziest den during the hottest months or the hottest weeks of the year.
I also love this because I imagine that sets up a market or like an industry for consultants who will help people build the best, like underwear cave dens that they possibly can to attract mates like that that is a job that people will have on this planet.
Well, and like I think that translates really well from the pure like sort of biology of like, "can you make a safe place to live during the summer," to the cultural like "well, like, I really liked this person's, you know, cave at first, but they had decorated like really pretentiously. And so I wasn't ended that". Like it translates really well into culture and the sort of like, higher intellect.
Yeah, there could be whole reality TV shows about this.
I wonder what that cave paintings would be like?
Picking a cave before you pick your partner.
Yeah, it's like blind dating. You just see the profile, but you don't get to see the pictures and it's like choose, and it's like "okay"!
Oh, this is fantastic. Since we're talking about dating and mating anyway, what about beauty standards? What types of traits would be really attractive on this planet?
Fur, a lot of fur.
Maybe tusks? Do they have tusks? Is that walruses?
I don't know anything about seals apparently.
Sea lions I think have tusks, but we can verify 'cause we have internet.
Or we can just make it up 'cause we are creating this creature in our minds.
Seals have whiskers, right?
Yeah. I mean the question of tusks though is also like tied to dominance, right and showing, you know. In primates, the size of your canines, like really also signal both, like competition as well as like, you know, diet; but one of the other things too that's interesting is that that kind of like show of teeth plays a role in you know whether or not you're like trying to be submissive or like trying to be dominant in groups, especially for social groups. So like, if they're social animals, then there's a lot of those dynamics that like flow into dentition in many ways.
Kyle, is that this is about to get real personal. Is that why I'm very attracted to people who have long canines? Like, this is just something I've noticed about myself.
Maybe it's because you like vampires I assume.
I think it's that.
Okay, cool. Glad I put that out there. Awesome. I'm really interested in how they would kind of preserve and pass on knowledge from generation to generation? So I feel like this plays really well into Misha and Shannon's respective backgrounds in English and memory. So how do you think they would do it? If you could come up with like your ideal way for them to pass down knowledge?
I feel like there's a question of preservation just due to the physical, like, situation of being underwater, right, because like paper, not not super great. Um, even like stone carvings, I think ... deeper down, I don't think they would be worn away as much. Again, science not not my thing. But um, I feel like you have a question of like, durability, and I wonder if those like seasonally linked rituals and storytelling and like behaviors that you're expected to do, and modeled by your parents and everyone else in your community would be an important vehicle for transmitting knowledge. Yeah.
I feel like my mind went immediately to that, because like, it's seals, they don't really have hands. I don't think so. For writing and stuff, but I like to even think about the idea of even like language and like, what would language be? Is it actually like a vocalized thing or could like language exists in like, you know, kind of like performance, like the way they swim or, like how the communication happens? Could be a cool thing to think about, like, what's the best way to communicate underwater? Maybe there's different forms like, there's long range communication versus like, if you're actually visually in front of someone. But yeah, I love the idea of like, there's like seasonality to it, though. Like, what are the rituals? What are the stories? What are the performances they're doing?
That makes me think of dance as something that like, is better underwater because you can move in more directions. Especially if you don't have hands like that's fine. You can do cool tail dances, and that might also be something that ties into this sort of mating and sexual differentiation, where like, if you are really eloquent as you dance, like that's the equivalent of being really well spoken and really charming. And also, potentially, like, you feel confident enough in your ability to care for yourself and your family that you don't mind burning a couple extra calories, doing a cool dance.
One of the things that jumped out at me too is like, this is I feel like our chosen dominant species is very social, like, because a lot of these things, you know, it's a lot harder, even in the ocean to communicate and build kind of culture without that level of social connection. And so, I don't know, maybe some of their language could include bubbles, and dance and that sort of thing.
Yeah, I mean, especially if they breathe oxygen, they can make bubbles.
And there are so many different types of bubbles. I don't know have you seen those really cool videos of like ... the donut bubbles. Like, they can make bubbles of different shapes underwater, and I feel like that will add some complexity to the language that would be really great.
I also wonder if there's we're talking about, like having a really social species which I think makes total sense. If you have like seals, I think you have like a little pod and they travel together. And would this species have like, you know, extended clan groups or extended pods that, um, develop their own style of communication and if they ... happen to meet like a whole other pod in the ocean, are they going to necessarily have the same link? Maybe only one of the pods relies on dance, and one of them is like, we think bubbles are better. One of them is like, "we just poke each other with our noses".
Maybe there's a whole like a career which is just like being a translator for the different pods. You go from place to place and you're like, "I know all these languages".
I think that'd be an especially important job because as they migrate, they're gonna run into so many different pods, that even if you don't speak the other language, it's important. to have some way to communicate with strangers. So yeah, a translator is another coveted position among these people.
That also makes me think that they might have ... like a gifting culture? 'Cause I feel like a lot of human societies that often run into language barriers have like robust tradition of posting and gifting, because that crosses language barriers much easier.
I love that.
What would some gifts be?
But also decorations, I think it sounds like aesthetics is really important to this culture. Um, things that you can put in your home, things that you can use to decorate your area, and attract whoever you're trying to attract would be really valuable.
So things like stones and coral and colorful underwater plants type of thing?
Yeah, I could see there also being another career of like, thinking only jobs of like, individuals who go out like, not near where the pods are and just search for things like at the water's edge to collect and bring back, like weird plants or like, just like weird rocks and stuff.
Yeah, well, there's stuff like petoskey stones and stuff, but I think only they're a lot easier to find ... on the beach rather than like, all the way underwater.
What are those?
I'm from Michigan, where it's a big thing; and they're named after a place in Petoskey. It's this specific kind of rock. They look pretty normal when they're not wet, but when you get them wet, they have a sort of tiled look to them. That's from little fossils there. It's just like a little colony of sea creatures that are all over in Michigan. They're really pretty and people like polish them and use them as jewelry and stuff.
That's so nice.
Yeah. Michigan trivia.
This could fall into the realm of gifts, but I have a two parter question. The first part of this question is for Shannon, and it has to do with drugs. So I'm really curious about what makes some substances react with our brains to get them high. Is it because they're rare in our environment? So our brains just aren't used to them?
Yeah, I mean, it depends like what we're looking about in terms of drugs, if we're looking at the high aspect then it has to do with ... the feeling of like high is like associated with serotonin it's an actual like, you know it activates serotonin receptors in terms of like the addictive nature of why we like drugs or we seek out drugs has to do with dopamine so another neurotransmitter so it's it's not actually that they're like rare, it's actually that they act on receptors we already have in our brain so that's why they actually work the way they do. They kind of take advantage of I mean - I don't know if drugs take advantage of these receptors that we already have in our brain or they've co-evolved with us sometimes to kind of be that way. So yeah. It's interesting to think about. Are we thinking about ... what drugs would be?
Yeah, and drugs can be recreational, they can be spiritual, they can be used for so many different things. They can be given as gifts. And so I was wondering if we could think of what types of mind altering substances they might have in this society? I guess that's just something we like have to make up unless we know the chemistry of everything under the ocean.
Right? True. I mean, we could also think about things like, if they do have, you know, brains similar to ours, like, if we're talking about novelty, like most species are drawn to novel things, you know, novelty actually elicits, you know, a rewarding response. So maybe super novel things in these species' brains, do act like a drug where they become really addictive because you want that novelty.
And that would maybe stimulate a migration response as well.
Oh, yeah, that's true of like you want to go to a new place? And yeah, 'cause they have to be driven. Yeah, in some way.
Yeah, and I can imagine that there are some things like plants that only grow during the three weeks of summer. And so there's there's a huge push to gather as much of that during that short period as you can and kind of stock up for the rest of the year.
And you can even think about, like, you know, things that are grown in warm, or they might be high in sugar and things like that. And that's always going to be something that's rewarding as well because it's just like a high energy content. And yeah, most species brains are wired to really like things that are high in energy.
That makes me think that like because the summer weeks will be more extreme in temperature, right? You're more likely to get fruits and flowers that are like so sweet during that time, and so they'll probably be like, the rush to land specifically for that sort of thing. Or like there's a very particular seasonality where these guys will, you know, get high or get drunk, right? Like sugars get you drunk - fermentation. So, yeah.
So maybe there's that push pull of like, it's sort of dangerous for them to go up to the surface because of that extreme heat, but you have like, if you're one of the daring ones, and if you're willing to like put your body through that. There's all these cool flowers fruits like algae blooms, I don't know, that await you on the surface, and will be really valuable if you can make the journey back.
That's another job right there. Yeah. I like that we keep coming back to different roles that this society would have, that makes me happy.