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Many a Hopeless Matter Scott Rhode If you put new ideas before the eyes of fools, theyll think

you foolish and worthless in the bargain. Euripides Bennett Mayer had put on a lot of weight since his last campaign. His sagging gut, barely contained by a pea-green sweater, oozed over his belt as he waddled to the podium. Also new was the beard, an unkempt chin-fringe much grayer than his slick, black hair. The medias focus on such superficialities rightly deserved the blame for his most recent election defeat, but Mayer seemed to have abandoned concern for appearance altogether. This made his message harder to accept, especially when it sounded positively crazy. Before I attended his speech, I had only the vaguest sense of what Mayers presentation would be about. Radiation in the Arctic, I had been told. Not too far off from the issues he dealt with while in office, and he had spent his post-political career lecturing on various ecological threats. But I couldnt connect any of that with the first image he flashed on the screen: a Greek vase painted with a furious woman holding a sword to a childs throat. Mayer began: When Jason and the Argonauts returned from their quest, they brought back more than just the Golden Fleece. Jason had claimed a new wife, the sorceress Medea. But Jason soon grew tired of Medea and tossed her aside. In a fit of rage, Medea slaughtered her two children by Jason, as depicted on this jar. Viewers of Euripides play would have been spared this gruesome scene, since the action transpires offstage and is described by the Chorus, as was the style at the time. Mayers delivery was mellow and cheery, as if telling a fairy tale to children. The media had criticized his speeches for being too professorial, calling his slideshows notoriously boring. I always thought that was unfair; he was, after all, a professor before he entered politics. Paleontologist Peter Ward coined the term Medea Hypothesis to explain mass extinctions, the repeated attempts by the planet to murder its children. Not as comforting as the Gaia Hypothesis, the notion that natural forces nurture the

2 biosphere. Consider the air were breathing. Oxygen was a waste product of cyanobacteria over two billion years ago, but now it is essential to power the respiration of animal life; to provide the chemical structure of our bodies; and to screen us from the Suns ultraviolet rays. Sure seems like the planet is caring for us, as a mother protects her offspring. Mayer clicked through slides of old-growth forests and coral reefs, as if he were advertising Earth's natural wonders to a potential buyer. Most of us in the audience needed little persuasion of the Earths grandeur. I voted for Mayer twice because I agreed with his environmental stance, and I thought it was shameful that he was labeled Ozone Man on the campaign trail because of his Gaia talk. But what Mayer said next eroded that good will. The mother is now the enemy. I didnt want to believe it myself. Bear with me as I go into some detail, so that you can understand how thoroughly this matter has been studied. Though there are some unanswered questions, what we know is sufficient to justify the drastic response I am proposing. The lecture hall went dark as the giant screen behind Mayer displayed a fuzzy photograph of blue veils, faint against a black, murky background, brightening where they overlapped. I was sure I was seeing an image of the northern lights, somehow pressed flat and arranged in layers. Behold the face of our enemy. Researchers from the Geophysical Institute here in Fairbanks took this photo using a robot submersible, 300 meters below the surface of the Arctic Ocean. The light comes from Betaphilus niteovestis, a bacteria. Archaea, really, though the distinction is academic. The glow is Cherenkov radiation, or shockwaves from particles exceeding the speed of light in water. Specifically, beta particles, the fast electrons produced by radioactive decay. The Betaphilus form sheets in the deep ocean, one cell thick, with a few centimeters of seawater to shield them from the beta radiation coming from their neighbors below them. Yes, Betaphilus are the source of the beta particles, which they also use as their food. This process, called betasynthesis, is unique in nature. Thats because beta radiation normally punches holes through unprotected living tissue. Betaphilus avoid this problem by directing the beta emission, as if through the barrel of a gun. Stacks of pigment harness the energy of the passing particle, much like chlorophyll absorbs energy from photons of light. Or perhaps a more apt analogy would be the fungi living in the Chernobyl reactor that use melanin to

3 photosynthesize with gamma rays. Beta particles are much more energetic than light, so the Betaphilus make a feast of it. The diagrams displayed showed the anatomy of rod-shaped microbes with rays shooting out of them. I struggled to imagine why Mayer considered his new pet to be so significant. Beta decay should be unpredictable, firing particles in random directions. This is the first mystery of Betaphilus: the critters manipulate the weak nuclear force to aim the beta decay in a specific direction. They use free neutrons as ammunition, since neutrons are unstable when not bonded in a nucleus and always decay in 10 to 15 minutes, firing off a negatively-charged beta particle balanced by a positively-charged leftover proton. Am I going too fast for you? No one in the audience had the courage to admit ignorance. Not even me, though I felt whiplashed by the sudden turn from Greek drama to microbiology to nuclear physics. Where does Betaphilus find free neutrons? It makes them from scratch. Betaphilus strips electrons from water molecules and transmutes the electrons into quarks. Now, archaea are masters of exotic chemistry that puts human ingenuity to shame, but no human physicist dreamed that electrons and quarks were interchangeable. They are fundamental particles, with no moving parts to tinker with. Yet Betaphilus performs this miracle. This is its second mystery. The third is what it does with the quarks: by manipulating the strong nuclear force, it glues an up and two down quarks together to form a neutron. It need only juggle the neutron for a few minutes until the neutron destabilizes and fires off a beta particle, which Betaphilus harnesses to pluck more electrons from water molecules, and so on and so on. This happens a thousand times per second for each individual, with up to 100 million individuals per liter in the infested parts of the ocean. The leftover protons are pumped overboard, and the beta particles are stopped by a few centimeters of seawater. The electrons and protons eventually pair up as a steady stream of hydrogen atoms. Because particles at this scale are more than the sum of their parts, the leftover proton is actually 900 times heavier than the two electrons consumed in each reaction. Thus, a curious side-effect of betasynthesis is that the waste output is more massive than the input at a subatomic level. Mayer was using the vocabulary of biology and physics, but he could have been discussing magic, for all the sense it made to me. It was so far beyond my

4 everyday experience that I could easily surrender to his authority. The next slide at least showed an image I could understand: a map. Betaphilus currently dominates an estimated 10 percent of the Arctic Ocean, mostly along the patrol routes of Russian submarines; it is an eager little hitchhiker. The most diverse strains are found near the Kara Sea, which has led to speculation that Betaphilus first developed a taste for radioactivity due to Sovietera nuclear testing and waste dumping. Whatever kick-started this unique metabolism, Betaphilus now has the ability to colonize the lightless depths where phytoplankton fear to tread. No corner of the deep oceanthe largest living space on the planetis denied to these organisms. Mayer paused and glanced at the map of the North Pole as if venerating a cathedrals stained-glass oculus. Impressive critter, isnt it? Betaphilus is a shining exampleliterallyof the awesome power of living things to adapt and overcome. But I must say awesome in the sense of terrifying, for the consequences of these creatures habits will result in the destruction of life on Earth. Not may or might; will. In all his years as a leader of the environmental movement, Mayer had warned of threats to the quality of life or to the survival of particular species. But the destruction of all life? A matter this serious should be common knowledge, not oracular wisdom from an ex-senator. I could not conceive that I, along with the audience of a few hundred others, should be privy to it. The only limit to the growth of Betaphilus is the availability of dissolved carbon and other minerals. This isnt much of an obstacle, since Betaphilus has the potential to monopolize all the biomass in the ocean. If you love seafood like I do, go ahead and eat like its going out of style, because it is. Weve already seen decreased microbial diversity in areas colonized by Betaphilus, where the radiation is as high as 2.7 curies per liter. Nothing can swim in that for long. Betaphilus is effectively sterilizing the ocean of the phytoplankton that cycles oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. At the same time, the accumulation of waste hydrogen presently adds up to almost a billion kilograms per month, a hundred times more than the amount that naturally escapes Earths gravity. The shock to the climate will be incalculable. I do not envy anyone who will be alive to witness it. In the back of the audience, a woman was sobbing. Perhaps she imagined her grandchildren or great-grandchildren suffering through Mayers prophesied catastrophe. I had no children myself, but I could sympathize, and I began to resent

5 Mayer for planting such gloomy thoughts in our heads. As a candidate, his oratory could uplift and motivate people, but as an embittered loser, he was content to inspire nightmares. One thing is certain: Betaphilus will warm the climate beyond our worst fears. Its already responsible for elevated temperatures weve seen in the Arctic and the melting of the ice pack. The heat is a byproduct of beta decay. In Betaphilus colonies, this amounts to between 10 and 20 milliwatts per liter. That might not sound like much, but by the time Betaphilus has infested the entire ocean, that will be enough energy to raise the temperature of every drop of seawater by 100 degrees Celsiusthat is, boilingwithin one year. The spreadsheet Mayer displayed behind him could have been actuarial tables, as coolly as he discussed it. Mayers somber, patrician demeanor was working against him. I could hardly believe his grave prognosis if he couldnt muster more passion. He should have been fired up like a revival preacher. Life has survived swings in global average temperature ranging from as cold as 10 degrees Celsius to hothouse periods of 25 degrees, but a jump to 100 degrees in such a short time will overwhelm the ability of any organism to adapt. Nothing will be spared. If nature is punishing humanity for our sins, she goes too far. With Betaphilus as her instrument, she murders all life on Earth. I scanned Mayers calculations for some error, some loophole. If this phenomenon was as unprecedented as he said, he must have made a mistake. You will want to know: how long until Betaphilus has saturated the ocean? Well, a typical bacterial population can double every 20 minutes or so, given enough food. Betaphilus can obtain energy from water alone, but to build copies of itself, it must expand into new areas that have not been depleted of raw materials. From its toehold in the Arctic, Betaphilus would take centuries to spread into the southern oceans, covering about 2 meters per day. Mayers next slide was a map of the world. An animated blob metastasized from the North Pole, reddening the seas. But it did not advance like an invading horde; the red infection sprouted from multiple sites on the coastlines of every continent. In the corner, a clock ticked with each frame of the animation. I couldnt bear to watch the countdown. Unfortunately, we have hastened our own destruction. A colony has been detected in Dutch Harbor, probably from stowaways on the hull of a ship that sailed through the Arctic. The Aleutian fishing fleet is scattering them throughout

6 the shipping lanes, where passing freighters carry Betaphilus to every major port in the Pacific Rim. From there, they hitch rides anywhere in the world, seeding themselves in fresh ocean provinces. Estimates vary, but the most reliable figure is that Betaphilus will reach saturation, not in centuries, but within about 30 years. It had to be a scam. We could not be so near to the precipice. To think that my generation would be so special as to be living in the last days required more arrogance than I believed I was capable of. Its true that Betaphilus itself will face extinction when it boils away its own habitat. But that does not mean, as some have suggested, that we can simply wait out the crisis. Like many archaea, Betaphilus can tolerate extreme conditions much better than we can. Waiting is not an option. That is why we must stop arguing about the severity of the threat and take action immediately. You might think we could eradicate Betaphilus by scrubbing the ocean as if it were a gigantic swimming pool. Even if we could muster the industrial-scale effort required, we risk doing as much damage to the marine ecosystem in the process. Others are working on a different approach, engineering a virus to target Betaphilus and disrupt its metabolism. While some tantalizing experiments have shown promise in the lab, this only works when Betaphilus is directly inoculated. In the wild, viral particles are liable to be fried by beta radiation. A virus cant get close enough to attack. By offering these possibilities and snatching them away, Mayers lecture took a turn for the sadistic, like a Grand Inquisitor twisting the screws of an elaborate engine of torture. If there was some way I could fight this menace, I was willing to help. But Mayer was not selling any easy solutions. Im not saying we shouldnt pursue these avenues at all, but the odds of success are so slim that we must prepare a fallback position. If the Gaia principle is still valid, then the existence of human intelligence at this moment in history, when all life is threatened, is no coincidence. We are the way Earth will ensure its survival. At last, the vigor returned to Mayers voice. For the audience, though, it was too late. Whatever cheap thrill we might have sought by being in the same room with the great, the famous, the honorable Bennett Mayer, his dire lecture had drained that excitement away. The thick-necked man sitting beside me buried his face in his callused hands. He did not see the next slide: another Greek vase, this one with two serpents hauling a cart across the sky.

7 After she murdered her children, Medea had to flee from Corinth. Her only escape was a magical chariot provided by her grandfather, the sun god Helios. Euripides ends his play with the Chorus saying, according to one translation, Many a hopeless matter the gods arrange. In other words, when placed in an impossible situation, virtue can only be found in surrendering to fate and acknowledging your humble place in the universe. The image of the chariot faded away, replaced by an entirely different kind of vehicle: a gleaming cylinder set against a starry backdrop. Our place is not on Earth, but the stars. We must abandon this planet and find a new home. Like Medea, we will ride our chariot into the heavens. A craft like this will become our ark, carrying specimens of terrestrial life to re-establish a biosphere on a more hospitable world. Hypothetical starship designs have been on the drawing boards for decades, giving us a head start. But this is still an enormous task that will take decades to complete. We must begin immediately. I laughed. I was not conscious of the sound escaping my throat until others in the audience turned their eyes toward me. His starship scheme would never work. Even if it could be built in time, an ark couldnt possibly contain enough of the biosphere for however long it would take to find a new refuge. Mayer had persuaded me too well; the matter was truly hopeless. In that moment, I became Medeas accomplice. I pre-emptively snuffed out my own children. My conscience would not allow me to bring new lives into the world if their days would be miserable and short. More chuckles began to simmer in the darkness of the lecture hall. The young Native couple in front of me zipped their coats and headed for the exit, though Mayer was still explaining the schematic for his imaginary starship. The audience would rather behave as if the whole thing were a hoax. Mayer had not made himself a pariah by shouting out a warning that nobody wanted to hear; he had ruined his reputation by advocating a delusion of salvation. He kept talking, but no one was listening.