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Nov 29, 2016
On science, storytelling, and the art of being ‘progressively less wrong.’ Yelizaveta Renfro, October 2016
Saw ground squirrel holes (amazing story about how their body temperature in winter goes below freezing — 26°F — they stay underground eight to nine months a year, occasionally they shiver — in big pile together underground — and bring their body temperature up to normal, then they stop and it plunges back down below freezing. Some process in their brain that allows them to do this — squirrels are part of Alzheimer’s research).If hibernation were an extreme sport, the arctic ground squirrel would be world champion. A Scientific American article explains how, in the 1980s, researchers at the University of Alaska–Fairbanks implanted sensors in the abdomens of a dozen ground squirrels, then left them to hibernate in outdoor wire cages. 2 Their body temperatures dropped to minus 2.9° C, the lowest ever recorded in living mammals, and yet the blood of these “supercool” animals didn’t freeze solid. Every couple of weeks, they shivered and shook themselves until they reached a normal body temperature for a period of twelve to fifteen hours, in order to maintain vital neural connections. Then they plunged back into torpor.
This may be our oldest, truest survival skill: the ability to tell and to learn from each other’s stories, whether from Aesop’s fables, quest narratives, Greek mythology, the Book of Genesis, office gossip, the wisdom of elders, or made-for-TV movies. In some ways, Alaska is nothing but stories. We have constructed many of our ideas about this place, and about ourselves, from creation stories, gold rush stories, hunting and fishing stories, pioneer stories, family stories, clan stories.Reading this, I understand something about the small bits of ground-squirrel research I was able to retrieve over the road camp’s spotty internet: it takes a brilliant imagination to connect these creatures of the arctic tundra which lay torpid underground for three quarters of the year with the elderly human beings who are losing their words, their memories, themselves. Science can be masterful storytelling indeed.