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Let's bring kids in on this NHI odyssey
Just not in Florida, where MAGA grifters are running the table
“People aren’t the apex species they think they are. Other creatures — bigger, smaller, slower, faster, older, younger, more powerful — call the shots, make the air, and eat sunlight. Without them, nothing.” — Richard Powers, The Overstory
Unless and until nonhuman intelligence (NHI) loses its mind and leaks the game plan to human beings, Italian botanist Stefano Mancuso’s pursuit of its more accessible manifestations is as good a lead as any. He studies the terrestrial organisms that broke away from our brain-shackled forebears 1.6 billion years ago and have dominated the planet ever since. Their accounting for 82 percent of Earth’s biomass is a success story Mancuso calls plant neurobiology, a term that makes a lot of his peers choke.
Long before what we call brains came along, Flora picked a more efficient way to govern memory, behavior, and movement, to outmaneuver and outlast any and all obstacles. She did it by operating in a different time and space, and she didn’t need a brain for that. Too risky, too vulnerable, those overrated brains, cramming the whole library of cognition into a single housing. Better to decentralize all that know-how and distribute it throughout a vessel’s entire framework. Flora’s farsighted and mind-boggling evolutionary head start has prepared her so well for the Anthropocene epoch, she even converts its insults into new opportunities.
Small wonder then, Mancuso says, that Noah didn’t bother to stock the Ark with plants. They didn’t need Noah’s help to weather God’s wrath, and he knew it. But if humanity hopes to live on the moon or any other off-world platform in order to escape the wreckage we’ve created, ignoring botany is not an option.
In The Evolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior, Mancuso recalls an experiment for the European Space Agency designed as a potential first step for colonizing alien soil. The subject was a geranium called Erodium cicutarium, chosen for the astonishing burrowing abilities of its seeds.
Released by their pods in explosive bursts of energy triggered by a gust of wind or a passerby, the hurled seeds flare bristle-like spikes, called awns, which cling to anything moving and catch free rides to distant points. Once sloughed off, the awns steer the pointed seed tips into the ground, then corkscrew them into germination depths, which they achieve quickly by expanding and contracting according to fluctuations in ambient humidity.
Um, maybe use a stick . . ?
The experiment hoped to determine if Erodium’s movements could serve as models for self-drilling machinery, but documenting those dynamics was a problem. The project required both super-fast photography (1,000 frames per second) and protracted time-lapse imagery, and researchers were stymied by the unpredictable timing of Erodium’s seed bursts. At Mancuso’s International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology (LINV), analysts who kept recording in anticipation of explosion events were running out of digital storage space for the footage.
That’s when the introduction of an unforeseen variable – a middle-school student – helped break the impasse.
During a field trip to LINV, a visiting kid disobeyed the ground rules, pulled a thin wooden stick from his pocket, tapped a pod still attached to the plant, and – to the horror of his teacher – made it explode. That’s how the boy and his playmates routinely triggered Erodium theatrics in a meadow back home. But his mischievous impulse proved a breakthrough moment for the lab, because researchers had been overlooking what seemed so obvious to the kids.
“Finally,” Mancuso announced, “we had a practical system to induce the expulsion and could therefore proceed with our studies. In the following months, we carried out thousands of ‘controlled explosions.’ Thank God for rebellious children. The results obtained at the end of the study prove that every single aspect of the Erodium seed has its precise function.”
Which brings us to the point: Given the All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office’s ragwater contributions to the UFO/UAP conversation, waiting around for bureaucrats to break any news is pointless. Maybe it’s time to get the kids onboard. Especially kids whose curiosity hasn’t yet been stifled by cultural taboos or cynical adult consensus.
A couple of years ago, Robert Powell’s grandson came home with a book about UFOs he’d checked out of the school library in Texas. Co-author of UFOs and Government: A Historical Inquiry and a leading researcher with the Scientific Coalition for UAP Studies, Powell says the 8-year-old probably wanted to know more about what grandpa found so interesting. But the book he brought home dealt at least partly with alien abductions.
Ixnay on the eedlesnay
Powell doesn’t remember its name, but here’s a related excerpt from a 1999 title, Invaders From Outer Space: Real-Life Stories of UFOs. It’s written for Level 3 students, independent readers ages 7-9: “At first the aliens were quite friendly and Betty was not afraid. They carefully took samples of the couple’s hair and skin. Then they pushed a long needle into Betty’s stomach near her navel. The aliens seemed fascinated by Barney’s false teeth . . .”
“I said Gavin, I don’t want you to read that book, take it back to school,” Powell remembers. “I will write you a proper book about UFOs.”
Sure enough, in 2021, Powell self-published a children’s book called The Truth About UFOs. He figures it could hold readers anywhere from 7 to 12 years old. Ten stories, no abduction stuff, some familiar close-encounter cases going back to the 1940s, low on menace, high on wonder. It’s also a subtle call to action. He ends a segment on the famous JAL Flight 1628 encounter off Alaska in November 1986 by goading young readers to poke mom and dad:
Some people think that the pilots saw a planet in the sky. Do you think that would explain what happened? Would you have asked for military jets to be scrambled if you had been the pilot? Why or why not? Why do you think the UFOs were following the jet? Tell your parents this story and get their opinion.
“I’d like to think it’s a lesson to kids about logical thinking – it’s like we’re not thinking logically anymore,” Powell says. “When you first see something in the sky, for that first split second, you don’t know what it is, so it’s a UFO. But you usually figure it out pretty quick. This is about looking at something and thinking logically about it before you make a decision – and that goes way beyond UFOs.”
Gobs of money to burn
This brings us to an even larger point – the future of critical thinking in America. And if you live in Florida, if you’re paying attention, you’re a bystander to a five-alarm fire. There’s a revolution underway in the state’s education system, a social engineering experiment on a scale never seen before. And headlines about Florida’s book bans and “don’t say gay” legislation are just tuneups – maybe even distractions – for the main event.
In a state that ranks 49th nationally in per-student spending and teacher pay scales rank 48th, the main event is a massive transfer of cash from public to private education. This year, the veto-proof Republican legislature approved an expanded voucher program with a price tag estimated at between $200 million and $1 billion-plus, open to paupers and jillionaire spawn alike.
Ground zero for the landslide is here in Sarasota, where the blitz began in January. That’s when Gov. Ron DeSantis began dismantling the state’s small, progressive but politically powerless honors school – New College of Florida – and remaking it in the image of Hillsdale College, a private Christian liberal arts school in Michigan. The New College president was fired and replaced by Florida’s erstwhile Education Commissioner, a DeSantis toady whose new “interim” position pays more than double the salary of his predecessor. The student-run café was replaced by a vendor with ties to the interim president’s wife. As a goodwill gesture to dispirited students, the new café opened by giving away free coffee in cups bearing Bible verses.
I’m not making this up.
The state GOP chair lives in Sarasota and belongs to the chickenhawk wing of MAGAworld. He attended Trump’s “Stop the Steal” J6 insurrection in Washington but decided to stand back and let other idiots storm the Capitol. His wife, a Moms for Liberty cofounder, chairs the Sarasota County School Board. She openly mocks the most vulnerable members of the student population by tweeting herself as Bigot Barbie in a T-shirt that reads, “Real Women Aren’t Men.”
Attack of the GOP cannibals
Late last year, just before the election, I ran a wild hair of an idea past Lue Elizondo, the man who ran the Pentagon’s secret UFO program and helped the NY Times break the story in 2017. He was a 1990 graduate of Riverview High in Sarasota, and in a profile I wrote two years ago, he heaped praise on local teachers for stewarding him through some troubled teenaged years.
Given the nationwide push for STEM studies, I wondered if he might consider meeting with Sarasota education officials to discuss opportunities for energizing science curricula based on recent congressional interest in UFOs. Elizondo jumped on the idea and waived any speaking fee. So I sent some background material to Dr. Brennan Asplen, hired as Sarasota County school superintendent just before the coronavirus pandemic broke in 2020. He had impressed me as a visionary on constant alert for new ideas.
However, during the first meeting convened after the installation of the school board’s new conservative supermajority, Asplen, a Republican, got blindsided by a motion to fire him less than three years into the job. His steady performance during COVID-19 and Hurricane Ian had not been a campaign issue. But: He and the previous board had earned the contempt of DeSantis for enforcing mask mandate guidelines recommended by the CDC.
By December, Asplen was gone. The new board has yet to find anyone desperate or obsequious enough to fill the vacancy.
Straighten up and pull yourself together, little guy — Florduh’s got big plans for your brain.
With Florida kids serving as stage props in the governor’s OCD culture-war rants, and at a moment where educators’ collapsing morale has produced what the Florida Education Association calls “the worst teacher and staff shortage we’ve ever seen in the state of Florida,” this obviously isn’t the right time to be working fresh ideas into the syllabus. UFO books in school libraries – oh yeah, that’ll go over real good. At this point, basic competence is a luxury item, and it’s hard to imagine Stefano Mancuso’s praise of “rebellious students” getting a healthy reception in this dumbed-down climate of confusion and paranoia.
Among the ironies of Florida slouching back into the 1950s is a new poll conducted by the Humanities and Social Sciences Communications journal, revealing that a surprising 37 percent of American academicians are interested in researching UFOs. That’s encouraging. For his part, Elizondo still likes the idea of getting schoolkids to actively think about the greatest challenge of our age.
“As former President Ronald Reagan said, ‘Freedom is a fragile thing, and it's never more than one generation from extinction’,” the Pentagon whistleblower stated in an email. “As such, we must continue to invest in the next generation so they can solve the problems of tomorrow. Lest we forget that today's youth will inherit the challenges of yesterday's youth.
“The number one natural resource is not how much gold one has, or oil, or precious metals, but in their youth. If we fail to invest in the next generation, it will all be lost or squandered anyway.”
Better drag those hurricane waders out of the closet, folks — the Sunshine State’s due for a hard rain.
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