Kodiak is such an interesting place: If you look at a map of the United States, you are lucky if Alaska even shows up in its proper location and is not inserted somewhere off the coast of Mexico.
Then, depending on the accuracy of the map, Kodiak may or may not be there. For example, the welcoming advertisement at the local Walmart store features a map of Alaska that is curiously missing Kodiak.
However, there is true rocket science happening right here on the big little island in Alaska, and rocket enthusiasts around the nation were watching this week as a test launch for an Astra rocket went belly up (again).
A video taken by hunters observing the launch was posted on the internet and shows the rocket launching straight into the skies with the breathtaking scenery of Narrow Cape in the background.
Shortly after the rocket disappears into the clouds, the rushing sound of the engines suddenly stops. Then, after a few seconds of anticipation and confusion, the rocket reappears, but without its fiery tail and falls back toward the ground.
When it hits the landscape, there is a fiery explosion and then a big red and black cloud of smoke.
The human race is still experimenting with projectiles. Humans have used projectiles since the dawn of time, as evidenced by prehistoric stone arrowheads and cave drawings.
But projectiles are used not only by humans; some animals also use projectiles to hunt and strike down their prey.
On land, there are velvet worms, spitting spiders, bombardier beetles and sand-throwing anteaters, to name just a few.
Chameleons and frogs can shoot out their sticky tongues like a projectile to catch an insect, but since the tongue remains attached to the hunter, this is not a true projectile.
The same would be true for the harpooning sting that jellyfishes inflict upon anyone unfortunate enough to come into close contact with their tentacles.
There is, however, an interesting group of ocean-dwelling snails that use true projectiles. Not only do they shoot their prey or predator, but also they have some of the most potent poisons known at their disposal.
In one fascinating video (www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wihKnARrAw), they are described as chemical factories because apparently within the group of the cone snails, there are thousands of chemical compounds found.
Scientists study these to discover if and how any of these substances could be useful for humans. While cone snails are very pretty and their houses are shiny and intricately patterned with beautiful colors and designs, the advice given by the scientists is “if it looks like a cone, leave it alone.”
Snails are common in Alaska, though a quick search leads me to believe that there are no cone snails, so you only have to remember this advice when you go on a snorkeling expedition in warmer ocean regions.
I found a 1975 article by Richard MacIntosh about the snail resource of the eastern Bering Sea and its fishery, describing more than 15 species of large snails mostly of the genus neptune, which suggests that they are an underutilized fishery.
I don’t know if the same man whom I consider an expert on Kodiak birds authored this article 45 years ago, or if there are two venerable scientists by the same name.
Note that the perspective just switched from the cone snail and its hunting techniques to the neptune snails and our hunting techniques. In one case the snail is the hunter, and in the other case the snail would become the prey.
It struck me that the article mentions a lot of knowledge gaps, stating that very little is known about the young and the life histories and even the abundance of the various species of snails. It mentions the Japanese snail fisheries but very little was known about the fishing techniques used. Since, to my knowledge, snails never did become the focus of a Bering Sea fishery, I suspect that these statements are still true.
I did not find many further examples of marine animals using projectiles, though I have heard of fish jumping out of the water and becoming projectiles on occasion. Far away in Southeast Asia and northern Australia lives a group of archerfishes, which projectile-spit insects off their resting places on vegetation near the water. When the insect falls into the water, the fish eats it. So even the water pistol was invented by animals long before humans had plastic to make toys.
It strikes me that many human discoveries and technologies are the re-creation of an idea already utilized somewhere in nature.
In fact, the definition of science includes the understanding of the physical world and phenomena in nature. Perhaps it is not surprising that rocket science and the launching of projectiles into orbit is something not yet mastered by the human mind because there is no precedence in the natural world as we know it.
As far as we know, no other life form originating on this planet ever leaves the biosphere.
I just realized that this is the source of my apprehension about space travel; that it is the beginning of transport of life and materials from and to the planet.
In a way, it is like poking a hole into a protective bladder. Though no doubt it is exciting to explore the universe, let’s make sure there is a safe home to come back to when the universe gets too big and lifeless, and let’s make sure we don’t return in a big destructive fireball falling into one of my favorite places on this amazing Earth.