Monday, July 17, 2017

Author Event With Ben Mezrich: Woolly

Ben Mezrich is a New York Times bestselling author who has a knack for finding an interesting story and telling it awfully well. Among the many books he has written on a variety of subjects—whatever catches his fancy, it seems—he was the author of The Accidental Billionaires, which was the basis of the award-winning movie The Social Network. He’s going to be at our Buena Vista Branch at 7:00 p.m., this Wednesday July 19th, to talk about his new book, Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures.

The woolly mammoth is an extinct creature that, like dinosaurs, has migrated into the mythical and imaginary world of childhood, the star of animated films such as Ice Age. Adults might dismiss Mezrich’s subject as beneath their notice, but that would be a mistake. For what is perhaps the most curious thing about Woolly is that it is a story about how a creature we assumed would remain imaginary is now on the threshold of becoming a part of our world. That’s a rather startling and mind-boggling thing, one that will cause you to wonder just how impermeable are the walls between science fiction and reality. What we imagine about the future we think might come true, but the past coming back? That's a different kind of story.

Our display about the event at the Buena Vista Library includes
some early artist's conceptions of the woolly mammoth,
drawings that also speculate about its fate.
Mezrich's narrative shows how various cultural and technological streams have converged at this point in time to make this intriguing reversal possible. It isn’t easy to explain the charismatic appeal the woolly mammoth has for our culture. Perhaps it has something to do with the creature being improbable looking, a reflection of an awkwardness we all sometimes feel; maybe it is because we think of large lumbering herbivores as gentle and companionable creatures, and wooliness as comforting or endearing; maybe there is, too, some sense of guilt generated by our environmental awareness of the role humans have played in the extinction of so inoffensive a creature. Whatever the reason, the iconic image we carry of the woolly mammoth makes the idea of bringing it back both more appealing and less dangerous than, say, a T-Rex!

Unlike the science fiction of dinosaur resurrection in Jurassic Park, reviving the woolly mammoth is—or will soon be—a biological possibility. Dinosaurs lived 65 million years ago, and never a trace of their DNA has been found or is likely ever to be found. The last woolly, however, lived about 3,000 years ago, and the remains of many have been found frozen in the cold northern wastes. It is unlikely that woolly DNA will be found intact, even given that relatively shorter period of time, but some fragments have been found of the woolly’s genome, and scientists have a partial sequence of it. Without complete DNA the cloning of a mammoth is not possible, although Mezrich hints at the intriguing possibility that a South Korean lab may have recovered from the ice a specimen that had frozen blood and DNA. We don’t know for sure. The major focus of Woolly, however, is on newly developed technologies for genetic engineering that may allow scientists to construct a genome that will produce a facsimile of a woolly mammoth, for all practical purposes a mammoth (if it walks like a duck, etc.).  This is being worked on by geneticist George Church’s lab at Harvard, and Church and his team are the major characters of Woolly.

Librarian on an event-related field trip to the La Brea Tarpits.
Revival of the woolly mammoth seems to need some rationale other than simple curiosity; it must be more than just a project that showcases genetic engineering technology. In fact, Mezrich chronicles the heady notion that the woolly mammoth is the potential savior of our planet. Experiments of scientists living in Siberia have shown that the reintroduction of mega fauna (such as the mammoth) into the landscape can significantly reduce the temperature of the region's permafrost. The mammoth was a keystone species of the physical environment and ecosystem created by Pleistocene mega fauna. Why is this important?  Because of global warming, the permafrost is in danger of melting.  If it melts, it will release into the atmosphere more carbon dioxide than humans have been responsible for in all of their reckless history.

So Mezrich gives us a narrative that presents the rationale and explores the science. It all adds up to good odds that we will see the woolly mammoth again. The case of the woolly mammoth highlights the thorny ethical issues posed by the entire subject of our newfound ability to genetically engineer our environment to improve human health, longevity and the survival of our species. Mezrich’s neatly constructed scenario leaves us with many questions. Do you have one? Join us on Wednesday night. Things could get interesting.

Everyone is welcome to this event, but it would not be appropriate for young children; even though they may find woolly mammoths endearing, they will not understand the issues or the science that will be discussed. It would, however, be a great event for older children, teens, and adults!

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