The Society of Smallness

Underachieving since 2012

Category: Uncategorized

For the Love of Bacteria

by societyofsmallness

Some scientists are working overtime to ensure that tiny bacteria can be preserved and then be brought back to life intact in 500 years. And that begs the question: why are bacteria so damn important? While it’s common knowledge that bacteria can ravage our bodies (e.g. cause pus oozing boils and rotting flesh) not as much attention is given to the beneficial role that bacteria play in maintaining the balance of life. Without bacteria, the cycle of life would come to a screeching halt as the carbon trapped in organic matter would not be broken down and made available again as food for the living.

Bacteria may be small, but they are not to be trifled with. Not only are bacteria some of the oldest organisms that ever appeared on earth (a testament to their resilience), they are also EVERYWHERE: in soil, water, those romantic hot springs where you spent your honeymoon, and even in radioactive waste. Bacteria live in symbiotic relationship with humans and animals residing in almost every tissue of the body, such as the skin, where they feed off sweat and oils, and our guts, where they help break down dietary fiber for absorption and aid in the synthesis of vitamins. Bacteria claim second place next to plants in the total biomass of the planet. A study published this past week by scientists from the Weizmann Institute of Science, in Israel estimates the total weight of bacteria at 73 Gt C (gigatons of Carbon), that is 1,166 times larger than humans at 2.5 Gt C.

So what’s the dealio? Are these bugs rulers of the world? And why has it taken us so long to figure it out? It turns out that bacteria are mindbogglingly diverse but until very recently, it was difficult to grow them in labs for study. Today, scientists have at their disposal powerful imaging technology that they are able to take with them out in the field.  Breakthroughs in genetics have made possible the manipulation of DNA to not only study mutations but also modify and program genes in bacteria and therefore to use them for beneficial purposes, such as cleaning up big oil spills. Add to that developments in super computing that allow scientists to design models and make predictions at unprecedented scale and we could call our time the Gold Rush era of bacterial studies.

We have much to learn about the role of bacteria in our planet and we stand to gain great insights about our own survival by studying bacteria’s unsurpassed talent to mutate, specialize, and resist eradication. So, next time you are reaching for the hand sanitizer, consider what you’re up against: 73 billion metric tons of germs that have been around since the dawn of time and will possibly be here long after we’re gone. Proceed to wash with soap and sanitize, if you must, but not before humbling yourself before the mighty rulers of the living world.

Odysseus in a barrel

by societyofsmallness

jacques savin

Jean-Jacques Savin aboard his barrel.

On December 26, Jean-Jacques Savin, a 71-year old French adventurer, set off on a three-month transatlantic voyage aboard a plywood barrel that is just big enough for him, a tiny kitchen, a sleeping cot, and a carefully selected stash of supplies. He follows in the wake of mariners of yore, mythical and real.

Odysseus’s voyage lasted ten years and was fraught with danger, but at least he had a fleet of twelve ships. Savin has opted for a tiny craft partly inspired by the voyage of an earlier seafarer, compatriot Alain Bombard, a biologist, physician, and politician who in 1952 sailed across the Atlantic in a small, inflatable boat measuring a mere 15 feet. Bombard took only a sextant and a few provisions on his voyage. He lived on fish and saltwater for three months.

Savin’s equipment and provisions are more extensive. On his website, he lists safety, technical, and miscellaneous categories that include a fire extinguisher, a raft, a GPS reader, and a manual water making machine. Among the extras, “bonbonnes de gaz,” which we’d like to think are scientifically designed vapor pellets that turn into saltwater taffy when they come in contact with the surface of the ocean, or maybe they are canned farts so Savin can amuse himself on those lonely days at sea. But no, these bonbonnes are strictly functional, they are fuel canisters presumably for cooking his “nourriture lyophilisée,” or freeze-dried food. According to CNN, Savin also brought along “a bottle of Sauternes white wine and a block of foie gras for New Year’s Eve, as well as a bottle of Saint-Émilion red for his birthday in January.”

Savin has a fascinating past as a military paratrooper, a private pilot, and a ranger at a national park in Central Africa. A consummate sportsman, Savin has sailed across the Atlantic four times, swam across the Bay of Arcachon, and climbed Mont Blanc in 2015. But his voyage in a barrel is the most audacious feat by far for it entails, as Savin explains, a “crossing during which man isn’t captain of his ship, but a passenger of the ocean.”

Godspeed, Jean-Jacques Savin! We are inspired by your odyssey and will continue to follow your progress as you float across the ocean in your tiny capsule.

Learn more about Jean-Jacques’s journey on Facebook.

Update: Since this post was published, Jean-Jacques Savin attempted another transatlantic crossing, this time in a canoe. Unfortunately, he encountered rough conditions, his boat was overturned and he was lost at sea. RIP, Jean-Jaques. You lived fully and courageously.

JSavin_kitchen  JSavain_sleeping


“Unseen Things are Still There”

by societyofsmallness

hare and dandelion

Hare and Dandelion by Kubo Shunman (Japanese, 1757–1820). The Met.


We take pride in being underachievers, but as 2018 comes to a close, we’re committed to turning over a new leaf. We embark on our New Year’s resolution with Stars and Dandelions, a beautiful poem whose simple style nonetheless tackles a scale of cosmic proportions.

Stars and Dandelions  is one of over 500 poems that Kaneko Misuzu wrote during her brief lifetime. Born in the fishing village of Senzaki in the early 1900s, Misuzu blossomed into a curious and voracious reader and continued her education at a time when Japanese girls completed only up to sixth grade. In her early twenties, Misuzu worked in a small bookstore owned by her mother. It was there that one day, leafing through a stack of magazines aimed at young readers, Misuzu saw a call for poetry and prose and she decided to send in five of her poems. Hence began her short-lived, but prolific writing career. Tragically, Misuzu took her life in 1930 to escape a miserable life next to an abominable husband who cheated on her, infected her with venereal disease, and forbade her from writing.

Misuzu’s poems were forgotten in the turmoil and aftermath of World War II. In the 1960s, Setsuo Yazaki, an aspiring young poet, discovered a poem by Misuzu in a rare book. Yazaki would spend over fifteen years tracking down additional information about Misuzu and her ouvre. It wasn’t until 1982 that Yazaki found Misuzu’s younger brother—already in his late 70s—and through him, Misuzu’s diaries and poems.


Stars and Dandelions
by Kaneko Misuzu

Deep in the blue sky,
like pebbles at the bottom of the sea,
lie the stars unseen in daylight
 until night comes.
You can’t see them, but they are there.
Unseen things are still there.

The withered, seedless dandelions
hidden in the cracks of the roof tile
wait silently for spring, 
their strong roots unseen.
You can’t see them, but they are there.
Unseen things are still there.

Unfairly Portrayed

by societyofsmallness

goliath spider_full

In the darkest depths of the Amazon rain forest, there lives a spider that eats birds. Its name is theraphosa blondii, more commonly known as the Goliath birdeater, and it is the biggest spider in the world, measuring about a foot from end to end. Its body is roughly the size of a tennis ball, and its fangs are about three-fourths of an inch long. But don’t worry; this spider’s bite isn’t deadly to humans—it just hurts a lot.

In spite of its name, the Goliath birdeater doesn’t eat a lot of birds. An old 18th-century engraving by Maria Sybbilla Merian depicts it in the act of killing a hummingbird. This gave rise to its reputation as a bird predator, an idea that stuck around in the collective consciousness. Blondii is a burrowing spider, and so its food tends to live on the ground as well. Mostly, it eats earthworms, which according to top scientists are very nutritious, as well as frogs, lizards, small rodents, and the odd snake, though if it came across a bird, it would definitely eat that too. This is a very hungry arachnid.

Speaking of hungry, local villagers consider blondii to be a very tasty meal. To prepare it,  the hairs are singed off first, as these can cause itching and irritation, then the spider meat is wrapped in banana leaves and cooked to perfection. Our sources tell us it kind of tastes like shrimp.

Documents Bureau Makes it Official

by societyofsmallness

We introduced bureaucracy to a group of 7th graders from Walsh Elementary (somebody had to do it and better us than some soulless clerk at City Hall). The induction took place at the Chicago Art Department on February 12, two days before Valentine’s day. That’s right, the love was flowing, the ink was fresh, and the documents official. Furthermore, Nat Soti shot and produced an awsum video about us. See it here.


Video by Nat Soti, director and editor at Inpoints

Summer is here…and so are flies!

by societyofsmallness

Saint George and the Dragon

Saint George and the Dragon
Bernat Martorell
Spanish, about 1400–1452

We’re not here to incite any violence against flies (or dragons). This image merely shows the presence of flies in art (look along the bottom edge to see one that’s landed on a bone).

In Soledades. Galeríar. Otros Poemas (1907) Antonio Machado offers an endearing and philosophical take on the pestiferous insect.

by Antonio Machado

Old familiar flies,
greedy, unavoidable,
plain flies of everyday,
you bring back everything.

Old flies with appetites
as keen as April bees,
or running those tickly legs
over my infant scalp.

Flies of my first tedium
in the parlor of our house
on bright summer afternoons
when I first began to dream.

And in the hated schoolroom,
funny zooming flies,
hounded from sheer delight
in everything that flew
(flying is all that counts),
buzzing, bumping windowpanes
on autumn days…

Flies at every stage—
babyhood and teenage,
golden days of youth,
and now this second innocence
with nothing to believe in,
always flies…

Plain old things,
you’ll never find your singer—
you’re far too commonplace:
I know that you’ve alighted
on the charmed plaything,
on the shut schoolbook,
on the love letter,
and on the rigid lids
of the dead.

Greedy, unavoidable,
you never work like bees,
nor glitter like a butterfly,
you tiny little gadabouts,
you’re old friends just the same
and bring back everything.