27 November 2008


'Cool lines' from Shane McConkey.
Perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness.
-- Antoine de Saint Exupéry.

See also 'A walk in the clouds' and, of course, the ultimate.

26 November 2008

An eye "very imperfect and simple"

The brittlestar has an entire carapace pitted with optically tuned calcite crystals.[1]

The photo is featured in a Darwin 'special' in Nature. The editorial says:
An even more likely development [in the next 50 years than the discovery of life beyond Earth] is that life will be created de novo here on Earth. The first experiments in whole-organism synthetic biology, such as the synthetic mycoplasma being worked on at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, will cleave quite closely to the designs already developed by natural selection. But there are already schemes for going further — for using different genetic codes, for example. Although the synthesis of complex organisms might remain the stuff of fantasy for some time, new ways of building self-replicating, one-genome, one-cell organisms seem quite plausible. The development of creatures born from an idea, not an ancestor, will undoubtedly provide new insights into evolution, not least because the proclivities of such creatures to evolve will need to be kept in check.

[1] P.S. 28 Nov: There's a note on brittlestars by Mark H at Daily Kos


The ecological niche that human beings occupy depends on virtual reality as directly and absolutely as the ecological niche that koala bears occupy depends on eucalyptus leaves.
-- from The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch

25 November 2008

24 November 2008

Sun slug

The "sun-powered" sea slug Elysia chlorotica photosynthesises with genes "stolen" from the algae it eats.

23 November 2008


There is little doubt that it would be fun to see a living, breathing woolly mammoth...We’re just not sure that it would be all that much fun for the mammoth. The first mammoth would be a lonely zoo freak, vulnerable to diseases unknown to its ancestors.
-- from an editorial in The New York Times. Update, 25 Nov:
The absence of mammoths isn’t exactly a pressing problem. What is pressing is the number of species we are currently in danger of losing.
adds Olivia Judson, who has also written recently on celebrating new species (All hail the apple maggot!) .

22 November 2008

The rocks themselves

Rocks and life evolved in parallel. It's so obvious - you wonder why we geologists didn't think of it before.
says Robert Hazen to New Scientist. But the word "evolve" in this context should be treated with caution, as Hazen says here:
Mineral evolution is obviously different from Darwinian evolution—minerals don’t mutate, reproduce or compete like living organisms. But we found both the variety and relative abundances of minerals have changed dramatically over more than 4.5 billion years of Earth’s history.

21 November 2008

More than slime

We were looking for pretty animals that have eyes, are coloured, or glow in the dark; instead, the most interesting find was the organism that was blind, brainless, and completely covered in mud.
-- says Mikhail "Misha" Matz, who thinks the giant protists' bubble-like structure is probably one of the planet's oldest body designs, and may have existed for 1.8 billion years. (BBC report here. Richard Dawkins posts a Discovery report here )

These beings, which have 'a number of openings all over the body act as mouths and outlets for waste', are about 3cm across. Their cousins [?] the Xenophyophores, can be 20cm across.

P.S. 2 Dec: NYT

A turkey

20 November 2008

The eyes have it

The first sighting of a pygmy tarsier in more than 80 years is celebrated. This sounds like good news...unless it sends the poachers after those that remain (or is indicative of extirpation from a final patch of surviving habitat etc etc).

In the contemporary West we tend to think of the various tarsier species as cute, as well as fascinating. But I recently heard David Macdonald say that local people in an area of S E Asia where he worked in the 1970s (I think) would deny ever seeing them at all because to do so was believed to cause stillbirth in women and all other kinds of bad luck.

P.S. More at Afarensis.

What ghosts are we

Barcelona en tranvía - 1908
What if the person you had been is only a memory...held by others?
-- Sue Halpern quoted by Michael Greenberg.

[See also Boulevard du Temple, Paris - 1838 or 1839 -- the first known photograph of a human (bottom left)]

19 November 2008

'Stabs us from behind with the thought...'

Another mention of Borges in today's Guardian is made by Ian McEwan in an article on the challenge of climate change:
The fictional head of a snake has begun to devour its actually existing tail - a circularity the great Argentinean fabulist, Jorge Luis Borges, would have appreciated.
McEwan employs the circular snake, Ouroboros, as a metaphor for how fears and imaginings can take over reality. This post notes a few points about the use of Ouroboros in myth. Wikipedia begins with the 'upside':
Ouroboros often represents self-reflexivity or cyclicality, especially in the sense of something constantly re-creating itself, the eternal return, and other things perceived as cycles that begin anew as soon as they end.
And Borges begins:
To us the ocean is a sea or a system of seas; to the Greeks it was a simple circular river that ringed the land mass. All streams flowed from it [sic] and it had neither outlets nor sources.[1]
But he concludes with some darker lines on Midgardsormr (or Jörmungandr), the world-circling serpent of Norse mythology, which will devour the earth at the Twighlight of the Gods.

One could add that Wally Broecker's climate beast, should it exist, probably dwells in the deep.

If unstoppable and catastrophic change is already locked into the system, then perhaps the more appropriate metaphor comes from Lucian who, as Philip Hoare notes:
told of a whale [2] one hundred and fifty miles long in which was contained an entire nation and men who believed themselves to be dead, years after they were first engulfed.


[1] Martin Rees uses Ouroboros to link the smallest particles to the cosmos as a whole:
The way stars shine depends on nuclei within those atoms. Galaxies may be held together by the gravity of a huge swarm of subnuclear particles.
[2] Sometimes, no distinction was made in ancient minds between whales and sea serpents.

(Image: serpent in old Greek alchemical manuscript. See also Blake's Behemoth and Leviathan.)

Here comes the chopper

Now, [George W.] Bush has entered into his own midnight period, and it promises to be a dark time indeed. Among the many new regulations—or, rather, deregulations—the Administration has proposed are rules that would: make it harder for the government to limit workers’ exposure to toxins, eliminate environmental review from decisions affecting fisheries, and ease restrictions on companies that blow up mountains to get at the coal underneath them. Other midnight regulations in the works include rules to allow “factory farms” to ignore the Clean Water Act, rules making it tougher for employees to take family or medical leave, and rules that would effectively gut the Endangered Species Act.
-- Elizabeth Kolbert

Borgesian monsters

At this stage in the proceedings, the most likely place to find Diego Armando Maradona ought to be in the pages of his compatriot Jorge Luis Borges's Book of Imaginary Beings, alongside the stiff-bristled, mud-wallowing Catoblepas, the 100-mile-long Earthquake fish, the weeping, wart-covered Squonk and the Peryton of the ancient world - half-deer, half-bird, but casting the shadow of a man.
-- Richard Williams

The war on teddy bears

When I was a correspondent in Kabul in 1997 I kept a pretty good list in my head of everything that was outlawed. And so at a press conference when the head of the Taliban Department for Preventing Vice and Promoting Virtue mentioned in passing that of course teddy bears had been banned, I knew they weren't on the list. So I said, actually teddy bears aren't banned. The Vice and Virtue man looked at me and said, OK then we'll ban them tonight.
--Alan Johnston in the second of two broadcasts about 'thirty years of conflict and chaos in Afghanistan'.

Fig 1. The suspect: Johnston - no friend to Afghan teddy bears

Fig 2. "Mo", typical victim of British infidel imperialist no good fellow

18 November 2008

The spotted Wonderpus

It's not clear why the wonderpus has such distinctive markings in the first place. Biologists have mostly assumed that octopuses, being solitary animals, have little need for the ability to recognise other individuals and no one has properly tested whether they can do so. It's not unfeasible - octopuses are intelligent animals with decent memories and excellent eyesight.
-- from How to tell Wonderpus Joe from Wonderpus Bob by Ed Yong

Something like gold

Eastern Congo is home to almost a third of the world’s last 700 wild mountain gorillas...Now, there are no trained rangers to protect them. More than 240 Congolese game wardens have been run off their posts, including some who narrowly escaped a surging rebel advance last month and slogged through the jungle for three days living off leaves and scoopfuls of mud for hydration.
-- from Congo Violence Reaches Endangered Mountain Gorillas.

See also Congo riches are plundered by renegade army brigade and these posts from Grains of Sand.

Eat, eat, eat

GrrlScientist reviews Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood by Taras Grescoe.

Mark Bittman: A Seafood Snob Ponders the Future of Fish.

And "time is running out for Japan's obsession with the bluefin tuna."

Image: Bluefin tuna tail above a wash basin at the offices of the fisherman's union in Oma, Japan.

17 November 2008

Is it alive?

Nick Carr comments on a proposal for "whole brain emulation" that imagines a software model "so faithful to the original that, when run on appropriate hardware, it will behave in essentially the same way as the original brain." (Hat tip AS)

Carr is sceptical that the modeling could ever truly mirror humanity in part because it does not take account of "free will". I don't want to comment on that here, but the debate puts me in mind of another, possibly related issue: the (alleged) failure of global earth system modeling to adequately reflect the role played by complex adaptive living systems.

P.S. On brain simulations, it is claimed that at least one has already been done -- for half a mouse in 2007 (Towards Real-Time, Mouse-Scale Cortical Simulations by James Frye, Rajagopal Ananthanarayanan, and Dharmendra S Modha)

P.S. 21 Nov: IBM to build brain-like computers

14 November 2008

The dance

What is life? We can point to all sorts of chemical processes, metabolic processes, reproductive processes that are present where there is life. But we ask, where is the life? You don't say life is a thing inside the organism. The life is this process that the organism is participating in, a process that involves an environmental niche and dynamic selectivity. If you want to find the life, look to the dynamic of the animal's engagement with its world. The life is there. The life is not inside the animal. The life is the way the animal is in the world.
-- Alva Noë

13 November 2008

Blast them

[Environmental] groups say that "the sonar can be as loud as 2,000 jet engines, causing marine mammals to suffer lasting physical trauma, strandings and changes in breeding and migration patterns", but the U.S. Supreme Court Rules for Navy in Sonar Case.

But Joel Reynolds of the Natural Resources Defense Council says it will have minimal practical impact as only one training exercise remains.

12 November 2008

'Fish do not sit in seats'

I think the future on this planet depends on humans not technology. We are already already near the end game with knowledge, but we are nowhere near the end game when it comes to perception.
-- Graham Hawkes on leaving 2-D thinking behind.

On the beach at the edge of the great sea, Theo Jansen shows his Strandbeests

Remembered hills

At 500 million years old, [the Gamburtsevs] may not be the oldest mountains on the planet, but they likely are the tallest of the ancient mountains still in existence.
-- notes Matt Kaplan with reference to work by Tina Van de Flierdt et al.

An earlier post asked if life might come back to the Gamburtsevs in a warmer world. At the time, I was not aware of research pointing to their age. But if they really are about 500 million years old, then it seems almost certain that they have been inhabited by organisms larger than microbes before now.

11 November 2008

RNA 'bestiary'

...in this graphic, which is part of an NYT package that includes articles on an 'identity crisis' for the gene, the promise and power of RNA and looking beyond 'gene'.

The third article quotes Evelyn Fox Keller:
the notion of the gene as the atom of biology is very mistaken...DNA is a far richer and more interesting molecule than we could have imagined when we first started studying it.

Flower (2)

...While most of the flowers in the garden had rich scents and colors, we also had two magnolia trees, with huge but pale and scentless flowers. The magnolia flowers, when ripe, would be crawling with tiny insects, little beetles. Magnolias, my mother explained, were among the most ancient of flowering plants and had appeared nearly a hundred million years ago, at a time when "modern" insects like bees had not yet evolved, so they had to rely on a more ancient insect, a beetle, for pollination. Bees and butterflies, flowers with colors and scents, were not preordained, waiting in the wings -- and they might never have appeared. The would develop together, in infinitesimal stages, over millions of years. the idea of a world without bees or butterflies, without scent or color, affected me with awe.

The notion of such vast eons of time, and the power of tiny, undirected changes which by their accumulation could generate new worlds -- worlds of enormous richness and variety -- was intoxicating. Evolutionary theory provided, for many of us, a sense of deep meaning and satisfaction that belief in a Divine Plan had never achieved. The world became a transparent surface, through which one could see the whole history of life...
-- from Darwin and the Meaning of Flowers by Oliver Sacks.

10 November 2008

Hath spied an icy fish

Megaleledone setebos lives in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica. It is one of the 'new' species described in the Census of Marine Life.

Wild 2.0

Dr Claudio Sillero...says vaccinations are the only hope of maintaining the Ethiopian wolf population.
-- from Race to save world's rarest wolf. (Ewolf blog here)


Another day, another extinction event (or nearly so) over at IUCN:
The release of the first ever IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ assessment of northeast Atlantic sharks, rays and chimaeras reveals that 26 percent are threatened with extinction and another 20 percent are in the Near Threatened category.
One can accept the IUCN Red List system is distinctive and valuable, but why the commercial designation rather than, say, a license under creative commons?

8 November 2008

Buzz off

And then there’s human pollination, as they’re doing in China. (Take millions of peasants, hand them bundles of chicken feathers, and let them climb through the fruit trees, touching every flower with a bit of pollen from a bucket.) What we’d have is extraordinarily high prices for most of the fruits and vegetables that provide our vitamins and antioxidants, if they could be found at all.
-- from an assessment on what the consequences of the collapse of honey bees by Paul Comstock, via AS.

The word

It has taken about 40 million years for five agricultural systems to appear in fungus-growing ants. Human agriculture diversified on a massive scale in just a few thousand.
-- from Language: a social history of words by Eörs Szathmáry and Szabolcs Számadó Nature 456, 40-41 (6 November 2008)

7 November 2008

At sea

As intelligent creatures go, cephalopods are perhaps the most "other" that we know; think of them as a dress rehearsal for the far-off day when we might encounter intelligent aliens. Cephalopod researchers love to share the latest stories about clever octopuses or emotional cuttlefish—stories that often involve daredevil escapes from aquarium tanks. In [a video made by Roger Hanlon], an octopus on a coral reef crosses a dangerous open stretch between coral heads. The animal assumes the posture, pattern, and coloration of a coral head, then stands on its tippy toes and slowly moves across open ground. The only things moving are the tips of the arms; the rest of the animal appears stationary. But here is the clever part: In shallow water at midday on a sunny, choppy day, intense shadows and light sweep across everything. Not only does the "moving rock" mimic them, it is careful to not exceed the speed of these light effects. It is fully aware of its appearance under changing conditions.
-- Jaron Lanier (April 2006), who in this exchange, says "we are swimming in a sea of mystery".

Image: Octopus vulgaris

5 November 2008

A longer view

Much of the action in the global warming forecast takes place on timescales of centuries. When it comes time to make practical decisions about avoiding human-induced climate change, the century timescale is the first one to watch, no question. But just out of curiosity (if for no other reason), let’s consider climate changes on timescales that are much longer than that...
-- David Archer


A kangaroo baby is born deaf, blind and no bigger than a little finger. The mother leans back so the baby can crawl up her belly into the pouch and latch on to a teat. The teat engorges the baby's mouth, the edges of which simultaneously tighten so the baby is hanging from the teat. the baby is unable to suckle, so the female injects milk into its mouth using a special muscle located directly above her mammary glands. She and the baby are so firmly attached that both will bleed if any attempt is made to separate them.

The people of the desert think human beings were originally [like] baby kangaroos. The Luritja people believe the first people were joined to each other. Their eyes and ears were not open ad their arms were still attached along the sides of their torsos. The legs were pulled up against their bodies. In this helpless state they were cared for by small birds called kurbaru, who fed them little cakes made of grass seeds.
-- from Terra Nullius by Sven Lindqvist.

4 November 2008

An' forward, tho' I canna see...

Japanese scientists have managed to create clones from the bodies of mice which have been frozen for 16 years.

2 November 2008

Mental fight

As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races. If, indeed, such men are separated from him by great differences in appearance or habits, experience unfortunately shews us how long it is, before we look at them as our fellow-creatures. Sympathy beyond the confines of man, that is, humanity to the lower animals, seems to be one of the latest moral acquisitions.
From The Descent of Man by Charles Darwin, quoted by Andy Revkin in discussion of a big question: can humanity learn self-transcendence? The proposal outlined here may be part of the way forward. I also like this comment from Roger Cohen:
Restraint engages the imagination.

(Photos: Passhendaele (1917) and Bioto Man (1921) by Frank Hurley)

Spore's poor

P Z Myers on dumbification.

P.S.: 'Gonzo scientist'

1 November 2008


An article by James O'Donahuge on the origin of angiosperms (flowering plants) reminds that human origin and continued existence depends on them:
Our distant primate ancestors thrived in the ancient flowering forests, while early humans got their big break on the grassy savannahs of East Africa. More recently, human populations have exploded thanks to the cultivation of cereals, vegetables and fruit. Every step of the way, our own successes have depended on angiosperms.
In the sacred cycad forest, it is the job of the Rain Queen to protect much older plants.

Encephalartos transvenosus