31 July 2009

Evolving with a mountain

the changes in the muscle cells probably evolved over a long period of time, perhaps as the Himalayas, one of the Earth’s youngest mountain chains, grew and the birds would have had to fly higher and higher.
- from report about a paper by Graham R. Scott et al on how bar-headed geese fly at 9,000m or 30,000 feet over Himalaya.

30 July 2009

The most endangered animal

The problem of consciousness confronts us only when we begin to comprehend how we could dispense with it. For we could think, feel, will, and remember, and we could ‘act’ in every sense of that word, and yet none of all of this would have to ‘enter consciousness’. The whole of life would be possible without, as it were, seeing itself in a mirror. For what purpose, then, any consciousness at all when it is in the main superfluous? I may now proceed to the surmise that consciousness is really only a net of communication between human beings; a solitary human being who lived like a beast of prey would not have needed it. That our actions, thoughts, feelings and movements enter our own consciousness—at least a part of them—that is the result of a ‘must’ that for a terribly long time lorded it over man. As the most endangered animal, he needed help and protection, he needed his peers, he had to learn to express his distress and to make himself understood; and for all of this he needed ‘consciousness’ first of all, he needed to ‘know’ himself what distressed him, he needed to ‘know’ how he felt, he needed to ‘know’ what he thought. My idea is, as you see, that consciousness does not really belong to man’s individual existence but rather to his social or herd nature.
-- so Nietzsche (1882). But Nicholas Humphrey, who quotes this passage (2007), argues against it:
The bottom line is that we are not a we. We are a set of I ’s, individuals who due to the very nature of conscious selfhood are in principle unable to get through to one another and share the most central facts of our psychical existence. Nietzsche was wrong. When it comes to consciousness, we are on our own: ‘soul’, ‘solo’.

...If I cannot even tell what seeing red is like for you, what can I tell! Imagine. We are walking together in the woods after the rain, dappled sunshine filters through the dripping leaves, a blackbird sings and the scent of honeysuckle permeates the rich air. It may be that shared moments like these are needed to give meaning to our lives—shared moments of consciousness. What then if we should realize how little we are truly sharing: that if truth be told each of us is merely colouring in the other’s consciousness as if it were his or her own?
Perhaps, Humphrey writes, "the tragedy of being human is the perpetual 'virginity' [separateness] of the soul." But, he concludes:
Instead of either running from the problem or trying to mend it, why not make the most of it? Just look what we’ve got here! If I myself have this astonishing phenomenon, known only to me, at the centre of my existence, and if (it is, of course, a big if) I can assume that you do too, then what does this say about the kind of people that we are? It is not just me. Each of us is a creative hub of consciousness, each has a soul [sic], no one has more than one. All men have been endowed by the creator with an inalienable and inviolable mind-space of their own.

We are a society of selves. The idea that everyone is equally special in this way is extraordinarily potent — psychologically, ethically and politically. And I dare say it would be and is highly adaptive. I believe it is likely to have arisen within the human community as a direct response to reflecting on the remarkable properties of the conscious mind. And from the beginning, it will have transformed human relationships, encouraging new levels of mutual respect, and greatly increasing the value each person puts on their own and others’ lives. Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that it marked a watershed in the evolution of our species — the beginning of humanity’s interest in the human project, a concern with humanity’s past and humanity’s future.

(photo at top: Carcharodon megalodon and friend)

29 July 2009

Death in the sun

Our region has the notorious distinction of having possibly the worst extinction record on Earth. We have an amazing natural environment, but so much of it is being destroyed before our eyes. Species are being threatened by habitat loss and degradation, invasive species, climate change, over-exploitation, pollution and wildlife disease.
-- Richard Kingsford, lead author of Major Conservation Policy Issues for Biodiversity in Oceania, quoted here.

28 July 2009

Touching the world ocean

The sea is largely blue (empty of life) rather than green (full of plants and algae) for several reasons. [1] It has, however, a jelly-like 'skin', a sea-surface microlayer about a hundredth of an inch (0.254mm) thick that contains a 'menagerie of microbes'. As Carl Zimmer reports:
It may be hard to imagine such a fine coat of slime holding together for long on top of the heaving ocean. But Dr. [Oliver] Wurl has found that it is quite durable. “We have collected microlayer samples with wind conditions of 16 to 18 knots,” he said. “It’s not pleasant to be in a small boat at that wind speed. That tells us the microlayer is pretty stable.”
At this microlayer, gases are pulled down from the atmosphere. "It’s the ocean breathing through its skin," says Michael Cunliffe. Zimmer continues:
The 'skin' may play a critical role in the environmental well-being of the planet. Studies have shown that pollutants like pesticides and flame retardants can be trapped in the microlayer.


[1] Thomas Sherratt and David Wilkinson summarise an answer in Big Questions in Ecology and Evolution like this:
Much of the world's seawater is too dark for photosynthesis. In the euphotic zone, where there is enough light to support a green sea, other factors come into play. Large 'rooted' plants and macroalgae can only survive in the very small area of the ocean that is shallow enough for them to have access to light while being attached to the seabed, and large plants cannot survive by a floating way of life in most of the ocean, because they will be washed up by wind and currents. The leaves the question of why phytoplankton do not make most of the ocean green? The answer is that most seawater is too low in nutrients needed for their growth; one of the reasons for this impoverishment is the action of the plankton themselves through the biological pump. Physical processes, such as thermal stratification, are also important in maintaining low nutrients in the euphotic zone and may change with alterations to the Earth's climate.
Sherratt and Wilkinson note Alfred Redfield's realisation in the 1930s that ocean organisms themselves are largely responsible for creating the chemical environment in which they live rather than it being merely the background against which they evolve. James Lovelock has described Redfield as a forerunner to Gaia theory.

P.S. 29 July: a mechanism is proposed for "how some of the ocean's tiniest swimming animals can have a huge impact on large-scale ocean mixing."

27 July 2009

Gulp 'n' go

Antithetical as they may seem, the two data sets [of extinction and discovery] are in many ways intertwined. One reason scientists are discovering more new species now than they were a couple of decades ago is that previously impenetrable places have been opened to varying degrees of development, allowing researchers to rush in and sample the abundance before it disappears. The gulp ’n’ go style of the global market can also deliver taxonomic novelty right to scientists’ door.
-- from New creatures in an age of extinctions by Natalie Angier. [1] In April, noting concern about the fate of the Sidamo lark, I wrote:
Discovering new beings and learning at the same time of their imminent extinction seems to be quite a common experience. Is there a word for the combination of wonder and almost instantaneous grief this arouses?
Saguinus fuscicollis mura, the Saddleback tamarin

[1] Back in March, Yale 360 published a similar article by Bruce Stutz titled Finding New Species: The Golden Age of Discovery

Yuck or yum

From Jennifer Jacquet and David Beck at Guilty Planet:

Spirits with Legs

The idea that gods and spirits got their start as a supernatural version of people encounters one obvious objection: In hunter-gatherer societies, aren’t some supernatural beings thought of as animals, not humans? And aren’t some supernatural beings—especially the ones anthropologists call “spirits”—too vague a life form to qualify as either human or animal? Why should we, along with [Edward] Tylor, talk of personified causes when Tylor’s own terminology—animated causes—would fit better?

For starters, however unlike a human a “spirit” may sound, when anthropologists ask people to draw pictures of spirits, the pictures usually look more or less like humans: two arms, two legs, a head. Similarly, a great god of the ancient Chinese was called Tian, or “heaven,” which sounds quite unlike a person—yet the earliest written symbol for that god is a stick figure: two arms, two legs, a head.

Even when a supernatural being looks like an animal — as those snowmaking birds of the Klamath presumably did — it doesn’t act like an animal. It may have wings or fur or scales, and it may lack various parts of a normal human being, but it won’t lack the part that explains why human beings do the things they do. As the anthropologist Pascal Boyer has observed, “the only feature of humans that is always projected onto supernatural beings is the mind.”
-- from an appendix to The Evolution of God by Robert Wright.

26 July 2009

The age of criminal and compassionate machines

The researchers...generally discounted the possibility of highly centralized superintelligences and the idea that intelligence might spring spontaneously from the Internet. But they agreed that robots that can kill autonomously are either already here or will be soon.

They focused particular attention on the specter that criminals could exploit artificial intelligence systems as soon as they were developed...

...Despite his concerns, [Eric] Horvitz [the conference organizer] said he was hopeful that artificial intelligence research would benefit humans, and perhaps even compensate for human failings. He recently demonstrated a voice-based system that he designed to ask patients about their symptoms and to respond with empathy. When a mother said her child was having diarrhea, the face on the screen said, “Oh no, sorry to hear that.”

A physician told him afterward that it was wonderful that the system responded to human emotion. “That’s a great idea,” Dr. Horvitz said he was told. “I have no time for that.”
-- from NYT report about a conference organized in Asilomar by the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence.

P.S. 27 July: New Scientist report.

The numberless goings-on of life, inaudible as dreams

I imagine standing upon a Cambrian shore in the evening, much as I stood on the shore at Spitsbergen and wondered about the biography of life for the first time. The sea lapping at my feet would look and feel much the same. Where the sea meets the land is a patch of slightly sticky, rounded stromatolite pillows, survivors from the vast groves of the Precambrian. The wind is whistling across the red plains behind me, where nothing visible lives, and I can feel the sharp sting of wind-blown and on the back of my legs. But in the muddy sand at my feet I can see worm casts, little curled wiggles that look familiar, I can see trails of dimpled impressions lefts by the scuttling of crustacean-like animals. On the strand a whole range of shells glistens -- washed up by the last storm, I suppose -- some of the mother-of-pearl, others darkly shining, made of calcium phosphate. At the edge of the sea a dead sponge washes back and forth in the waves, tumbling over and over in the foam. There are heaps of seaweed, red and brown, and several stranded jelly-fish, one, partly submerged, still feebly pulsing. Apart from the whistle of the breeze and crash and suck of breakers, it is completely silent, and nothing cries in the wind.

I wade out into a rock pool. In the clear water I can see several creatures which could fit into the palm of my hand crawling or gliding very slowly along the bottom. Some of them carry armour plates on their backs. I can recognize a chiton, but the others are unfamiliar. In the sand there are shy tube-worms. A trilobite the size of a crab has caught one of them and is shredding it with its limbs. Another one crawls across my foot, and I can feel the tickle of its numerous legs on my bare flesh -- but wait, it is not a trilobite, but a different kind of arthropod with eyes on stalks at the front and delicate grasping 'hands'. Now that I look out to sea, I can see a swarm of similar arthropods sculling together in the bright surface water -- and can that dark shape with glistening eyes be Anomalocaris in pursuit? Yet, for the top of its body briefly breaks the surface, and I can glimpse its fierce arms for an instant. Where the water breaks it shines luminously for a while in the dying light -- the seawater must be full of light-producing plankton -- and I have to imagine millions more microscopic organisms in the shimmering sea.
-- Richard Fortey (1997)

Image: Tiger Iron

25 July 2009

Goodnight gorilla

Redoubling efforts to protect gorillas and their habitats will benefit other endangered primates, including chimps and bonobos. If those efforts centre on development projects and gorilla tourism, they can also improve the lives of some of the world's poorest people. That is the UN's plan. And entirely the wrong one, as far as many gorilla experts are concerned. For all its good intentions, they say, there's no way it can work fast enough to give gorillas any chance of recovery.
-- from Last Chance to Save the Gorilla

24 July 2009


Alain de Botton has been reported as saying "Ferrari drivers are incredibly vulnerable and need our love and sympathy".

Brandon Keim is less indulgent when it comes to the conspicuous consumption of Bluefin tuna:
this is the brutal truth: bluefin, which beyond their intrinsic value as living creatures happen to be one of the universe's more majestic species, a Platonic ideal of oceanic speed and grace, aren't being extinguished by our greed. They're being sacrificed to our vanity, pretension, and ostentation — the most pathetic of our vices.
Hat tip Pharyngula: Destroying beauty because you can afford it.

23 July 2009

The music itself

Even as I watch, however, I can see things changing. I realize the baby boy is beginning to come together. Already there are hints of small collaborative projects getting under way: his eyes and his hands working together, his face and his voice, his mouth and his tummy. A time goes by, some of these mini-projects will succeed: others will be abandoned. But inexorably over days and weeks and months he will become one coordinated, centrally conscious human being. And, as I anticipate this happening, I begin to understand how in fact he may be going to achieve this miracle of unification. It will not be, as I might have thought earlier, through the power of a supervisory Self who emerges from nowhere and takes control, but through the power inherent in all his sub-selves for, literally, their own self-organization.

Then stand with me again at the rail of the orchestra, watching those instrumental players tune up, The conductor has not come yet, and maybe he is not even going to come. But it hardly matters: for the truth is, it is of the nature of these players to play. See, one or two of them are already beginning to strike up, to experiment with half formed melodies, to hear how they sound for themselves, and -- remarkably -- to find and recreate their sound in the group sound that is beginning to arise around them. See how several little alliances are forming, the strings are coming into register, and the same is happening with the oboes and the clarinets. See, now, how they are joining together across different sections, how larger structures are emerging...
-- Nicholas Humphrey (2002)

22 July 2009

'Continuous augmented awareness'

We are not entering the Anthropocene, the Eremozoic or even the Ecozoic but the Nöocene, says Jamais Cascio.

Image: rock slab from the Apollo 11 Cave, Namibia. Perhaps 25,000 years old.

P.S. 7 Aug: Andy Revkin gathers some comments.

Bionic monkeys

[This is] the first demonstration that the brain can form a motor memory to control a disembodied device in a way that mirrors how it controls its own body.
-- Emergence of a Stable Cortical Map for Neuroprosthetic Control, NYT report.

Tummy bugs

Because bacteria can evolve so fast, it may be that some of what we think of as human evolution — like the ability to digest new diets that accompanied the invention of agriculture — is actually bacterial evolution. We know that hostile bacteria — those that cause diseases in ourselves and our domestic plants and animals — have undergone dramatic genetic changes in the last 10,000 years. Perhaps our friendly bacteria have, too.
-- from Microbes R Us by Olivia Judson.

21 July 2009

Mental metastasis

This blog -- ramblings around being and beings -- is a web or mirror which sometimes catches something useful for a book with the same title. Writing the book is often a struggle. Every now and then the process becomes almost feverish, seeming to feed on itself.

A few days ago I happened across a photograph of Joseph Merrick (below), who suffered from Proteus syndrome. I hadn't seen this picture in years and it was almost as if I was looking at it for the first time. One of the striking things about it, I think, is the clear gaze from his left eye (right hand side of the image, obviously), set in small patch of 'normal' temple and cheek. You glimpse a 'normal' man, fully conscious, and dignified, behind the monstrous mask of deformity.

Merrick is due respect and remembrance as a human being. At the same time, the images of his skull (below: photograph front view, CAT scan side view) look to me like metaphors for some of the mental deformations (and masques) that individuals and societies sometimes undergo.

20 July 2009

The funky gibbon

Jonathan Balcombe (2006) quotes Eugene Lindon (2003):
There is a world of difference between what a scientist can publish and what we encounter in the world.
The discovery that a female White-handed Gibbon living in captivity bangs a door in time with her territorial song is described by Thomas Geissmann, a leading expert on gibbon conservation and behaviour, as 'tool use'.

Following Steven Mithen (2008), would it really hurt to describe this as a [very basic] kind of 'music making'?

Brahmaputra blues

An IUCN press release:
Dolphin hotspots must be protected if the Ganges River Dolphin...is to survive in the Brahmaputra river system, according to a recent study. [1]

Estimates have put the total population... at around 2,000. Of these, between 240 to 300 inhabit the Brahmaputra River system in India...

“Our research shows accidental killing through fisheries by-catch, followed by poaching for oil, are the major threats to the dolphins of the Brahmaputra...” says Project Leader Abdul Wakid. “Their habitat is also being degraded by human activities. Dam building and a proposed seismsic survey in the Brahmaputra river are potential threats.”

The project...was prompted by the need for some robust dolphin population data after Oil India Ltd. proposed to start prospecting for oil along the bed of the Brahmaputra River using air guns and explosives.

The research identified eight river sections as potential protected areas and community-based dolphin conservation as the best strategy to save the dolphins.

How effective can a few protected 'hotspots' along the length of the river be? On the Yangtze, by Sam Turvey's account [2], the conservation areas proposed at one stage for river dolphins were quite far apart. Given that the animals probably traveled large distances up and downstream, the protection afforded by such areas would probably have been quite limited. In practice the reserves only ever really existed on paper so were never put to the test.

When I met Turvey last month I asked what he thought about of the prospects for the Ganges River Dolphin. He said he was just starting to look at the challenge but was struck that some individuals appeared to be surviving even in what looked like unfavourable conditions in the Kulsi, one of two smaller rivers in Assam in which the animal still lives in addition to the main channel of the Brahmaputra. [3]

What are the chances for successful community-based conservation on the Brahmaputra? If you believe Arundhati Roy, such efforts will be up against very powerful forces. [4]

Platanista gangetica, the Ganges River Dolphin has dwindled abysmally to less than 2000 during the last century owing to direct killing, habitat fragmentation by dams and barrages, indiscriminate fishing and pollution of the rivers. WWF India

[1] Protection of endangered Ganges River Dolphin in Brahmaputra river, Assam, India, Final Technical Report (pdf)

[2] Witness to Extinction: How We Failed to Save the Yangtze River Dolphin (2008).

[3] Turvey wrote (e mail, 25 June):
I only recently visited India to try to establish a collaborative conservation project on these remarkable animals...We [hope] to investigate when and why the species has disappeared from the Brahmaputra’s other tributaries. Some kind of human impact is certain, but is this overfishing, habitat degradation, mining, deforestation leading to increased erosion and run-off, etc etc.... who knows? The Kulsi was the first place that I saw the river dolphins, and as you can see from the photo, it's pretty horrendous habitat. In my opinion it's incredible that dolphins have managed to survive here at all! Seeing a river dolphin leaping out of the water, showing its mysterious, beautiful crocodile-like beak, in that fairly nasty, tiny little river against a backdrop of sand-mining and fishing boats was pretty surreal. The question of whether this is in any way a sustainable long-term habitat for them is another matter... at least the Brahmaputra itself seems a lot better, although this environment too is under increasing threat.

An AP report published the Straits Times quotes Gill Braulik, a researcher who took part in the study:
To protect them it is vital that we involve local river communities. In some places, like in the Kukurmara area of Kulsi River, the dolphins are a tourist attraction due to protection by local communities.
[4] Speaking on Nightwaves (BBC Radio 3, week of 13 - 18 July), Roy said India in democracy is a scam, "democracy for few, with the vast majority excluded":
The middle classes and upper classes have seceded from the rest of India. They are extracting everything they can from the ground and rivers. It's leading to....ecocide. Far from progress, the opposite is on the cards -- a collapse.
She was not talking specifically about the Brahmaputra, but in general about India's rivers and land. Is she right to blame 'only' the relatively wealthy for 'ecocide'?

19 July 2009

Hippo zoopraxiscope

Hippos glide gracefully along a river bed by using their feet as punts, the first detailed analysis of their underwater locomotion shows. Spending relatively long periods "in flight" between punts, their movements resemble those of astronauts in microgravity, or of students boating on rivers in Oxford and Cambridge.
-- a man called Fish does for hippos what Muybridge did for horses.

18 July 2009

The dance of life

The metaphors I use are related to emergence and creativity and the concept of a creative cosmos. Evolution is an aspect of this creativity...You see in genetic reductionism [Alfred North] Whitehead's fallacy of misplaced concreteness, par excellence. Genes are not themselves creative but function within the context of the organism, which is.
-- from Biology is just a dance by Brian Goodwin

P Z Myers says Goodwin "missed the mark by neglecting genes as much as he did...but [his work reminds us that] the modern molecular biological approach is also missing a significant element".

Photo: one of the first osprey chicks to be born in Northumberland for 'at least 200 years'.

15 July 2009

Leonardo's leviathan

On folio 265 of the Codex Atlanticus, Leonardo begins to jot down evidence to prove a theory of the growth of the earth. After giving examples of buried cities swallowed up the soil, he goes on to the marine fossils found in the mountains, and in particular certain bones that he supposes must have belonged to an antediluvian monster. At this moment his imagination must have been caught by a vision of the immense animal as it was swimming among the waves. At any rate, he turns the page upside down and tries to capture the image of the animal, three times attempting a sentence that will covey that evocation.

...[On the third attempt] he chooses the verb 'solcare' (to furrow) and alters the whole construction of the passage, giving it compactness and rhythm with sure literary judgment:
O how many times were you seen among the waves of the great swollen ocean, looming like a mountain, defeating and overwhelming them, and with your black and bristly back furrowing the sea waters, and with stately and grave bearing! [1]
-- from Exactitude, one of Six Memos for the Next Millennium by Italo Calvino (1985).

[1] O quante volte fusti tu veduto in fra l'onde del gonfiato e grande oceano, a guisa di montagna quelle vincere e sopraffare, e col setoluto e nero dosso solcare le marine acque, e con superbo e grave andamento!

Shadow of the night

Indian tiger park 'has no tigers'.

P.S. 14 Aug: a suggestion to concentrate conservation efforts.

14 July 2009


Somehow the more we learn about whales, the more we’re coming to appreciate the sublimely discomfiting reality that a kind of parallel “us” has long been out there roaming the oceans' depths, succumbing to our assaults.
-- from Watching whales watching us by Charles Siebert.

Thank goodness we’ve gone through a kind of cognitive revolution when it comes to studying the intelligence and emotion of other species. In fact, I’d say now that it is my obligation as a scientist not to discount that possibility. We do have compelling evidence of the experience of grief in cetaceans; and of joy, anger, frustration and distress and self-awareness and tool use; and of protecting not just their young but also their companions from humans and other predators. So these are reasons why something like forgiveness is a possibility. And even if it’s not that exactly, I believe it’s something. That there’s something very potent occurring here from a behavioral and a biological perspective. I mean, I’d put my career on the line and challenge anybody to say that these whales are not actively soliciting and engaging in a form of communication with humans, both through eye contact and tactile interaction and perhaps acoustically in ways that we have not yet determined. I find the reality of it far more enthralling than all our past whale mythology.
-- Toni Frohoff as quoted by Siebert.

13 July 2009


The presence of mental images and their use by an animal to regulate its behavior, provides a pragmatic working definition of consciousness.
from D.R.Griffin on The Question of Animal Awareness (1976) - one of many definitions of consciousness

Phidippus mystaceus (a jumping spider)

12 July 2009

11 July 2009

Brahma days

It may be that all the particles [in the universe] we see were originally collected into a small dense region because it is easier to create a new bubble universe in such a configuration than it is to make a large, dilute universe from scratch. The growth of entropy in our observable universe, and the corresponding arrow of time [without which life -- metabolism, reproduction, evolution, memory -- would not exist], may be a reflection of the larger multiverse's insatiable desire to create ever more entropy by giving birth to new baby universes. If we could just have an angel's-eye view of the entire ensemble, it might all look quite natural.

Or perhaps not...[But] the universe is certainly trying to tell us something; it's our job to attempt to make out what it's saying as best we can.
-- from Our Place in an Unnatural Universe by Sean Carroll, included in What's Next? Dispatches on the Future of Science.

Image: the Antennae galaxies.

9 July 2009


Ecological niche modeling adds even more evidence to the already overwhelming case that 'bigfoot' is actually a brown bear. But within historical memory stranger animals have existed and been extirpated as their habitats were destroyed:
The tretretretre is a large animal, like a calf of two years, with a round head and the face of a man. The forefeet are like those of an ape, as are the hindfeet. It has curly hair, a short tail, and ears like a man's...It is a very solitary animal; the people of the country hold it in great fear and flee from it, as it does from them.
-- this is a Megaladapis as described by Étienne de Flacourt in his Histoire de la Grande Isle de Madagascar of 1661 (and quoted in A Pleistocene Bestiary).

Image from the Atlas Virtual da Pré-História.

Mind the many-headed slime

Somehow, this single-celled organism [Physarum polycephalum] had memorised the pattern of events it was faced with and changed its behaviour to anticipate a future event. That's something we humans have trouble enough with, let alone a single-celled organism without a neuron to call its own.

... [Max] Di Ventra speculates that the viscosities of the sol and gel components of the slime mould make for a mechanical analogue of memristance. When the external temperature rises, the gel component starts to break down and become less viscous, creating new pathways through which the sol can flow and speeding up the cell's movement. A lowered temperature reverses that process, but how the initial state is regained depends on where the pathways were formed, and therefore on the cell's internal history.

In true memristive fashion, [Leon] Chua had anticipated the idea that memristors might have something to say about how biological organisms learn. While completing his first paper on memristors, he became fascinated by synapses - the gaps between nerve cells in higher organisms across which nerve impulses must pass. In particular, he noticed their complex electrical response to the ebb and flow of potassium and sodium ions across the membranes of each cell, which allow the synapses to alter their response according to the frequency and strength of signals. It looked maddeningly similar to the response a memristor would produce. "I realised then that synapses were memristors," he says. "The ion channel was the missing circuit element I was looking for, and it already existed in nature."
-- Slime mold to DARPA: Justin Mullins on the future of artificial intelligence.

In The Social Amoeboe: The Biology of Cellular Slime Molds, John Tyler Bonner concludes:
We can see the beginning of an era of enlightenment for slime molds...the day may come where we may hail Alan Turing, along with his other claims to fame as the Robert MacArthur of developmental biology...[but] we still have a long -- and interesting way to go. And the reason we all started working on cellular slime molds is that they were supposed to be so simple!

8 July 2009

Green Arctic

This blog has speculated vaguely on life in Antarctica in the Anthropocene, but with a mind to hundreds of years or millennia hence. Now this:
A study of what the Arctic looked like just before dinosaurs were wiped off the planet has provided a glimpse of what could be to come within decades.
The Rough-legged hawk of Minerva flies at dusk.

Animal fire

Without wanting to get mystical about it, fire is, in many respects, a kind of animal, albeit an ethereal one. Like any animal, it consumes oxygen. Like a sheep or a slug, it eats plants. But unlike a normal animal, it’s a shape-shifter.
-- Olivia Judson. Mystical? No. A comparison of limited value? Yes. Still, the idea grips the imagination: fire as a 'vital spark' has a long history.

In the Anthropocene, fire is the tool and weapon of Man, an animal which has extracted millions of year's worth from the Earth in two or three centuries. See Fire and Fire creature, fire planet.

A more earth-frigged union

These images, from among 'best adverts to save the planet', are striking chimeras, combining unlikes to make something new. One might typically be described as a 'nightmare', the other as 'beautiful'. Both are 'strange'.

98.6% human

...minus the aggression. Eric Michael Johnson reports and links to a new film.

Flying, somersaulting, elephants

Ptak Science Books notes a remarkable patent from 1904
GB 190408713 for an acrobatic apparatus. A device for projecting horses, elephants, monkeys, &c. into the air so that they turn a somersault.

7 July 2009

Stabledoor, horse?

I didn't make it to the Royal Society meeting last night. This is from Alok Jha's report (emphasis added):
David Attenborough joined scientists today to warn that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is already above the level which condemns coral reefs to extinction, with catastrophic effects for the oceans and the people who depend upon them.
If this analysis is correct then one of the few options left would to be scrub very large amounts of CO2 out of the atmosphere. But that doesn't look a likely prospect, does it?

See also the Inter-Academy Panel statement on Ocean Acidification.

My review of Veron's book is here.

ID in the bone

Ever inclined to make an inscription, human beings have figured out how to write their own messages in the heart of the [otolith]. By sequentially altering the temperature of the water in which salmon fry are hatched and raised, researchers can lay a distinctive “batch label” into the chemical layers of the otolith—a kind of barcode, inscribed in stone, and indelibly preserved within the maturing adult fish (a puckish early student of this technique used it to write “hi mom” in binary inside his experimental animal). Later, when these free-swimming creatures are captured at sea, each can be traced unfailingly to its hatchery of origin. Some five billion Pacific salmon have now been marked in this way, their inner qibla reconfigured to refer to their point of origin, and thus the point to which they seek return.
from The Orienting Stone

6 July 2009


Its poisonous elbows (sic) lead illegal traders to yank out the teeth of this endangered animal with wire cutters, reports David Adam.

Malu malu
As may be guessed from the author profile picture for this blog, the thought causes a twinge.

4 July 2009

The brotherhood of men and cabbages

You marvel that this mater, shuffled pell-mell at the whim of chance could have made man, seeing that so much was needed for the construction of his being. But you must realize that a hundred million times this matter, on the way to human shape, has been stopped to form now a stone, now lead, now coral, now a flower, now a comet; and all because of more or fewer elements that were or were not necessary for designing a man. Little wonder if, within an infinite quantity of matter that ceaselessly changes and stirs, the few animals, vegetables and minerals we see should happen to be made; no more wonder than getting a royal pair in a hundred casts of the dice. Indeed it is equally impossible for all this stirring not to lead to something; and yet this something will always be wondered at by some blockhead who will never realise how small a change would have made it into something else.
-- from Voyage dans la lune (1661) by Cyrano de Bergerac, quoted in Lightness, one of Six Notes for the Next Millennium (1985) by Italo Calvino.

Image by Johannes Kepler, 1611.

Sea meadow loss

Seagrass meadows are being lost at rate of "comparable to that for tropical rainforests and coral reefs."

They protect[ed] edible crustaceans, like shrimps and crabs, and juvenile fish such as salmon. In addition, seagrass meadows provide[d] habitats for endangered species like dugongs, manatees, and sea turtles.
-- from Meadows of the sea in 'shocking' decline

3 July 2009

Found! Dick Cheney's heart

Weird blobs of the Anthropocene: Deep Sea News reports on an unknown lifeform in a North Carolina Sewer.

2 July 2009

Disruption (2)

Just like young birds in the South Pacific that go on night flights with their mama and papa birds. They navigate by the stars, but there's no way they have in their head already a map of the night sky, because the night sky changes every 400 or 500 years as we move through the galaxy. They can't innately have a map to navigate. They have to go out and have experience, but once they get the experience and check out what is the night sky, they have [that map]. Same with people.
-- John Bargh. But some maps go out of date faster than we realise:
We cling to images that do not correspond to changing reality.
-- Cornelia Hesse-Honnegger quoted by Hugh Raffles.

1 July 2009

Over the still stream, up the hillside

With numbers down 95%, it looks like hungry generations are treading down the nightingale. This may be down to habitat loss in West Africa and elsewhere as land is converted to agricultural or urban use.

Just as Pandareus' daughter,
the nightingale of the green woods, sings out
her lovely song when early spring arrives,
perched up in thick foliage of the forest,
and pours forth her richly modulating voice
in wailing for her child, beloved Itylus,
lord Zethus' son, whom with a sword one day
she'd killed unwittingly—that's how my heart
moves back and forth in its uncertainty.
Odyssey, Book 19

Nature's smartdust

Communication, decision making, 'city living', accelerated mutation, navigation, learning and memory.
-- Six reasons 'why microbes are smarter than you thought.'
Remarkable though these behaviours are, we have probably only scratched the surface of what single-celled organisms can do. With so many still entirely unknown to science, there must be plenty more surprises in store.