29 August 2009

The smallest snake

August Kekulé said he day-dreamed the ring shape of the benzene molecule as a snake seizing its own tail. Now the snake has been photographed:


One speculative explanation for the secret of their success is the ability of some members of the cephalopod clade to survive in cold, nearly anoxic conditions, like Vampyroteuthis infernalis. They were able to rebound quickly because of their dismal metabolism and the general fecundity of cephalopods. They restored some ecological webs faster than previously thought and provided an environment for further growth of more severely crippled clades.

It just goes to show you that our current episode of global warming is a relatively minor event. Life will go on. Fast-living organisms with high metabolic demands like, say, humans, might suffer and die from the environmental consequences of a high CO2 atmosphere, but don't worry — the cephalopods will live on. They might even get a happy surge in numbers from the changes.

-- Pharyngula notes findings that ammonoids exploded in diversity and radiated rapidly after the Permian extinction, when 'life nearly died' (see also NYT report).

See the movie

28 August 2009

What's wrong with this picture?

A couple of years ago I added up the number of articles we had written on the BBC News website within the preceding nine months about various issues.

The scores were four for deforestation, four for desertification, 17 for biodiversity - and on climate change I stopped counting when I reached 1,000.
-- Richard Black wonders if the agenda in rich western countries has been hijacked by climate change. Habitat loss, for example, not climate change, is said to be the biggest cause of [current] extinction[s].

John Beddington suggests we think about a perfect storm in 2030.

Deep dive

I wrote in an earlier post that few creatures are as strange as the Ediacarian biota. One candidate may be Paleodictyon nodosum (perhaps a xenophyophore). The only known visible feature associated with this being:
consists of tiny holes arranged in six-sided patterns that look curiously like the hearts of Chinese checkers boards. [Peter A. Rona] has photographed thousands of the hexagons and found that large ones have 200 or 300 holes.

Dr Rona's inability to catch the creature itself means that even though scientists have given it the fossil’s name, they still vigorously debate what it is. The main question is whether the hexagonal patterns are burrows or body parts, vacant residences or animal remains.
-- from Diving deep for a living fossil.

27 August 2009

Symmetry of gliding reflection

Jorge Luis Borges noted that Sir Thomas Browne dismissed the Amphisbaena, a two-headed snake, because there could be no creature without a bottom, top, front, back, left and right.

I can find few creatures, real or imaginary, stranger than the Ediacarian biota (given, for now, that we take them to be animals and not something else).

Trilobozoa, for example, had triradial symmetry, while Yorgia had symmetry of gliding reflection.

What would Browne and Borges have made of them?

another image here.

26 August 2009

Weaving a rainbow

Overambitious projects may be objectionable in many fields, but not in literature. Literature remains alive only if we set ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond all hope of achievement. Only if poets and writers set themselves tasks that no one else dares imagine will literature continue to have a function. Since science has begun to distrust general explanations and solutions that are not sectorial and specialized, the grand challenge for literature is to be capable of weaving together the various branches of knowledge, the various “codes” into a manifold and multifaceted vision of the world.
-- Italo Calvino (1985)

25 August 2009

Future eaters

The prognosis for biodiversity will be bleak until biodiversity becomes something that everybody can and does read. As long as we remain a bioilliterate populace of which only the wealthiest 0.1% can afford to have an expert interpret the hieroglyphics, and only lions and other celebrity species attract our interest, then we will continue to turn the dazzling diversity of life into cannon fodder.
-- Todd Palmer and Rick Pringle fisk Thomas Friedman.

(related: Kenya's lions could vanish within 10 years and [added 27 Aug] The growing specter of Africa without wildlife.)

24 August 2009

Not playing

...but why stop with microbes? It will soon be possible to make entirely novel forms of plants or animals (including man). New cereal crop plants might fix their own nitrogen, eliminating the need for costly fertiliser. Or, how about custom-made insects that seek out and kill locusts or malarial mosquitoes?
-- Johnjoe Mcfadden argues that synthetic biology "provides new hope for a bright future."

The anti-GM lobby, he predicts, will howl that we should not be playing God. The last verb in that sentence, if nothing else, is surely wrong. As Craig Venter has said, "we are not playing."

Will W. Brian Arthur's mechanism of combinatorial evolution apply increasingly to biology as well as technology?

22 August 2009

Plenty of room at the bottom

People see nature as trees, plants and vertebrates. Yet the world is run by little creatures most people have not heard of; 99 per cent of Earth's organisms are extremely small. For example, some of the most abundant and crucial land animals are the tiny oribatid mites, which are the size of a pinhead and look like a cross between a turtle and a spider. They are a linchpin organism of the environment, but 20 years ago when I set out to identify them no one had heard of them. Back then there were just two people in the US able to identify them. Fortunately one agreed to work with me. Yet we still don't know what the vast majority of oribatids do.
-- E O Wilson

A Eupheredermous Oribatid Nymph. Image from Macromite's blog, which quotes Richard Feynman: "A mite makes the seas roar."

P.S. 23 Aug: Archegozetes longisetosus can produce a holding force 1180 times its own weight, making it one of the strongest animals in the world relative to its mass (Heethoff and Koerner via Wiki).

21 August 2009

Condor return

An AP report begins:
The tribes of the lower Klamath River have since ancient times decorated themselves with condor feathers when they performed the dances designed to heal a world gone wrong.

"It can soar the highest, so we figured that was the one to get our prayers to heaven when we were asking for the world to be in balance," said Richard Myers, a member of the Yurok Tribal Council and a leader in the revival of the tribe's world renewal ceremonies.

Now the Yurok Tribe is using modern science in hopes of restoring condors, which have not soared above the northern coast of California since 1914...

A small excerpt from a draft chapter of my book which looks into the history of flight goes as follows:

So many California condors got zapped on power lines during the twentieth century that by the mid 1980s less than two dozen remained out of what had once been thousands. By some accounts, though, native peoples were already killing the bird in pre-industrial times in order to use the feathers in ceremonial headdresses. Certainly, the condor had mythic power, for good or bad. The Wiyot say that Condor recreated mankind after Old Man wiped out humanity with a flood. The Mono believe that Condor seized humans, cut off their heads and drained their blood in order to flood the home of Ground Squirrel. The Yokut say Condor ate the moon, causing the lunar cycle, and made eclipses with his wings.

Since the 1986 the bird has made a comeback thanks to a captive breeding programme. Chicks born at the Los Angeles and San Diego Zoos receive early lessons in life skills such as power line avoidance from Condor adults that are actually glove-puppets. The puppeteers must remain carefully hidden because if the chicks see a human they imprint upon them and never become wild birds.

20 August 2009

A river runs with it

When government scientists went looking for mercury contamination in fish in 291 streams around the United States...Emissions from coal-fired power plants are the largest source of mercury contamination in the U.S.
-- NYT

The Wilmington Yew

You may think there will be less Change than I am suggesting, and you may be right, but it is hard for me to see why. It is possible that the sorts of understanding and the skills in creation needed to fundamentally reshape the human being are simply not available to our intellects, or to the ways we act upon knowledge. But look at the progress of the past hundred years - the progress that weighs isotopes by stratospheric chemistry in the Archaean, and reads the genomes of chloroplasts, that lets us build pictures of the atomic machines that pull apart water molecules and weigh the chlorophyll content of whole oceans by staring down from space - and ask yourself if understanding and reshaping the mechanisms of the mind is really likely to be entirely beyond us.

...in the churchyard overlooked by the Long Man sits a yew that may be two thousand years old. Men who fought at the Battle of Lewes could have cut their bows from it; now it is celebrated in the Norman church beside it by a wonderful new stained-glass window based on micrographs of yew wood, the sunshine streaming through its representations of stomata like wounds of the living Christ. This yew and its ancient brethren scattered across the landscape could, I increasingly suspect, outlive the human race, or at least see the first flowering of its successors.
-- from Eating the Sun by Oliver Morton (2007)

Photo: Taxus baccata at Wakehurst Place by Marco Schmidt.

19 August 2009

Natural selection's finest

Two hundred and fifty million years of physiological fine tuning has produced a creature that will be around for a long time to come. Cockroaches, I'm afraid to say, will do well in the face of climate change.
-- George McGavin.

18 August 2009

The second question

...assuming that the answer to the first one is "to be", is:
What do we want to be when we grow up?
-- or so suggests Andy Revkin.

P.S. 22 Aug: Robert Wright believes growing up is possible

17 August 2009

Starting out

When you're young, all evolution lies before you...If you compare yourself with the limitations that came afterwards, if you think how one form excludes other forms, of the monotonous routine where you finally feel trapped, well, I don't mind saying, life was beautiful in those days.

16 August 2009

The babbling marmoset

Pretty random this one, but pleasing enough to share:
Vocal play (in the form of babbling) does not appear to be unique to humans. Elowson et al. note that this behaviour occurs in juvenile pygmy marmosets, that response from a caregiving adult is more likely when the juvenile is vocalising, and suggest that pygmy marmoset babbling has relevance to understanding the evolutionary processes of human vocal development.
-- from The Evolution of Music: Theories, Definitions and the Nature of the Evidence by Ian Cross and Iain Morley (2002)

But this is the opposite of pleasing:

Bugs do it

...co-operate and cheat, that is:
An increasing body of empirical evidence suggests that cooperation among clone-mates is common in bacteria. Bacterial cooperation may take the form of the excretion of “public goods”: exoproducts such as virulence factors, exoenzymes or components of the matrix in biofilms, to yield significant benefit for individuals joining in the common effort of producing them...Moreover,...this synergism opens up a remarkably rich repertoire of social interactions in which cheating and exploitation are commonplace.
-- from Czárán T, Hoekstra RF, 2009 Microbial Communication, Cooperation and Cheating: Quorum Sensing Drives the Evolution of Cooperation in Bacteria. PLoS ONE 4(8): e6655. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0006655

In the big picture, co-operation prevails. As Richard Fortey puts it, most of history has been conducted inside bacterial mats:
Sealed in slime from the cruelty of ultraviolet radiation, mats formed mounds, and columns, and pillows, and fingers; mats formed great cones in the deeper sea, the like of which have not been seen on Earth for 1,500 million years. Ultimately, mats maketh man.

15 August 2009

Living colour

As I was kneeling next to this squid and watching the colours pulse across it coming in waves off any little motion the animal made (which felt a lot like watching an I Tunes visualizer of its thoughts or something like that!), the squid was doing at least a couple of really unbelievable things at once. Not only was it opening and closing its chromatophores -- the cells that are filled with an already made pigment and simply get turned on and off -- but it was also actively fabricating entirely new colours from scratch, and it was synchornizing the two things with each other.

-- from CreatureCast Episode 1 from Casey Dunn on Vimeo.

Hat tip Deep Sea News and Pharyngula

14 August 2009

'The vast psychedelic drug enterprise of nature'

...beauty is beauty always and...nothing is so likely to determine the depths of a scientist's contribution as the aesthetic standards that are somehow set to work in him.
-- William Donald Hamilton. [1]

[1] This is from Between Shoreham and Downe: Seeking the Key to Natural Beauty (1996), reprinted in Narrow Roads of Gene Land, Vol 3: Last Words.

13 August 2009

Save the gorillas *and* the carbon

Here, slightly edited, is a comment I just posted in response to Stephen Fry's article Why turtles make me cry:
Stephen Fry says "if people don't go to Uganda then the gorillas will die....the only way of paying for the mountain rangers to keep them alive is for people to go to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest...and see them."

I disagree. It is possible to get people to support projects and initiatives they have not seen and will not see first hand, especially in the age of the Internet.

One example of the way to go is Oxfam's 'Unwrapped' in which you 'give' a present to a friend such as 100 school meals in a poor African country. The friend does not receive and does not sees the meals (except, perhaps in a photograph) but has the satisfaction of knowing that some children who may otherwise go hungry are getting a square meal. Another example are the thousands who support global political campaigns by the organisation Avaaz to support the rights and dignity of people they may never meet (such as the Burmese people).

I hold no brief for Oxfam, Avaaz or other organisations which use 'virtual' strategies such as these. I just suggest they are examples of the kind of things that demonstrably work.

I think the efforts of Richard Leakey and colleagues can be supported in a similar way.

All we need (!) are imagination, organization and energy. Stephen Fry can help.

Call me an idealist, but we have to try to save gorillas (and other charismatic species) without making an unnecessary additional contribution to the already high risk of dangerous anthropogenic climate change.

A fantastical leaf-tailed gekko

Uroplatus phantasticus, from Piotr Naskrecki via TWKIWDBI:

A word for it

I have asked previously whether anyone knows a good word for the amazement-combined-with-grief felt when you learn about an animal you've never heard of before and learn at the same time that it is being, or has been driven to extinction.

A fool's errand perhaps, and to reconfirm my foolishness I made a couple of stabs at coining a new word myself.

The first was an attempted derivation from the Greek words for 'discovery' (ανακάλυψη, at least in modern Gk.) and 'pain' (άλγος):
But a couple of people who know a lot more Greek than I do (not hard) say this won't work at all.

The second may be more promising. Remembering Mark Twain's comments on the German language I proposed:
My German may be better than my Greek, but not by much and anyway it's still...German. I can't see something like this being adopted in English as have, say, Angst and Schadenfreude.

The poet Danae Daska wonders about a straight transliteration of the Greek word Θνησιγένεια: Thnisigenia.

This comes, she explains, from the words Θνητός (mortal, dead) and γέννησις (genesis, birth), and refers to something that was born to die instantly:
Nowadays thnisigenia is used more for ideas than for babies or other creatures, but it crossed my mind that it could work here because both the knowledge of the animal's existence and the feeling of wonder are born to instantly die by the immediate knowledge of the animal's extinction.
The nearest English equivalent is probably 'stillborn.' Thnisigenia, though, could be used to mean 'stillborn in the mind'.

That still doesn't quite get us to a feeling. So how about:
wonder stillborn
Better, perhaps, except that it's a phrase not a word and it misses the idea that the animals are being driven to extinction (by human actions). More accurate would be:
wonder murdered [1]
It looks like we're not quite there yet...assuming there is a 'there'.

Perhaps the poet Mario Petrucci is right to say, half jokingly: how about just 'folly' [to describe the destruction wrought by humans on other species]? [2]

Another poet, working in the Scottish Highlands at present, says she thinks she has a word for it...

And perhaps other languages come close. Bengali, Chinese, Japanese, Yiddish...?


[1] For some reason this recalls "Macbeth hath murdered sleep..."

[2] I answered, "OK so The March of Folly led straight into The Age of Stupid."

12 August 2009

A different kind of ghost

I have become accustomed to the use of 'ghost' to describe a species that still hangs on even though the ecosystem of which it is part has largely or wholly been destroyed. [1]

But the word is also suggested for something very different: an invasive species that disrupts an ecosystem and drives native species to extinction without necessarily thriving itself. [2] These 'ghosts', notes Olivia Judson:
have been detected in mathematical models more often than they’ve been sighted in nature. In fact, it’s not clear that they exist.


[1] See, for example, this from Scott Wiedensaul, 2002. I first used the term this way in a talk in June 2007. It appears in the title of a piece by Robert Macfarlane discussed here.

[2] The ghost of competition present. Miller, T. E., Horst, C. P. and Burns, J. H. American Naturalist 173: 347-353. (pdf )

La vida es sueño

Dreams are not meaningless, and they are certainly not useless. For a start, they are crucial for processing emotions. "Dreams modulate the emotions - they keep them within a certain range," says Patrick McNamara of Boston University. New research has found that naps consolidate emotional memories - and the greater the amount of rapid-eye-movement (REM) dream sleep, the greater the processing of these memories.
-- from 10 Mysteries of you: dreams.

Julia Whitty notes that the Tibetan Buddhist Lama Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche advises us to look at our experience of sleep to discover whether we are truly awake. [1] She quotes this:
...every day ends the same. We shut our eyes and dissolve into darkness. We do so fearlessly, even as everything we know as "me" disappears. After a brief period, images arise and our sense of self arises with them. We exist again in the apparently limitless world of dream. Every night we participate in these most profound mysteries, moving from one dimension of experience to another, losing our sense of self and finding it again, and yet we take it all for granted. We wake in the morning and continue in "real" life, but in a sense we are still asleep and dreaming. The teachings tell us that we can continue in this deluded, dreamy state, day and night, or wake up to the truth
The Bon tradition, Whitty writes [2]:
teaches a yoga of dreams and sleep wherein, among other things, practioners learn to consciously dismantle the scaffolding. This work is done in the course of lucid dreaming, which students learn to cultivate at will. Since dreams are free of the rational mind, they reveal our true level of awareness and can provide an alternate and possibly speedier pathway to a clearer life. Although Western psychology believes dreams should not be tampered with, since they carry messages from the subconscious, Buddhists think differently. According to Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, "it is better for the aware dreamer to control the dream than for the dreamer to be dreamed".
As W.B. Yeats put it, "in dreams begins responsibility."


[1] The Fragile Edge, page 213

[2] ibid page 226

The Quahkah

Wired notes the 126th anniversary of the death of 'last' Quagga, and the possible 'resurrection' of something approximating to it.

11 August 2009

Life engineers

'Intelligent design' may be bollocks cubed; but human design of life may not be:
“We have hardly scratched the surface of what biotechnology can do,” says Drew Endy, a bioengineer at Stanford University in California. “To ask about the applications of synthetic biology today is like asking Von Neumann [the computing pioneer] in 1952 what the applications of computers would be.”

A feature of synthetic biology is the core role played by engineers such as Professor Endy. They are introducing a discipline and rigour that is missing from most of bioscience. Paul Freemont, co-director of the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation at Imperial College London, says the aim over the next 20 years is to give synthetic biology the precision of electronics. “Our understanding of how living cells work isn’t as good as our understanding of electronic devices,” he says. “We want to get to the stage where we’ve got all the parts we need to build any biological machine that we want.”
-- from A new twist on life (FT).

The naming of parts

We are so disconnected from the living world that we can live in the midst of a mass extinction, of the rapid invasion everywhere of new and noxious species, entirely unaware that anything is happening. Happily, changing all this turns out to be easy. Just find an organism, any organism, small, large, gaudy, subtle — anywhere, and they are everywhere — and get a sense of it, its shape, color, size, feel, smell, sound...meditate, luxuriate in its beetle-ness, its daffodility. Then find a name for it. Learn science’s name, one of countless folk names, or make up your own. To do so is to change everything, including yourself. Because once you start noticing organisms, once you have a name for particular beasts, birds and flowers, you can’t help seeing life and the order in it, just where it has always been, all around you.
-- from Reviving the Lost Art of Naming the World by Carol Kaesuk Yoon

Image: camel sparrows put to work. These two were actually called Napoleon and Josephine.

(hat tip to BM for Yoon)

10 August 2009

A flying green frog

Rhacophorus suffry, from Eastern Himalaya (via WWF):

Somewhat similar to Wallace's frog, Rhacophorus nigropalmatus:

9 August 2009

Blindsight and beyond

The neuropsychologist Stephen Kosslyn has commented, in relation to metamorphopsia: "[The] dissociation between experience and function is fascinating, suggesting that experience is produced by a collateral process...outside the 'chain of command' that results in recognition. If so, then this collateral path can be disrupted while the main one is left unimpaired."
Kosslyn's suggestion is, I think, right on. The only reasonable inference is that sensation (which is clearly what he means here by "experience") is indeed "outside the chain of command" that leads to perceptual recognition. However, [no one who has] thought about these strange phenomena [has] as yet been ready to follow where, to me, they seem obviously to lead.
If sensation can be side-lined, then doesn't this mean that sensation is in reality some kind of side show? It might be going too far to suggest that sensation plays no part in perception. But I think the weight of evidence really does suggest that sensation and perception, although they are triggered by the same event, are essentially independent takes on this event, occurring not in series but in parallel, and only interacting, if they ever do, much further down the line.
-- Nicholas Humphrey (2006)

Photo: Peek-A-Boo Slot 1, Grand Staircase-Escalante, Utah.

8 August 2009

Hungry ghosts

...When we are greedy, the psychoanalyst Harold Boris writes, we are in a state of mind in which we "wish and hope to have everything all the time"; greed "wants everything, nothing less will do", and so "it cannot be satisfied". Appetite, he writes in a useful distinction, is inherently satisfiable. So the excess of appetite we call greed is actually a form of despair. Greed turns up when we lose faith in our appetites, when what we need is not available. In this view it is not that appetite is excessive; it is that our fear of frustration is excessive. Excess is a sign of frustration; we are only excessive wherever there is a frustration we are unaware of, and a fear we cannot bear...

...Perhaps the bad news that greed brings us is not that we are insatiable animals that need to control themselves, but that we are frustrated animals who can't easily identify what we need, and who are terrified of the experience of frustration...
-- from Insatiable Creatures by Adam Phillips

Image: delicacies from the penis emporium.

7 August 2009

Rooks rock

Nowadays, we've had so many startling findings that the rooks just don't surprise me that much any more. You almost expect them to do the cleverest thing.
-- Nathan Emery quoted in BBC report (see also Ed Yong)

6 August 2009

A 'two-headed' seasnake

Ouroborus meets the Pushmi-pullyu (report):

Boom times

Patrick Omondi, who is head of species conservation at the Kenya Wildlife Service, said that the number of elephants killed for their tusks in his country more than doubled between 2007 and 2008. The latest figures for 2009 suggest it may double again by the close of this year.
-- from 'Slaughter' fear over poaching rise.

5 August 2009

Orangutan oratorio

Research indicates that (some) orangutans make wind 'instruments' out of folded vegetation, blowing through it to modulate the sound of their alarm calls (reports here and here). This makes them the only animal apart from humans known to use tools to manipulate sound.

I happen to be researching (and attempting to write about) the origins and significance of human music at the moment, so especially enjoyed this. As Robert Shumaker of the Great Ape Trust says, "It's really, really nice to see an example [of tool use] that has absolutely nothing to do with food."

(see also the funky gibbon)

The narrow gate

Consider Hector’s dolphin, a species that lives in the coastal waters off New Zealand, and that, these days, often gets tangled up in fishing nets. The dolphins are rare: there are thought to be fewer than 4000 individuals at large. They also have rather low genetic diversity — a factor that, combined with small populations, is thought to be a risk factor for extinction. But perhaps there isn’t really a problem: perhaps their genetic diversity has always been low?

It hasn’t. Specimens of the dolphin have been collected since the 1870s. A comparison of DNA from the museum material with that from dolphins out and about today shows that genetic diversity has eroded substantially over the past 130 odd years. If we’re not careful, Hector’s dolphin may not be with us much longer.
--from Dawn at the museum by Olivia Judson

In 2007, WWF New Zealand said that just over 7,000 Hector's Dolphins lived in South Island Waters. In 1970 there were more than 26,000. Of Maui's Dolphin, a subspecies found on the west coast of North Island and nowhere else, there were about 110.

4 August 2009

A new world

Freeman Dyson asks if the world is entering a new 'Age of Wonders', with a shift backward in the culture of science from organizations to individuals, [1] from professionals to amateurs, and from programs of research to works of art:
If this dream comes true, and the new art form emerges triumphant, then a new generation of artists, writing genomes as fluently as Blake and Byron wrote verses, might create an abundance of new flowers and fruit and trees and birds to enrich the ecology of our planet. Most of these artists would be in close touch science, like the poets of the earlier Age of Wonder. The new Age of Wonder might bring together wealthy entrepreneurs...and a worldwide community of gardeners and farmers and breeders, working together to make the planet beautiful as well as fertile, hospitable to humming birds as well as to humans.
Dyson's optimism is a welcome challenge in a world where pessimism can sometimes come a little too easily. [2] How lovely, some may say, if his vision were to come true. [3]

But for all his strengths, Dyson has clearly been wrong-headed about some things (nuclear explosions to send rockets into space, anthropogenic climate change). Creating living entities is not the same as creating poems, and 'the bad guys' are unlikely ever to be far away. [4]


[1] Dyson's heroic individuals include Craig Venter, Kary Mullis and Dean Kamen.

[2] For a sober view see The seven terrors of the world. For pessimism that is perhaps a little too much see, for example, Cold Comfort. In the delightful book which is the occasion for Dyson's essay, Richard Holmes notes three themes introduced into scientific biography during the Romantic age:
1) 'Newton syndrome', the notion of 'scientific genius' in which science is largely advanced by a small number of preternaturally gifted (and usually isolated) individuals;

2) the 'Eureka moment', in which discoveries are made without warning (or much preparation) in a sudden blazing instant or revelation and synthesis; and

3) the 'Frankenstein nightmare', in which all scientific progress is really a disguised form of destruction.
All three, surely, are simplifications that can make for 'good stories'. Dyson is, perhaps, overly partial to the first two. 'Environmentalists' etc. (and I include myself in that category) may sometimes get a little stuck on the third. P.S. 7 Aug: Braden Allenby criticizes environmentalists like this:
sustainability discourse generally has a really, really hard time engaging with emerging technologies and their implications, not to mention the inherent complexity of these systems, which means that, in some very important ways, it’s obsolete.
[3] Could we have the humming fish from The Lorax, please?

[4] See, for example, Birdsong of the Eremozoic.

P.S. 6 Aug: George Dyson writes:
On July 24, 2009, a small group of scientists, entrepreneurs, cultural impresarios and journalists [met to be] offered a glimpse, guided by George Church and Craig Venter, of a future far stranger than Aldous Huxley had been able to imagine [in his 1948 work Ape and Essence].

In this future — whose underpinnings...are here already— life as we know it is transformed not by the error catastrophe of radiation damage to our genetic processes, but by the far greater upheaval caused by discovering how to read genetic sequences directly into computers, where the code can be replicated exactly, manipulated freely, and translated back into living organisms by writing the other way. "We can program these cells as if they were an extension of the computer," George Church announced, and proceeded to explain just how much progress has already been made.
Back in 1997, Lee Smolin expressed three doubts about the similarity between DNA and a computer programme:
1) what is inherited in real biology is more than just a naked sequence of DNA;
2) DNA is part hardware and part software; and
3) genetic code is not able to run on arbitrary hardware.
How far, if at all, are these doubts still valid?

P.S. 20 Aug: a useful account by Ed Regis of the meeting mentioned by George Dyson.

3 August 2009

Pictures from the real world

Curse of the Black Gold: 50 Years of Oil in the Niger Delta by Ed Kashi is on the short list for the 2009 Prix Pictet along with work by Christopher Steele-Perkins (Mount Fuji), Edgar Martins (The diminishing present) and others.

Siberia past

Travellers who crossed Siberia in the eighteenth century noted the remarkable animals they saw -- elk "of monstrous size," fierce aurochs, wild boars, wild horses and asses, flying squirrels in great numbers, foxes, hares, beavers, bears. Of the swans, cranes, pelicans, geese, ducks, bitterns, and other birds, one traveller wrote, "After sundown these manifold armies of winged creatures made such a terrific clamour that we could not evern hear our own words." Philipp Johann von Strahlenberg, a Swede captured by Peter the Great's army at the Battle of Poltava in 1709, and sent with other Swedish prisoners to Siberia, wrote that the species had six species of deer, including the great stag, the roe deer, the musk deer, the fallow deer and the reindeer. He also mentioned a special kind of bird whose nests were so soft that they were used for socks. About two hundred and ninetey years later in Siberia, I saw none of these marvels, except in museums, where some of the specimins are facing a second extinction from moths and general disintegration. The main four-legged animal I encountered was the cow.-
- Ian Frasier, from the first part of his travels in Siberia. Audio slideshow here.

Musk deer.

2 August 2009

Zoos of the mind

In "The Bauhaus of Nature"... Peder Anker argues that the architect intended his design to do more than delight:

'Using penguins as an example, [Berthold Lubetkin] argued that "the most unlikely animals seem to thrive under what would seem the most unnatural conditions [provided that they] gain freedom from enemies, regular food and general hygiene." The same would hold for workers and the poor who were in desperate need of being liberated from their "natural" condition of criminal and filthy slums...The health and welfare of people and animals were of equal concern, and the new architecture was to promote it.'

If the zoo seems an unlikely site of socialist ideology that's because it has come to be an unlikely home for any value but the conservation of wildlife; prevailing wisdom is that such a value isn't best expressed by geometric forms or large gray slabs or Victorian gables, but by design that mimics wilderness.

Yet there are exceptions: The Berlin Zoo's hippopotamus enclosure, built in 1997, is a tree-ringed lake covered by a soaring glass dome with a diamond-patterned support structure that undulates. In 2006, the New York Aquarium...launched a competition to redesign the exterior of its Coney Island home. The finalists included plans for a giant pink jellyfish with spiraling tendrils that create an open pavilion several stories high. The winning design reframes the structure with a long, tall fence that mimics the waves of sand and sea; a dune conceals an underground parking lot. (In 2008, the entire project was scrapped over costs and a decision to focus on interior renovations.) A Danish firm's winning design for the new Denmark Aquarium set to open in Copenhagen in 2013 is a giant pinwheel. It is based on biological flows: "the whirl streams of the sea, shoals of fish, and swirling starlings turning the sky black," according to the firm. Wilderness becomes, then, not the goal, but the inspiration.
-- from Jesse Smith on the architectural history of zoos

Doch das Messer sieht man nicht

Discovery’s Shark Week Web site asks, “What kind of shark are you?” Many biologists would ask, “What kind of species are we?”
-- Andy Revkin

1 August 2009

Beyond doom and gloom

Yes, there are certainly extensively overfished stocks and the oceans are in trouble, but there are some examples of decent management and reason for hope...Doom and gloom doesn't get us anywhere.
-- Peter Kareiva of the Nature Conservancy, quoted in an report on Rebuilding Global Fisheries by Boris Worm, Ray Hilborn at al (see also report here).

Incredible crinoids

From NOAA via Deep Sea News:

Cold comfort

In Cast Changes on the Ecological Stage of Earth's Evolutionary Theatre, John Cairns takes an extreme position:
Will Homo sapiens be one of the many species lost in the sixth great extinction? James Lovelock believes that [hundreds of millions of] humans will persist even though billions will suffer and die...

My speculations on the future are less optimistic... If [negotiations fail in Copenhagen in December 2009], a 3°-6°C increase in global mean temperature appears probable – [and] humankind could probably not cope with this increase. In this case, small tribes of hunter/gatherers are the best outcome to hope for... [but] if Homo sapiens does not survive, it may be that intelligence (as humans define it) does not provide much survival value. Homo sapiens was not essential for most of the 4 billion years of life on Earth, and, presumably, life can continue for more billions of years without it.