30 June 2009

Communist bestiary

[In October 1916] Lenin creates the rudimentary rhetorical bestiary of the next seventy-five years of the Soviet regime:...capitalist hyenas, deviationist snakes, speculator crows and rabid nationalist dogs are born in a single flash of leninist thought. In the long metamorphosis of Lenin from man into icon, all his thoughts, not just his words, will become the sole preoccupation of a professional Soviet class dedicated to...[an] exegetic project [that] will implant the very brain of Lenin inside the brain of every Soviet man, woman and child, until...[they] will be able to think automatically like Lenin.
-- from The Posthuman Dada Guide by Andrei Codrescu

29 June 2009


Some of the first eerie signs of a potential health catastrophe came as bizarre deformities in water animals, often in their sexual organs.
-- notes Nicholas Kristoff (It’s Time to Learn From Frogs).

If concerns prove to be justified this could be a nightmare worthy of H G Well's character Edward Prendick in The Island of Dr Moreau.

26 June 2009

Deep history of life, and its future

Yesterday I listened to talks at the Geological Society by Lynn Margulis and Martin Brasier under the joint title Deep History of Life on Earth. Among take-home points, Margulis outlined what she described as five extensions of Gaia theory as of 2009:
1. Redistribution of elements
2. Salt: redistribution and retardation of its dissolution
3. Augmentation of solid, liquid and gas interfaces
4. Water retention and distribution on a planetary scale
5. Production of granite (a mineral found nowhere else in the solar system, comprising 0.4% of the Earth lithosphere) [1]
I asked Prof. Margulis if she had anything to say about Peter Ward's Medea hypothesis. She did not. Crispin Tickell, chairing, said it did not, in fact, contradict Gaia. [2]

Martin Brasier outlined key points from his book Darwin's Lost World, including the idea that the development of an anus (a through-gut and the capacity to digest in new ways) was a fundamental (my bad pun, not his) innovation enabling the Cambrian explosion.

He said his hunch was that the perturbations in the Earth system consequent upon human activities were so great that 'we could be on the cusp of a Cambrian-like transformation' of life on Earth (bigger than, say, the K-T) though whether it would be a 'new Cambrian explosion' or a 'return pre-Cambrian conditions' he was not, when I asked him, inclined to speculate.

Where the dust blows through these heights there once shone a silent sea. [3]

[1] Margulis spells out these questions and others more fully in a contribution to Scientists on Gaia (2004). See comment attached at the foot of this post.

[2] It seems to me, though, that there may be something to be said for Tyler Volk's view that 'Gaia is life in a wasteworld of byproducts' (dubbed 'Garbage Can Gaia' by Ward), and Prof. Basier hinted as much.

[3] The image is Suilven, an inselberg of Torridonian sandstone on top of Lewisian gneiss. The quote is from Cold Mountain. Brasier imagines Charles Lyell sketching three riddles after a walking on Quinag:
1. A mountain that stood on its head.
2. An ocean that disappeared.
3. A rock that swallowed time.

P.S. 8 July: The continents 'were green' in the Neoproterozoic, according to a Letter to Nature from L. Paul Knauth & Martin J. Kennedy. See also Dawn of the animals: Solving Darwin's dilemma.

25 June 2009

A gift

What [the] drive to mastery misses is an appreciation of the gifted character of human powers and achievements.
-- Michael Sandel in his third Reith Lecture, expressing caution about genetic manipulation and other biotechnology. Matt Ridley seemed unconvinced:
My main issue is how we take the decision as to whether something is an enhancement or a cure.
Can there be common ground?

Perhaps the idea of 'gift' can be accommodated both by those who believe a (supernatural) giver is at work and those (including me) who do not. [1] The latter can apply it figuratively (a little like the term 'natural selection', in which 'selection' does not imply the literal existence of a selector). A naturalistic outlook need not be incompatible with a sense of "openness to the unbidden" [2] which requires (among other things) a strong sense that existence is astonishing, that knowledge, while powerful, has limits, and that wisdom is elusive.

"Nature is more various than observation though observers be innumerable."

[1] Examine how people construct the idea of 'gift'. See, for example, Lewis Hyde.

[2] Sandel quotes this phrase from William F. May, a theologian. But surely, like "negative capability", it can be grounded in non-theological, lived experience.

Image: Hyalinobatrachium pellucidum, an endangered 'glass' frog (Luis Coloma). The quote underneath it is from Christopher Smart

24 June 2009

One, two, three, many

The results [from studies of primates, salamanders and other animals] suggest that the two abilities - to precisely identify small numbers and to estimate the relative size of large numbers - have deep roots in our evolutionary history. "There's a good chance that this thing goes way back," says Marc Hauser.
-- from Animals that count

P.S. 8 July: Primates 'can intuitively recognise some rules of grammar', according to a study of cotton-topped tamarin monkeys

23 June 2009


The moon is reflected on the river a few feet away,
A lantern shines in the night near [midnight].
On the sand, egrets sleep, peacefully curled together,
Behind the boat I hear the splash of jumping fish.
-- Du Fu

Image: brainbow

22 June 2009


The extinction of the Baiji has become iconic but it was just one of the topics outlined by Sam Turvey in a hard-headed presentation about priorities in conversation at a 20 June conference called The Open Ground. [1]

My contribution was less focused and more touchy-feely: a few half-formed comments on 'values' and 'stories'. It's posted here.

Turvey, whose work includes Witness to Extinction, applied some welcome caustic to the sentimentality that can sometimes creep into Western accounts of the death of this dolphin. [2] Western agencies failed to put money where their mouths were, and the Chinese authorities were hopeless. The extinction, Turvey and others have shown, was probably not inevitable.

That said, with the Yangtze as a main highway, sewer, food and power source for about one tenth of humanity it's remarkable that the baiji and other remarkable species such as Chinese sturgeon survived as long as they did. [3], [4]


[1] Emily Nicholson was equally rigorous. I cannot comment on presentations by Mel Challenger, Ruth Padel, John Fa, Armand Leroi and others because I left before they spoke in order to take part in a workshop titled Changing Climate Stories, on which see Ashdenizen, Springcoppice and Samantha Ellis. It was one of those days when you want to be in at least two places at once.

[2] I asked Turvey (whose book I have not read; I will now) if it was true that people only started eating the Baiji during the 1958-61 famine. He said, if I understood him correctly, that consumption (a contributory factor in its decline but not a main driver) probably began before that. Westerners tend to over-idealise earlier Chinese views of nature (appealing as some of those memories and imaginings are)

[3] In a piece of framing that was new to me, Turvey called the Yangtze 'the Amazon of the East.' This phrase may have been shamelessly manufactured by conservationists with an agenda. If so, good for them. Before large-scale human impact the banks of the river may have been as wondrously rich with life forms as the river itself. No sooner is the point made than you say 'of course', but it is not necessarily a thought that readily occurs otherwise. Time to go back to Mark Elvin's The Retreat of the Elephants.

[4] Du Fu writes
The solitary goose does not drink or eat,
It flies about and calls, missing the flock.
No-one now remembers this one shadow,
They've lost each other in the myriad layers of cloud.
It looks into the distance: seems to see,
It's so distressed, it thinks that it can hear.
Unconsciously, the wild ducks start to call,
Cries of birds are everywhere confused.

19 June 2009

Learning to see

Perhaps the most remarkable functional interpretation of a 'trivial' character is given by [Sidnie] Manlon's work on the diploid Polyxenus, in which she has show that a trait formerly described as an 'ornament' (and what could be more useless?) is almost literally the pivot of the animal's life.
--from The Perfection of Animals (1964) by A. J. Cain, quoted in On the Origin of Stories by Brian Boyd.

18 June 2009

Up pops Upupa epops

'So pick a bird,' the Water Genie commanded. 'Any bird.' This was puzzling. 'The only bird around here is a wooden peacock,' Haroun pointed out, reasonably enough. Iff gave a snort of disgust. 'A person may choose what he cannot see,' he said, as if explaining something very obvious to a very foolish individual. 'A person may mention a bird's name even if the creature is not present and correct: cow, quail, hummingbird, bulbul, mynah, parrot, kite. A person may even select a flying creature of his own invention, for example winged horse, flying turtle, airborne whale, space serpent, aeromouse. To give a thing name, a label, a handle; to rescue it from anonymity, to pluck it out of the place of Namelessness, in short to identify it -- well that's a way of bringing the said thing into being. Or, in this case the said bird or Imaginary Flying Organism.
-- from Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie.

For some time we had been tormented by doubts as to who was a monster and who wasn't, but that too could be considered long settled: all of us who existed were non-monsters, while the monsters were all those who could exist and didn't...

But if we were going to begin again with strange animals, if the Reptiles, antiquated as they were, started to pull out limbs and teguments they had never felt any need for previously, in other words if a creature impossible by definition such as a bird was instead possible (what's more if it could be a handsome bird like this one, pleasing to sight when he poised on the fern leaves, and to the hearing when he released his warbling), then the barrier between monsters and non-monsters was exploded and everything was possible again.
-- from The Origin of Birds by Italo Calvino

(photos from from the Polish birds directory and Papagano's Free Bird Photographs)

In the arms of a giant

James and the Giant Tree (BBC Radio 4)

17 June 2009

A kick in the teeth

Walking around it, staring at it staring at you, you felt an undeniable frisson of real physical danger...The shark was art, of course; but the art also consisted in the primal reaction to it -- a reaction over which any human had almost no control.
-- from a review by Felix Salmon of Damien Hirst's The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, quoted by Dean Crawford in Shark. Crawford also quotes the critic Jonathan Jones:
Death, decay and the sublime were the themes of the British art that defined the end of the 20th century: the horror of the shark swimming towards you through formaldehyde...The sublime was the aesthetic of these years...an awe of art itself, or at least a desire to experience that awe; to be knocked over by art, to be kicked in the teeth.
Hirst's shark supplier, notes Crawford, was Vic Hislop, "the world's most notorious shark hunter":
Hirst bought his original tiger shark from Hislop for $10,000 [it was later sold for $8 million]. He has since purchased three more from him: two freshly caught tiger sharks along with a great white that Hislop said he had in the freezer. The 1.5 metre tiger shark that Hirst sold to a South Korean art dealer for more than $5 million was something that Hislop had tossed in as a freebie.
Crawford has earlier noted:
When they come to write the history of the shark’s demise - assuming we haven’t mustered the imagination and the will to save them - our descendants will focus on four important dates, all of them remarkably recent relative to the millions of years that sharks have been swimming on the earth. In [July] 1916, [in the same week that, on just one day, the British Army suffered 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 deaths], the American media redirected public hysteria to a series of shark attacks that took the lives of four young men, and thereby created the myth of a malevolent rogue shark that preys on human flesh. In 1945 the USS Indianapolis sank (after delivering the atomic bomb) and, because of the inept bureaucracy of the US Navy, 900 survivors were left for five days in water frequented by the ocean’s greatest scavengers, with predictably horrifying results. In 1975 one of the world’s greatest movie directors made a horror movie, using not the usual Dracula or werewolf myths but a newer (yet perhaps more basic) terror, elevating the shark’s mythical status to that of a totem. [1]

But perhaps the most significant date, at least so far, is 1987, when the Chinese authorities determined that shark fin soup was not so bourgeois or politically correct after all...[and] worldwide demand for shark fins has soared.


[1] Popular monster totems have changed since the 1970s (see the intro to Representing Animals by Nigel Rothfels for an analysis). In the present decade zombies seem to top the bill (see Anne Billson and point 6, 'appetite and fear', in this post.)

[2] It was estimated in 2006 that as many as 73 million sharks were being 'harvested' every year for their fins. More here.

P.S. RB sends a link to another of the (101?) uses for a dead shark: smuggling cocaine. Also, Dean Crawford describes Blue Demon, a 2005 film with the apparently absurd premise that the US Defence Department have implanted computer chips into the brains of genetically modified sharks to use them as weapons against terrorists (but the sharks run amok!). This is actually based, in part, on an actual DARPA project, albeit one that has only, so far, tinkered with dogfish.


Clever monkeys? OK. But clever fish?

16 June 2009

Tristan, Isolde and mitochondria

Sex is most advantageous when there's a lot of variation in a population, when mutation rates are high and selection pressures are great.

That combination is a killer for clones. They are particularly vulnerable to high mutation rates, which undermine genetic vigour. Heavy selection puts a premium on the genes that work, and means beneficial mutations are more likely to be selected at the expense of diversity. And diverse populations have the most to lose whenever there's a selective sweep for a particular gene in this way.

The first eukaryotic cells faced all three problems in spades. As a result of the early gene bombardment from mitochondria, the mutation rate surely shot through the roof. Selection pressures must have been heavy, too, with parasitic introns proliferating throughout the genome. And with such rapid genome evolution, the population could be nothing but diverse.

Sex was the only answer. Total sex. Recombination of genes across all chromosomes. The big question now is not so much why sex evolved - but how.
-- Nick Lane, reflecting on work by Sally Otto and others.

Each of Nature's works has an essence of its own; each of her phenomena a special characterisation: and yet their diversity is in unity.
-- Goethe

15 June 2009


The centre pages of today's Guardian newspaper feature a photograph of brightly coloured bits of plastic arranged neatly in rows and shading nicely through the colours of the rainbow, and from white to black. Individually, the objects are junk and jetsum: a battered cigarette lighter with "my shop" on the side, a mangled toothbrush, bottle tops. Together, so arranged, they resemble semi-precious stones laid on dark velvet in a cabinet. You wouldn't be surprised to see it as a collage of 'found art' in a degree show.

The punch comes in the caption. All these pieces were found in the stomach of a fledgling Laysan albatross at Kure atoll, and killed it.

I cannot find the photo online, but here is an image from the same imagino-morpho-gut-space, posted by Zern Liew in 2007.

See also here

The logic of destruction

The government east of here, called East Kutai, has been pressing to have an enclave amounting to more than 10 percent of the park excised from Kutai and officially turned into a subdistrict.

Zairin Zain, a spokesman for the provincial government of East Kalimantan, which supports the enclave plan, said the local authorities believed that they should be allowed to develop it because it had been stripped of wildlife and had been damaged beyond repair.
-- from Humans Intrude on an Indonesian Park.

According to one estimate, illegal logging and deforestation have already reduced Indonesia’s total orangutan population to about 60,000, an 80 percent reduction in the past decade.

13 June 2009

Life and gravity

One of 'seven mysteries' of gravity: life on earth 'needs' it. But what is it?
G is the least well-defined of all the constants of nature. It has been pinned down to only 1 part in 10,000, which makes it look pretty rough and ready next to...the Planck constant, which is accurate to 2.5 parts in 100 million...
..."We can make measurements that determine its size, but we have no idea where this value comes from," says John Barrow of the University of Cambridge. "We have never explained any basic constant of nature."

12 June 2009

Homo in fabula

The universe is made up of stories, not of atoms.
So said Muriel Rukeyser. And for humans, at least, it seems to be true. [1]

Brian Boyd sees it like this:
In other species we can recognize the first impulses of art but no more. Other animals can engage in exploratory behavior that seems designed to appeal to the mind, but only in isolated and incidental fashion. [2] But in our own species the impulse to art develops reliably in all normal individuals. The isolated sparks in other species have become the steady current of human art.
Narrative and story are not, of course the sum total of human art. They are, however, almost always implicit in virtually every aspect of it. So what about some of the 'big' stories for the future? End of the Line, a new film on the crisis fisheries [3], offers two typical possibilities. The first, put crudely, is disaster. A north African diver says (humorously and as provocation, but also seriously):
Man is not going to change, and the sea is going to be dead. Because Man is crazy.
The second, crudely, is hope. Callum Roberts, a marine scientist, warns that "our ability to arm and exploit far outweighs our ability to control ourselves," but offers a compelling account of how people working together and "resolute in protection" can reduce the likelihood of disaster.


[1] Simon Critchley tries an heroic summary of Heidegger:
The basic and very simple idea, as we will see in future entries, is that the human being is first and foremost not an isolated subject, cut off from a realm of objects that it wishes to know about. We are rather beings who are always already in the world, outside and alongside a world from which, for the most part, we do not distinguish ourselves.
Todd May writes:
What characterizes a human life are engagements... Consciousness is more than merely being aware. It is also being involved.
[2] Dolphins, for example, create elaborate bubble 'art', and chimpanzees sometimes engage in imaginative imitation and representation.

[3] See Organised crime. And see Big fish for a reference to the excellent book The Unnatural History of the Sea by Callum Roberts.

11 June 2009


A bird watcher named Bill Reed observed and photographed a kittiwake in Svalbard seeming to fly upside down (see photo). What, he asks, is going on? I agree with those who say the bird is looking over its shoulder, not flying upside down. [1]

But observations of other birds flying upside down are said to well documented. In Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good, Jonathan Balcombe says there are many accounts of raven antics in [refereed] scientific journals and books. "A notable trick is flying upside down, sometimes for 100 meters or more."

The reason, he argues, is play -- behaviour that is both adaptive and pleasurable [2]:
in Iqualit, a village north of Hudson Bay, locals have seen ravens hanging upside down, swinging and somersaulting over powerlines, hanging from them with their bills, and sliding down roofs...On another occasion, two ravens played a form of 'rodeo' on two loosely strung, wind-whipped overhead power lines. They too turns trying to grasp the second wire in the bill and hand on as long as possible.

...Raven authority Bernd Heinrich has watched Houdi, one of the birds he raised from a chick, sliding and rolling on her back repeatedly down a two foot high snow mound.

(Photo of ravens borrowed from Maya's Granny.)


[1] (added 12 June): "Apparently this kind of twisting and turning is called 'whiffling'." See the comment at bottom of this post.

[2] If, as seems likely, this explanation is true, it is also the case that play is part of a rich array of behaviours. And there is an almost endless supply of stories about ravens. Among the ones included in Graeme Gibson's Bedside Book of Birds are two told by the unlikely pair of John Wesley and Farley Mowat. Wesley, writing in 1790, tells of an old raven that deeply in love with an old Newfoundland dog. It barks like the dog barks, is inconsolable when they are apart and collects food for the dog against its return. Mowat (in Westviking, 1965) tells the story of how Flóki Vilgerðarson's used ravens to find distant land on his navigation across the open ocean from Norway to Iceland (finding land, as Noah does, with a raven, the first bird mentioned in the Bible). "Some people deride this account as apocryphal," writes Mowat. "There is no reason to think it is anything of the sort. On the contrary, [raven-assisted navigation] was no more than what one might expected from a seafaring people who were very closely attuned to the world in which they lived". And then there is Italo Calvino's story Last Comes the Raven, recalling his days with the partisans...

Chrismas Island Bat

...'extinct within six months unless taken into captivity immediately to set up an emergency captive breeding programme for future re-release', writes Kim Stokes on the Edge blog:
Common across the island as recently as the 1980s, it took a 99% nose dive in numbers between 1994 and 2006. There may now only be twenty individuals left, and the only known remaining communal roost has just four individuals.

10 June 2009

Fire creature, fire planet

Reviews by Saswato Das and Christine Keneally of two books on how fire 'made us human' focus on cooking. [1]

But it's not just food, and thereby ourselves, that we have transformed through fire. It's also the planet -- through what Stephen Pyne calls 'second fire', the deliberate use of fire by Man to foster ecological regimes to its [his] benefit. If we are 'the cooking ape' then it is more than food we cook.

In Fire: a brief history, Pyne writes:
It is particularly true for agriculturalists: the saga of first contact takes the form of a great fire. The Malagasy call it afortroa. Maori myths record how the first arrivals lit fires everywhere, burned off forests and wiped out moas. Madeirans preserved the legend of a Seven-Year Fire that drove the first settler into the sea for protection and then, smoldering, let the isle as malleable as a lump of white iron drawn from a furnace. The cosmology of the Stoics was built around a recurring world conflagration. The Aztecs performed a New Fire ceremony, symbolically rekindling the world, every 52 years. Modern myth-making has continued the trope. Star Trek's Wrath of Khan features a "genesis device" capable or remaking planets. The "genesis effect" begins with a fiery blast and spreads its "new matrix" over cold-dead rock with a flaming front. More slowly and bumptiously, that is precisely what humans did with the Earth. [2]

[1] Fire: The spark that ignited human evolution by Frances D. Burton and Catching Fire: How cooking made us human by Richard Wrangham. Seed has an interview with Wrangham. See, too, blog post in this series The raw and the cooked.

[2] See earlier post Fire.

9 June 2009

Nature's euphonium

Fig 1. Opisthostoma vermiculum, one of the bizarre species new to science promoted by the International Institute for Species Exploration.
The shell is unique because of the way it twists. Most snail shells coil tightly, following a logarithmic spiral. They also coil around no more than three axes.

The shell of O. vermiculum, however, coils around four axes – the most for any known gastropod. The whorls, meanwhile, detach three times and reattach themselves, twice, to preceding whorls. O. vermiculum appears to be restricted to a single region of limestone karst geography: Gunung Rapat, in Perak, Malaysia.
Actually, it looks more like an Ophicleide or a Serpent.

A survivor

"Echidnas are one of the most pacifistic mammals. Nobody bothers them; they don’t bother anybody. There’s a lot we could learn from them.” And in that level head sits a mighty brain. Among humans, the neocortex that allows us to reason and remember accounts for 30 percent of the brain; in echidnas, that figure is 50 percent.
--from Brainy Echidna proves looks aren't everything.

The article does not mention that Long-beaked echidna species are considered critically endangered.

The narrow way

In an attempt to account for what happened before the big bang, as well as the smallness of the cosmological constant, some physicists have been led to a model where our entire observable universe is contained inside a bubble, which is expanding at the speed of light into an exterior space.

But our bubble is not the only one; outside our bubble, there are an infinite number of other bubbles, all expanding just like ours. Sometimes they collide and send waves of death that wash across our universe. In this figure, the regions colored red have already been swept clean by the wave, and the yellow regions can see it coming.

A clear prediction of the model is that Earth resides in the thin sliver, or finger, that forms when two bubbles that have both collided with our bubble narrowly miss one another, indicated here with an arrow. It is thanks to our location here, in a finger, that despite the enormous swaths of our universe decimated by these waves, the odds are exponentially small that they lie in our future. We can all sleep sounder, and it's all because we live in a finger.
-- Alex Dahlen, Princeton University -- The Art of Science, 2009

8 June 2009

Organised crime

One of the striking allegations in End of the Line is that Mitsubishi is promoting the fishing of bluefin tuna to near extinction in order to profit from the large frozen stockpile of the animal that it has amassed. When bluefin have been wiped out, it is said, the price of those stocks will go through the roof. The corporation will then move on to allied species.

P.S. 11 June: Jennifer Jacquet looks forward to raising the profile of a Stop Eating Seafood movement.

'Golden rain rapids'

Wind buffets and blows autumn rain.
Water cascading thin across rocks,
waves lash at each other.
An egret startles up, white, then settles back.
-- Wang Wei, English'd. This version is quoted in a review by Adam Kirsch which concludes:
No doubt our own time of troubles, our own ugly and vicious world, which separates the world of [Ezra Pound's] Cathay from the world of [David Hinton's anthology of] Classical Chinese Poetry, is the reason why the Chinese poets seem to speak to us more intimately now when they speak of suffering and disillusionment rather than of beauty and perfection -- or even, in David Hinton's magisterial book, of enlightenment.
But Cathay was published in 1915: hardly an age of innocence.

7 June 2009

Towards the 'Ecozoic'

We have indeed become strange beings so completely are we at odds with the planet that brought us into being. We dedicate enormous talent and knowledge and research to developing a human order disengaged from and even predatory on the very sources whence we came and upon which we depend at every moment of our existence. We initiate our children into an economic order based on exploitation of the natural life systems of the planet. To achieve this perspective we must first make them autistic in their relation with the natural world about them. This disconnection occurs quite simply since we ourselves have become insensitive toward the natural world and do not realize just what we are doing. Yet, if we observe our children closely in their early years and see how they are instinctively attracted to the experiences of the natural world about them, we will see how disorientated they become in the mechanistic and even toxic environment that we provide for them.
-- from The Meadow Across the Creek by Thomas Berry.

In a biographical note, Mary Evelyn Tucker links Berry to Teilhard de Chardin:
to have become conscious of evolution means something very different from and much more than having discovered one further fact… It means (as happens with a child when he acquires the sense of perspective) that we have become alive to a new dimension. The idea of evolution is not, as sometimes said, a mere hypothesis, but a condition of all experience.
For Teilhard and for Berry, writes Tucker
the perspective of evolution provides the most comprehensive context for understanding the human phenomenon in relation to other life forms. This implies for Berry that we are one species among others and as self reflective beings we need to understand our particular responsibility for the continuation of the evolutionary process. We have reached a juncture where we are realizing that we will determine which life forms survive and which will become extinct. We have become co-creators as we have become conscious of our role in this extraordinary, irreversible developmental sequence of the emergence of life forms.
(The photo of shipping container houses is from Poverty in America. The lily is in Glacier National Park, Montana. The boy swims in water at Cilincing, Jakarta.)

6 June 2009

The salmon of Drohobycz

When I wrote the "Bruno" chapter of my book, and described an imaginary scenario in which Bruno flees the failure of civilization, the perfidious language of humans, and joins a school of salmon, I felt that I was close to touching the root of life itself, the primal, naked, impulse of life, which salmon seem to sketch in their long journey, and which the real Bruno Schulz wrote about in his books, and for which he yearned in every one of his stories: the longed-for realm he called the Age of Genius. The Age of Genius was for Schulz an age driven by the faith that life could be created over and over again through the power of imagination and passion and love, the faith that despair had not yet overruled any of these forces, that we had not yet been eaten away by our own cynicism and nihilism. The Age of Genius was for Schulz a period of perfect childhood, feral and filled with light, which even if it lasted for only a brief moment in a person's life would be missed for the rest of his years.
-- David Grossman
The possibility suggests itself that no dreams, however absurd or senseless, are wasted in the universe...Human works have the peculiarity that, once completed, they become hermetic, cut off from nature, consolidated on a base of their own. The work of the [person who is ingenuous and true of heart], in contrast, has not cut itself off from the great cosmic contexts; it is immersed in them half-humanized like a centaur, harnessing to the sublime processes of nature, still unfinished and growing.
-- from The Republic of Dreams by Bruno Schulz

Image: Farmed salmon

5 June 2009

The origin of laughter

Ed Yong has the story:
It didn't arise out of nowhere, but gradually developed over 10-16 million years of evolution by exaggerating the acoustics of our ancestors. At the very least, we should now be happy to describe the noises made by tickled apes as laughter without accusations of anthropomorphism, and to consider "laughter" as a trait that applies to primates and other animals.

See also BBC report

4 June 2009

Day dreams

People are marking World Environment Day in all kinds of creative and thought provoking ways. One of them is World Species Market by Debbie Simons.

For animal paradox of the day, I'd like to recommend the original space monkeys, the first earthlings in space just over 50 years ago.

La Jetée: Geworfenheit

Your inner fish

Whatever a poem is meant to be, the mind has a greater store of images. As the inner eye visualizes one, hundreds others flit by. The poet selects a part she is certain of (for being interesting or precisely right for the poem and, for that reason, exciting) and that part invokes other memories, other images. Sometimes in the midst of the new memory, the poet can recall a lost fragment of the original shadow or water memory.

To make the retrieval effort more personal or, to some, valuable, one may tell oneself that the recaptured piece of memory is equivalent to fact. Maybe only the poet saw it, but the poet was there; and, furthermore, its not having been seen by others makes it all the more unforgettable to the seer.
from The Poet's Inner Eye: Carol Frost discusses The Fish by Elizabeth Bishop.

The Goliath grouper, or Jewfish.

A new place for life

There's been a lot of climate change over the last 14 million years, and what we can say about this place in the middle of the Antarctic is that nothing has changed.

But if levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide continue to rise, in around 1,000 years they will approach the same levels that existed before there was persistent ice sheet in Antarctica.
-- Martin Siegert, University of Edinburgh (BBC)

3 June 2009

The most important fact

Death is not the only important fact about us. But it is the most important one.
My first reaction to this suggestion by Todd May is, no; being itself -- however brief -- is probably the most important fact about us. 

What constitutes 'successful' being?
- At a species level, does one (asks Peter Ward) rate ammonites, which were abundant and diverse but which have become extinct, as more successful than nautiloids, which are rarer and less diverse but have so far been virtually extinction-proof?

- At the level of the individual, how the life is lived and its legacy or consequences may be the most important facts.
...Shall I exchange for [death] this beautiful contexture of things? ’Tis the condition of your creation; death is a part of you, and while you endeavor to evade it, you evade yourselves. This very being of yours that you now enjoy is equally divided between life and death...

...Wherever your life ends, it is all there. The utility of living consists not in the length of days, but in the use of time; a man may have lived long, and yet lived but a little. Make use of time while it is present with you. It depends upon your will, and not upon the number of days, to have a sufficient length of life. Is it possible you can imagine never to arrive at the place toward which you are continually going? and yet there is no journey but hath its end. And, if company will make it more pleasant or more easy to you, does not all the world go the self-same way?
-- from Montaigne, That the study of philosophy is to learn how to die

Photo: Crescent Earth from Apollo 11.

2 June 2009

The longer now

Over the next hundreds of millions of years the sun will continue to get brighter until eventually Earth becomes too hot to inhabit. Previous calculations had pegged that time at about a billion years from now, but the new paper argues that earlier models had neglected the role of atmospheric pressure in regulating the temperature of the planet on astronomical time scales.

Atmospheric pressure is a key variable in the overall greenhouse-gas effect because it determines how much infrared radiation greenhouse gases absorb. Higher pressures mean more absorption and consequently, more heat. Lower pressures have the opposite effect.

Life itself would be the mechanism for these temperature changes. By “fixing” nitrogen, pulling it out of the air and eventually into the Earth’s deep ocean, microbes could be making the atmosphere lighter one atom at a time.
-- Earth 'Gets Billion-Year Life Extension'.

It sounds as if the modeling is inconclusive at this stage. [1]

The claim is that, other things being equal, life-on-Earth will extinguish no more than two billion years from now. [2] Earth-without-life may not, however, vaporise until about 7.6 billion years from now.


[1] (added 17 June) see Heavy Weather by Oliver Morton

[2] There are other scenarios. For an overview see How will the Biosphere End? in Big Questions Questions in Ecology and Evolution by Thomas Sherratt and David Wilkinson. There is said to be a 50% chance of a collision with the asteroid Eros in the next 100 million years. This would not produce enough energy to vaporise the oceans but it would release an order of magnitude more energy than the impact thought to have ended the Cretaceous. Not necessarily an end to all life, but perhaps an end to the multicellular kind.

Images: Home, Yann Arthus-Bertrand

1 June 2009

The Pediculous Berry-nymph and the Shortfooted Foamflower

Further to Sea life (1), here are 100 All Time Diatom Greats:
The Swollen Epitheme. The Gibbous Cudgel. The Comb-toothed Bestback. The Serrated Bestback. The Ant-like Bestback. Hanna’s Archway. The Circular Zenith. The Necklaced Ladderwedge. The Budding Sceptre-nymph. The Common Diatom. The Wintry Diatom. The Greenish Delicacy. The Cappuccio Delicacy. The Two Foot Congregant. The Fathead Congregant

The Tufty Table. The Marine Letter-stalk. The Oceanic Letter-stalk. The Arching Threadwand. The Musical Delight. The American Delight. The Double-rowed Surirella. The Norwegian Surirella. The Splendid Surirella. The Thinstriped Surirella. The Ovate Surirella. The Spiral Curvydisc. The Roundshield Curvydisc. The Sharpsandal Floretflank. The Elliptical Floretflank.

The Slender Denticle. The Victorian Goblet. Hantzch’s Double-prong. The Hungarian Goblet. Nitzsch’s Ant. Greville’s Curly-nymph. The Splendid Gluebreast. The Escutcheon Berry-nymph. The Pediculous Berry-nymph. Braun’s Gluebreast. The Shortfooted Foamflower. The Flexible Bestberry-nymph. The Curved Crookwede. The Average Bridge. Ehrenberg’s Gravyboat. The Pot-bellied Gravyboat. The Lancing Berrythreat. The Oval Amphora. The Budding Thinwedge. The Tapering Nailthread. The Sturdy Nailthread.

The Noble Featherjet. The Greater Coracle. The Green Featherlet. The Gibbous Featherlet. The Oblong Coracle. The Lutenis Coracle. The Twin Coracle. The Square Coracle. The Solid Coracle. The Globle-stalked Lawless Dawn-nymph. The Tupperware Shortrope. The Swollen Bentside. The Long Thin Spinsquiggle. The Javanese Sidecross. The Crimson-bellied Cross-nymph. The Interglacial Coracle. The Internal Crusade. The Winged Insect-nymph. The Double-horned Seam-nymph.

Bidulph’s Cutie. The Rhomboid Toothette. Smith’s Hornpipe. The Honeycombe Tricorn. Biddulph’s Pinstripe. The Queenly Threepearl. The Hollow Threepearl. The Blameless Throne. The Winged Halfpipe. The Elegant Karen.

The All-seeing Furrowdisc. The Rayed Furrowdisc. The Eightfold Ray-cycle. The Cross Furrowdisc. The Engraved Piccolo The Subtle Toothdisc. The Ornate Spiderdisc. The Iris Colander.

The Oceanic Endyctia. The Shiny Raygroove. The Sixfold Raygroove. The Crucial Pocket Compass. The Tasselled Crown Compass. The Subtle Crystaldisc. The Trinity Sumbol-stak. The Starry Crowndisc. The Star-bellied Footcord. The Variable Honeycord. The Small Change Honeycord. Ellerbeck’s Grain of Sand.

(The colours in the montage, from Planktos, are obviously artificial. Diatoms may, however, be photonic crystals. The picture of Guinardia striata is from the Micropolitan Museum)