If anyone goes down to those shores now, if man or boy seeks to follow in our traces, let him realize at once, before he takes the trouble to roll up his sleeves, that his zeal will end in labour lost. There is nothing, now, where in our days there was so much. Then the rocks between tide and tide were submarine gardens of a beauty that seemed often to be fabulous, and was positively delusive, since, if we delicately lifted the weed curtains of a windless pool, though we might for a moment see its sides and floor paven with living blossoms, ivory-white, rosy-red, grange and amethyst, yet all that panoply would melt away, furled into the hollow rock, if we so much as dropped a pebble in to disturb the magic dream.
-- so wrote Edmund Gosse, recalling his boyhood seashore explorations on the Devon coast with his father in the 1850s.
News from Scotland, including (supposedly) the first sighting in British waters of the ancient amphioxus, or lancelet, indicates that at least a few inshore locations in the north of this island have survived the ravages of more than a century of intense fishing and other depredations. Could this be a token of more to come, and of a measure of recovery?
Nearly all the women were wearing head scarves, even burkas. I saw one woman so pious that her burka didn't even have an opening for her eyes. She was leaving a cell-phone store, accompanied by a teen-age boy wearing a T-shirt that said "RELAX, MAN," over a picture of an ice-cream cone playing en electric guitar. You wouldn't think an ice cream could play a electric guitar, or would want to. I was reminded of Schmidt's hypothesis [with respect to Göbekli Tepe] that hybrid creatures, unknown to neolithic man, are particular to highly developed cultures - cultures which have achieved distance from and fear of nature. If archeologists of the future found this T-shirt, they would know that ours had been a civilization of great refinement.
-- from The Sanctuary by Elif Batuman, who says that she likes to think that 'when it comes to identifying a headless man with an erection, I'm as sharp-eyed as the next person.'
Among the things about Göbekli Tepe that I did not know, and learned from Batuman's piece, is archaeologists speculate that the weak foundations of the stones may have had some acoustic purpose: perhaps the pillars were meant to hum in the wind. (See this)
Plants are living beings, even the simplest ones, even the cell, are already engaged in an autonomous struggle to maintain themselves and survive. Living beings, even the simplest ones, already have something like rudimentary minds — motivated sensitivities and useful interests — and so they are way beyond [the IBM robot] Watson.
Then might those genera of animals return, of which the memorials are preserved in the ancient rocks of our continents. The huge iguanodon might reappear in the woods, and the icthyosaur in the sea, while the pterodactyl might flit again through the umbrageous groves of tree ferns. Coral reefs might be prolonged to the arctic circle, where the whale and narwal now abound. Turtles might deposit eggs in the sand of the sea beach, where now the walrus sleeps, and where the seal is drifted on the ice-floe.
-- from Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology (1830-32)
The [method] that is now mostly used is a technique in the Antarctic that uses sonar. Not, however, to look at the whale underneath the water. They use it as a means of scaring [it], because sonar is very loud. They did experiments and chose a frequency which kept whales so panicked, that they were at the surface for breaths more frequently than at other frequencies. So, they drive the whale along at the surface and then they fire into it.
-- Roger Payne in an interview with Yale 360.
Payne says that following the 1986 moratorium the total number of whales killed world wide was 185 a year. It has climbed steadily even since, reaching 1,004 by 2009
"Linguistic disobedience" might be achieved in many ways: by speaking out of turn, by disrupting syntax and "meaning", and by offering comparisons between disparate things. It might be a case of the poem acting as "witness", a recording of what's normally "unseen", ignored or denied. It can be subtle -- using allusion and slight shifts from convention -- and it can be volatile -- from agitprop to rants.
An activist ecological poem might offer a glimpse of deep natural beauty that is nonetheless necessarily "disrupted" by the highly disturbing reality of species loss, deforestation or, say, the ecological implications of buying the latest flat-screen television technology. That beauty exists at all in a damaged world is to be celebrated, but our appreciation of it comes so often at a cost that we don't always register. We must be conscious of its vulnerability.
And now we’re doing something incredible. We’re literally creating potentially an entirely new species. If you believe both the scientists and the science fiction authors out there, that’s what they think we’re doing. But, if we’re being honest about it, the reason that we’re doing all this is just to get better at destroying one another.
We can actually use other physical parameters that mammals do not normally perceive and create other sensory channels ...We create a complete new sense with a physical parameter, a physical energy that mammals never experienced themselves so they are now living in a complete new world that is governed by this physical energy, and they have a detector that allows them to find sources of water (for instance) based on this new sense.
-- Miguel Nicolelis talking to Nature Neuropod in October 2011 about yet to be published work that builds on work reported here.
What had caught my eye in the heather was the zigzag, a pattern too clear to look natural. The shadows cast by bracken leaves have similar shapes. In these shadows, the zigzag evolved, presumably, but somehow the scatter of light and shade on the forest floor became on the snake a regular wavy line. It breaks up the animal’s outline. Hawks and crows see the snake from above. People do too. When the snake moves, winding through stalks and shadows, the zigzag goes in different directions, confusing the eye. On a motionless snake, it is insolently clear. In the heath’s debris, the zigzag looks stylized, like a printed or ceramic pattern, a logo or uniform, a badge of power and purpose.
...we do know...that a healthy brain is necessary for normal mental life, and indeed, for any life at all. But of course much else is necessary for mental life. We need roughly normal bodies and a roughly normal environment. We also need the presence and availability of other people if we are to have anything like the sorts of lives that we know and value. So we really ought to say that it is the normally embodied, environmentally- and socially-situated human animal that thinks, feels, decides and is conscious. But once we say this, it would be simpler, and more accurate, to allow that it is people, not their brains, who think and feel and decide. It is people, not their brains, that make and enjoy art. You are not your brain, you are a living human being.
At first sight...a simple [autogenic] molecular system doesn't appear to have much to do with the emergence of function, or value, much less consciousness. But upon closer examination, these teleological-like properties turn out to ultimately depend on some variant of the self-referential circularity of this sort of formative process. This is because the causal circularity between these interdependent, self-organised molecular processes creates an unambiguous site of "self": its intrinsic capacity for self-creation constitutes a precise self/non-self distinction which is independent of any specific material embodiment. And it is this "self" that most needs to be explained before we can even begin to consider the nature of consciousness.
-- Terrence Deacon, who argues that both the origins of life and the origins of consciousness depend on the emergence of self: the organisational core of both is a form of self-creating, self-sustaining, constraint-generating process.
(Image: Paramount Bridge by Alan E Taylor
'You could walk right over this bridge without realising that it is there.')
Studies suggest that long-term climate models up to the year 2300 are missing key positive feedbacks that could send global temperatures towards levels high enough to melt the ice, if not over the entire Gamburtsevs, then at least large parts of even Antarctica for the first time in over 30 million years:
In particular, the release of methane from melting Arctic permafrost has not yet been factored in. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, but remains in the atmosphere for only 10 years on average before it reacts with hydroxyl radicals in the air to form CO2. However, a large release of methane from melting permafrost could swamp the hydroxyl supply, allowing the methane to linger in the atmosphere for 15 years or more, further amplifying the warming.
Some feedbacks never before considered might also come into play... In the future oceans may store less carbon. Normally some atmospheric carbon is lost at sea, buried in the carcasses of tiny marine animals. But sediment from the Eocene contains little carbon, suggesting that this process failed during the last hothouse...
Sara Blaffer Hrdy’s gracefully written, expert account of human behavior focuses on the positive, and its most important contribution is to give cooperation its rightful place in child care. Through a lifetime of pathbreaking work, she has repeatedly undermined our complacent, solipsistic, masculine notions of what women were meant “by nature” to be. Here as elsewhere she urges caution and compassion toward women whose maternal role must be constantly rethought and readjusted to meet the demands of a changing world. Women have done this successfully for millions of years, and their success will not stop now. But neither Hrdy nor I nor anyone else can know whether the strong human tendency to help mothers care for children can produce the species-wide level of cooperation that we now need to survive.
Researchers estimate that between 750 and 1,800 orang-utans were killed in the year leading up to April 2008. In previous years, however, things were even worse: the researchers calculate that between 1,950 and 3,100 were killed each year. These killing rates are higher than previously thought and are high enough to pose a serious threat to the continued existence of orangutans in Kalimantan.
'It seems to me,' [Wittgenstein] will recall years later of these months, 'that I had given birth to new paths of thought within me': 'Es kommt mir so vor, als hätte ich damals in mir neue Denkbewegungen geboren.' The word he uses for 'paths of thought', Denkbewegungen, is a coinage that draws attention to itself. It might be translated as 'thought-movements', or 'thought-motions', but with the added implication of thoughts that are brought into being by means of motion along a path (Weg). The coinage recalls the etymology of the English verb 'to learn', which has its roots -- its routes -- in the proto-Germanic term *liznojan, meaning 'to find or follow a track'.
-- from Way Rights by Robert Macfarlane in Archipelago 6, another collection of essays and other works as polished and beautiful as river pebbles. Catchments by John Elder -- a meditation on the work of Tim Robinson in Connemara and Elder's own Green Mountains in Vermont -- is a wonder.
If tracks can be ways of thought then single words can sometimes be marker stones pointing the way. Among those I have learned or rediscovered today are:
As The Browser asks, how long before one of these gets weaponised?
But, writes Justin Mullins (Squishybots...), the chances are that something with a squishy body and tentacles is likely to be closer to the real future of robotics. 'For many tasks that we actually want robots to do, a hard body or humanoid shape just isn't cutting it. So researchers are rethinking the fundamentals of what a smart machine is.'
...said Silvio Berlusconi a few days ago, alluding to the robust health of the Italian economy. One could laugh, were it not for the knowledge that such prosperity as many Italians have recently enjoyed has depended on eating the future -- stealing from children by loading them with debt.
A footnote to this farce: it appears Italian restaurants really are full...of dead song birds. Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network, notes that a consignment recently intercepted on the way to those tables consisted of:
In On Monsters: An Unnatural History of our Worst Fears, Stephen Asma identifies ‘slitherers’, or snake-like monsters as one of the principal types of monsters. Eels can be put in this category (along with, for example, hagfish). Others include: ‘crawlers’ (spider-type monsters), ‘collosals’ (giant creatures), ‘hybrids’ (mixed-species creatures), ‘possessors’ (spirits, specters), and parasites (infectious agents, blood suckers etc). Stories about monster threats and heroic conquests, Asma suggests, 'provide us with a ritualized, rehearsable simulation or reality, a virtual way to represent the forces of nature, the threats from other animals, and the dangers of human social interaction.'
In the introduction to The Book of Imaginary Beings, Borges and his translator write: 'We are as ignorant of the meaning of the dragon as we are ignorant of the meaning of the universe, but...it is a necessary monster.'
I wrote that 'monsters of one kind or another are woven into virtually all the cultures of which we have record.' There may be a parallel in religion. David Hume suggested that belief in gods arose from fear of the unknown causes of the sometimes malevolent, sometimes benevolent and often unpredictable events which so frequently dominated human life. William James, by contrast, argued that a sense of transcendent joy played at least as important a role in the creation and maintenance of religious belief as fear. Certainly, a religious impulse is strong in us. ‘Some form of religious thinking seems to be the path of least resistance for our cognitive systems,’ writes the psychologist Pascal Boyer; ‘by contrast, disbelief is generally the result of deliberate, effortful work against our natural cognitive dispositions.‘ The anthropologist Scott Atran agrees: ‘Spirituality looms as humankind’s provisional evolutionary destiny.‘ Or, as the novelist David Foster Wallace put it, ‘there is no such thing as not worshipping.’
I wrote 'now almost all the monsters are within us'. This is a figure of speech, but some things inside us do seem like beings with their own existence. Cancer, one of the ‘kings of terror’ can be a case in point. And as Siddhartha Mukherjee points out, cancer can sometimes seem more like a someone than a something.
Stranger and more plausible than the theory (attributed to Aristophanes in the Symposium) that sex has its origins in people chasing around trying to find the other half from which they were once severed is the libertine bubble theory of Thierry Lodé, which argues that rather than providing reproductive advantages:
it might be better to see sex as a genetic exchange between two organisms, as originating from an archaic horizontal gene transfer process among the prebiotic bubbles on the ocean surface, which are thought to have played a major role in the creation of living cells. My theory suggests sex results from three key primitive conditions: first, bubbles form spontaneously, creating a favourable environment for genetic material; second, the "promiscuous" nature of these bubbles allows transfer of genetic material among the most "libertine" of the bubbles, gradually leading to a certain membrane selectivity; and third, DNA overcrowding encourages primitive meiotic recombination.
Athena’s suckers felt like an alien’s kiss—at once a probe and a caress. Although an octopus can taste with all of its skin, in the suckers both taste and touch are exquisitely developed. Athena was tasting me and feeling me at once, knowing my skin, and possibly the blood and bone beneath, in a way I could never fathom.
Poaching has driven the Javan rhinoceros to extinction in Vietnam, leaving the critically endangered species' only remaining population numbering less than 50 on the Indonesian island that gave it its name, the WWF and International Rhino Foundation said on Tuesday.
"The last Javan rhino in Vietnam has gone," said Tran Thi Minh Hien, WWF-Vietnam country director. "It is painful that despite significant investment in the Vietnamese rhino population, conservation efforts failed to save this unique animal. Vietnam has lost part of its natural heritage."
Cancer stem cells have acquired the behavior of normal stem cells by activating the same genes and pathways that make normal stem cells immortal -- except, unlike normal stem cells, they can not be lulled back into physiological sleep. Cancer, then, is quite literally, trying to emulate a regenerating organ -- or, perhaps, more disturbingly, the regenerating organism. Its quest for immortality mirrors our own quest, a quest buried in our embryos and in the renewal of our organs. Someday, if a cancer succeeds, it will produce a far more perfect being than its host -- imbued with immortality and the drive to proliferate.
--- from The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
‘Globally endangered Egyptian vulture!’ shouted Çağan, slamming on the brakes. Glancing skyward, I caught a glimpse of something brown flapping away. The body of the Egyptian vulture is brown and off-white, but its face is bright yellow. ‘They get that colour from eating shit, which is full of yellow carotenoid pigments,’ Çağan explained. In males, the bright-yellow face is an indicator of fitness and virility, signaling a capacity to eat enormous quantities of shit without getting sick.
On behalf of the Egyptian vulture, as well as the region’s other vulture species Çağan had recently opened a ‘vulture restaurant’...which in its pilot phase had served mostly dead dog. Emrah, Çağan’s science coordinator, was charged with retrieving dog carcasses from the city dumps and depositing them in random locations around Aras, to see how the vultures reacted. The vultures reacted well. You bring the dead dog, and the vultures take care of the rest. The one problem was that a lot of dogs in the dumps had been poisoned as part of a stray-dog reduction program.
...Thus began a phase of Emrah’s life that might have been called “C.S.I.: Dog Dump”: did this dog die of natural causes, or was it poisoned? He started out bribing the staff at the dumps, a pack of cigarettes for every clean carcass. It was a good system, although Emrah inevitably began asking himself certain questions. Was it for this that he had completed his master’s in biology? Further, the workers at the dump clearly thought he was some kind of pervert. One of them once remarked that Emrah might not find that day’s dog suitable: “The thing is, this one is male.”
At its heart, [the idea] is deceptively simple: we have two genomes that need to work together, and you can tell how well they’re doing this by the strength of the free radical leak. From that simple concept, you can logically derive how fitness, fertility and lifespan are linked in different species. You can also predict the process of ageing and the onset of age-related diseases within individuals.
“A lot of this has to be true on logical grounds,” says Nick Lane. “We know that there is co-adaptation between these two genomes and many predictions emerge seamlessly from some simple reflections on that process. The big question is whether it’s important in the greater scheme of things.”
Its genome is 1.259 million base pairs long, which is 6.5 percent longer than the previous record holder among giant viruses. In that abundance of DNA are 1120 genes. That’s hundreds more genes than found in a lot of bacteria.
The construct also contains a stretch of DNA from the promoter region of an ocean pout, an eel-like creature that lives in extremely cold environments (the promoter is a switch that controls the expression of a downstream gene).
Normally, the eel uses this promoter to keep an antifreeze gene turned on constantly so it does not freeze. The promoter is therefore “constitutive,” meaning it is always active, and coupling it with a growth factor gene in an Atlantic salmon results in the salmon experiencing a continual growth spurt—since the growth factor is continually produced.
Studies have shown that the genetically-altered Atlantic salmon’s appetite would make it constantly ravenous, meaning that it would eat everything around in sight.
We hypothesize that the shonisaurs were killed and carried to the site by an enormous Triassic cephalopod, a 'kraken,' with estimated length of approximately 30 m, twice that of the modern Colossal Squid
This 'Triassic kraken' has not been found; no fossils, no remains at all, no evidence of its existence. It is postulated to have been large enough to hunt and kill ichthyosaurs, which is remarkable—comparison to modern giant squid is invalid, since they are prey, not predator.
What I’m really proposing is a shift in our value system. What we value and don’t value can change. "Weedy" is an interesting cultural concept -- in reality, weeds are successful plants. We should celebrate them, because they’re the plants we don’t have to worry about it. They’re gong to be fine. They’re the resilient part of nature.
In Solar, Ian McEwan's anti-hero Michael Beard tell his girlfriend that the humblest weed in a pavement crack contains a precious secret (the true nature of photosynthesis) that the world's top laboratories are only beginning to understand.
The larva of Luidia sarsi is a semi-transparent diaphanous sprite that feeds on algae and grows to a remarkable 4 centimetres. Then something extraordinary happens. Instead of changing shape to become an adult, a cluster of cells lining the larva's internal cavity grows, like an alien invader, and out of these a starfish is born. Floating free from its other self, the adult form settles on the ocean floor, where it survives and grows by hunting down other starfish in the dark of night. Meanwhile, the larva continues its vegetarian existence, grazing the surface waters above.
P.S. In a highly critical review of Ryan's book Metamorphosis, Josh Trapani says that Ryan champions the views of Donald Williamson who postlated that interbreeding occurs between not just different species but different phuyla; for example, between ascidians (sea squirts) and echinoderms (sea urchins):
He postulates that this has happened repeatedly between
different groups of widely divergent organisms. Moreover, he postulates
that the hybrids look like one parental species as larvae and like the
other as adults, rather than simply exhibiting a mix of characteristics,
as most hybrids do. Not only is this hypothesis not supported by
evidence, but plenty of evidence, including powerful molecular evidence,
directly contradicts it.
There was once a monster which lived in the valley of the Clearwater River near Kamiah. This beast devoured all the animals that lived in the country for miles around and became such a menace that Coyote...decided it must be killed. Arming himself with a flint knife, he jumped down the animal's throat and stabbed it in the heart. Then he cut the body up into pieces and from them fashioned tribes of Indians which he sent to occupy the mountains and plains round about. Finally, he discovered that he did not have a tribe for the beautiful valley in which the monster had lived, so he squeezed a few drops of blood from the heart and from this made the Nez Perce. Thus from the lifeblood of this strange animal came a tribe having many of the most admirable qualities possessed by human beings.
-- Nez Perce origin story via The Flight of the Nez Perce by Mark Brown (1971) via Wikipedia.
One here for the Nuvvuagittuq Eidouranion (a phrase to be explained another time):
According to the Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World, Greenland lost around 15% of its ice cover between the 10th edition (1999) (left) and 13th edition (2011) (right).
Uunartoq Qeqertaq – translated from Inuit as Warming Island – joins Southern Sudan and nearly 7,000 other countries and places added or changed since the last edition of the Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World.
The Greenland ice sheet is said to have shrunk by about 15% in 20 years. Update 19 Sep: the 15% figure is said to be an exaggeration.  (See This is what global warming looks like.) Where, exactly things go from here, and when, is hard to predict. The ice sheet may not disappear as quickly as some previous models have suggested. (The precise impacts of fresh and seawater ice melting are also unpredictable.)
But in the absence of dramatic changes in the nature and pattern of human activity, the likely trend is towards complete disappearance of the ice sheet. In a review of Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth by Curt Stager, Scott L. Wing writes:
Relying on simulations of the effects of high partial pressure of carbon dioxide by Richard Alley, Jeff Ridley, and others, Stager lays out the development of Greenland's landscape and economy as its ice cap melts. He even playfully proposes a name, Ny Fjord (New Fjord), for the giant tongue of ocean that could come to occupy central Greenland by 5000 CE. He envisions a thriving Arctic-fishing industry lining the shores of the 400-m-deep fjord, then explains how the fjord would (to the shock of most nongeologists) empty over the succeeding 50,000 years as isostatic rebound following deglaciation raises the crust of central Greenland.
What birds and animals offer us is not confirmation of our sense of having an exalted place in some sort of cosmic hierarchy. It's admission into a larger scheme of things, where our minds are no longer turned in on themselves.
Imagine if a tree could lasso your body as you run past. That’s pretty much what some nematophagous fungi (and Vampyrellid protists) do in soils—capturing (very) motile nematodes, suspending their motion, and digesting them whole. Some fungi entwine nematodes with their rope-like hyphae and choke the poor worms to death. Other fungi inject their roots into a living worm, sucking out nutrients and killing the nematode as the fungal mass grows. (As another strategy, Vampyrellid amobae engulf nemtodes whole in a blob of goo.) To top it all off, nematophagous fungi unleash siren-like powers (perhaps by emitting sensual chemicals scents?) that attract unknowing, healthy nematodes towards their webs.
Following a table of typology, definitions and potential agency of extinction terms as outlined by Richard Ladle and Paul Jepson, the white rhino is, presumably, on the point of crossing from the status of 'Ecological extinction' to 'Phoenix extinction.'
Two recent developments may help it from slipping into total extinction: the conversion of its skin cells into pluripotent stem cells, and electroejaculation with a uniquely designed probe.
What draws me to these places is hard to define. The journey is part of the magic. The sea is endlessly, and wonderfully alive; unlike concrete, unlike tarmacadam. No two sea journeys are ever the same. On the trip to North Rona, we met families of dolphin, Risso’s, basking sharks and minke whales. The sea was calm, the swell long and leaden. The night-time journey back was before a north-easterly gale, sailing only on the jib. Driving southwards at eight to ten knots, we listened to the clicking of a school of pilot whales some three miles away.
· The need for greater protection: “Marine protected areas are steadily getting bigger which is good news for large marine predators with big habitats,” says Carl Gustaf Lundin, Director, IUCN Global Marine and Polar Programme. “However, most of them are still too small, too few and far between, with too little enforcement to adequately protect whale and other highly mobile marine animal habitats.”
· Growing threats: “At least 300,000 whales and dolphins a year end up dead in fishing nets alone, as so-called by-catch,” says Erich Hoyt, author, member of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission’s Cetacean Specialist Group and the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas. “Whales in some areas have been found to be emaciated. And scarcely a year since the BP Gulf Oil disaster, it’s business as usual in large parts of the Gulf and elsewhere.”
· Protecting the high seas: “To safeguard critical ocean ecosystems and highly mobile species, we need to set aside more untouched ocean wilderness areas in the high seas,” says Patricio Bernal, Coordinator, Western Gray Whale Conservation Project. “Outside of national jurisdiction, the high seas contain only a handful of protected areas. Without effective protection this huge area, which is equivalent to 64% of the ocean’s surface, will continue to be heavily exploited in the next few years.”
[The] long-term goal is to create robots that can evolve like biological creatures, so EndlessForms is designed to explore what kind of biological body shapes the model can produce. Forget designing your own objects - what about 3D-printed pets?
Kakadu was until very recently thought to be immune from the extinctions that have plagued much of Australia’s native fauna. That bite needs to be felt by many more buttocks — not just in Australia but across the globe, where invasive species, ineffective management and wishful thinking imperil the wild places and creatures that still remain.
In a study titled "Chickens prefer beautiful humans", human faces were photographed and digitised, so they could be presented to undergraduates, who then rated them according to attractiveness. The male faces were rated by female students and vice versa. They came up with a gradation of the most and least attractive. Then chickens were presented with the same faces and strikingly, the chickens' preferences in binary choices, for whatever reason, showed a 98 per cent overlap with the humans' ratings.
It doesn't necessarily mean that the chickens found those faces more attractive – though that's what the authors seem to suggest. What meaning that has in a chicken's world I don't know. But what it does say to me is that they're very perceptive about cues and those perceptions are very similar to ours in terms of aesthetics.
[Scientists] removed the lenses of six Japanese newts, Cynops pyrrhogaster, 18 times. After each excision, the lenses regenerated. They did so not from remaining lens tissue, but from pigment epithelial cells in the upper part of the iris.
Until recently, most robots could be thought of as belonging to one of two phyla. The Widgetophora, equipped with claws, grabs and wheels, stuck to the essentials and did not try too hard to look like anything other than machines (think R2-D2). The Anthropoidea, by contrast, did their best to look like their creators—sporting arms with proper hands, legs with real feet, and faces (think C-3PO). The few animal-like robots that fell between these extremes were usually built to resemble pets (Sony’s robot dog, AIBO, for example) and were, in truth, not much more than just amusing toys.
One need only shut oneself in a closet and begin to think of the fact of one’s being there, of one’s queer bodily shape in the darkness (a thing to make children scream at, as Stevenson says), of one’s fantastic character and all, to have the wonder steal over the detail as much as over the general fact of being, and to see that it is only familiarity that blunts it. Not only that anything should be, but that this very thing should be, is mysterious! Philosophy stares, but brings no reasoned solution, for from nothing to being there is no logical bridge. 
Man...is to all reality, known and unknowable...plankton, a shimmering phosphoresence of the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again. 
Sources:  William James, quoted by Geoffrey O'Brien in an essay review of The Tree of Life, and  John Steinbeck quoted by Martin Rees in Just Six Numbers.
To attempt to predict anything beyond the relevant horizon is futile -- it is prophecy -- but wondering what is beyond it is not. When wondering leads to conjecture, that constitutes speculation, which is not irrational either. In fact it is vital. Every one of those deeply unforeseeable new ideas that make the future unpredictable will begin as speculation. And every speculation begins with a problem...
We cannot yet measure the universe as accurately as Eratosthenes measured the Earth. And we, too, know how ignorant we are. For instance, we know from universality that AI is attainable by writing computer programs, but we have no idea how to write (or evolve) the right one. We do not know what qualia are or how creativity works, despite having working examples of qualia and creativity inside all of us. We learned the genetic code decades ago, but have no idea why it has the reach it has. We know that both the deepest prevailing theories of physics must be false. We know that people are of fundamental significance, but we do now know whether we are among those people: we may fail, or give up, and intelligences originating elsewhere in the universe may be the beginning of infinity...
-- from The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch (p. 458)
Much of what I think I understand in Deutch's writing I find fascinating and convincing. But is he right to say, for example, 'we have no idea why the genetic code has the reach it has'?
Deutsch defines (post-Enlightenment) persons as (something like) 'universal explainers and constructors' (p.203). Is that what we are?
Recalling Orgel's second rule ('evolution is cleverer than you are'), I'm not yet wholly convinced by the following (p. 380):
...the frequently cited metaphore of the history of life on Earth, in which human civilization occupies only the final 'second' of the 'day' during which life has so far existed. In reality, a substantial proportion of all evolution on our planet to date has occurred in human brains. And it has barely begun. The whole of biological evolution was but a preface to the main story of evolution...
Images: Penzias and Wilson's horn antenna, Box jelly with camera-type eyes and two imaginary beings from petroglyph on Easter Island.
P.S. 9pm: My optimism after reading The Beginning of Infinity was dampened by this.
P.S. 13 August: David Albert reviews The Beginning of Infinityhere.
Richard Flanagan's novel Gould's Book of Fish (2001) begins with the narrator staring in endless fascination at (if I remember correctly) a leafy sea dragon -- an idea borrowed, perhaps, from Cortazar's short story Axolotl (1953).
The bubble made by Argyroneta aquatica act rather like an artificial gill, taking up dissolved oxygen from the water so that the spiders doesn't need to continually refill it with fresh air from the surface
Earth has not always looked like this. Suppose you can rewind time, slowly at first—you see the field of lights on the night side of Earth extinguished, these having been lit by industrially inclined humans only in the last few decades. Rewind at a million years a minute, and you can watch ice sheets regularly advancing and retreating across the Northern Hemisphere, every six seconds or so, roughly at the rate that you breathe. Accelerate the rewind to a hundred million years a minute, and you can review the whole history of the planet in three quarters of an hour.
The first thing you’ll notice at this speed is the continents skating over the surface. South America and Australia are moving south and join with Antarctica after twenty seconds, and suddenly Antarctica loses its ice sheet and turns green. North America sails back towards Europe, South America towards Africa, and the Atlantic closes up in less than a minute. The continents assemble into the supercontinent Pangaea after two minutes. As you continue into the past, you’d see the white flash of an occasional ice cap, but it’s the exception. Usually there is no ice on the planet at all. That is, until something strange happens about six minutes into the rewind. In the blink of an eye, the entire sphere is suddenly encased in white ice, and stays that way for a full ten seconds. It clears to blue again, then another ten seconds or so later repeats the cycle. You’ve just witnessed two episodes of ‘Snowball Earth’ and fast rewound through one of the revolutions on which we want to focus...
Eventually there might be a new ontological category of beings, that are both alive and not alive at the same time.
I've had many discussions with people who say that, yes, things are getting worse for us environmentally, but we're an adaptive species so we'll simply adapt. I argue, however, that just because we do adapt, it doesn't mean we're going to adapt well. If you put us in prison, we would adapt. We wouldn't die, but we wouldn't do well. I think that as we continue to degrade nature and distance ourselves from it, we are adapting, but I don't think we are necessarily thriving - we're like animals in a zoo.
Oliver Morton may be right when he says that in the Anthropocene 'wilderness, for good or ill, is increasingly irrelevant. As the ecologist Simon Lewis argues, embracing the Anthropocene 'means treating humans not as insignificant observers of the natural world but as central to its workings, elemental in their force.'
For literally centuries, polar explorers have been aware that in the springtime the bottom of seasonal sea ice becomes visible discolored. Today we know that what they were seeing is a photosynthesis-based biofilm of grand proportions. By March, when the sun spends enough time above the horizon to initiate the ice-algal bloom, the sea ice cover over the Arctic Ocean alone (sea ice also surrounds Antarctica, of course) extends more than 14 million square kilometers, even in this era of climate-driven reductions in the cryosphere. Only in the last decade, however, have we realized that this highly porous sea ice, flushed at its ice-water interface with seawater from below, is also filled with EPS, the sticky exudates of microscopic algae and bacteria that partially account for their entrapment in the ice as it forms in autumn and through winter. These compounds, which partition into the brine phase of the ice along with the microbes and other “impurities” of seawater, are now understood to serve a myriad of biological functions within the ice, from cryo- and osmoprotection to possible viral defense.
During the Middle Ages they understood that words accompanied by imagery are much more memorable. By making the margins of a book colorful and beautiful, illuminations help make the text unforgettable. It’s unfortunate that we’ve lost the art of illumination. The fact that books today are mostly a string of words makes it easier to forget the text. With the impact of the iPad and the future of the book being up for re-imagination, I wonder whether we’ll rediscover the importance of making texts richer visually.
There are more viruses on Earth than there are stars in the universe.
If you stacked every virus end to end they would stretch 100,000 light years.
10 percent of all the photosynthesis on the Earth is carried out with virus genes.
Life as we know it may owe its existence to viruses.
Astonishing facts such as these pepper Carl Zimmer's A Planet of Viruses, a book whose ten short and clear chapters offer as good an introduction to these extraordinary entities -- microbiology's polymorphous Trimurti -- as you could wish for. 
Research into the nature of viruses and their significance to life as a whole has exploded in the last couple of decades. There is, surely, much more to discover. For now at least three fundamental points seem clear: viruses are ubiquitous, diverse, and have played a central role in the evolution of (virtually) all life forms.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the world ocean, which holds about 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 of the blighters.  As Zimmer notes, ocean viruses are stunning not just for their sheer numbers but also for their genetic diversity:
The genes in a human and the genes in a shark are quite similar -- so similar that scientists can find a related counterpart in the shark genome to most genes in the human genome. The genetic makeup of viruses, on the other hand, matches almost nothing. In a survey of viruses in the Arctic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, Bermuda and the northern Pacific, scientists identified 1.8 million viral genes. Only 10 percent of them showed any match to any gene from any microbe, animal, plant or other organism -- even [to] any other known virus. The 90 percent were entirely new to science. In 200 litres of seawater, scientists typically find 5,000 genetically distinct kinds of viruses. In a kilogram of marine sediment, there may be a million kinds.
One speculation: if -- as has been suggested  -- the ancestors of viruses predate cells, could they have played a role in the emergence of life itself from what Martin Nowak has called 'pre-life'? , 
 As Zimmer reports, Patrick Forterre has proposed that in an RNA world, viruses invented double stranded DNA as a way to protect their genes from attack. 'Eventually their hosts took over their DNA, which then took over the world. Life as we know it...may have needed viruses to get its start.'
P.S. In the second section of this essay drawing on his book The Mathematics of Life, Iain Stewart explores how the structure of viruses can be explained by maths.
huge currents hundreds of kilometres wide... picks up material from the vents and transports it long distances. In this way, large swaths of the ocean that would otherwise be bereft of life-giving nutrients - like those emanating from this black-smoker chimney - get fertilised.
There is no shortage of fantastical ways in which people imagine the end of humanity. Some of them lead to harmful behaviour. Putting aside cults, scare-mongering and general foolishness, however, the ultimate end of our species is a matter with which we need to engage seriously. And that is one of the reasons I think Kathleen Jamie’s On Rona is a small masterpiece: intentionally or otherwise, it allows for a meditation on human extinction. 
Our species has probably only come close to complete extinction once, in the remote past.  Given the stupendous numbers of us alive today and our energy and resourcefulness/ruthlessness, it can seem hard to believe that our end will ever actually come, barring some an unforeseen and/or uncontrollable cataclysm.  But while our future may be indefinite, it is surely not infinite. 
How do we relate to this apparently remote fact emotionally? How should we? Is it really so much harder for an individual to relate to than the fact of his/her own mortality? Perhaps we can go with Lawrence Krauss: 'We shouldn’t be depressed that we’ll disappear; we should be thrilled that we’re here right now.' 
Most of us would want the final end to be far away -- for the story of humanity to have a long way to go as yet. (For those of us who love our children, the idea that they or their successors will face tragedy and annihilation can seem unspeakably painful.) But would not an endless future, were it possible, be -- well -- rather boring? Even a very good story can get tedious if it goes on too long. There's a kind of incontinence to imagining an endless future.  The best stories by contrast, have an arc through time. (If we imagine trans-human or post-human stories we should do so with great caution and humility. )
We know enough to understand that in the near term the world needs mindfulness and cherishing. Some of the most relevant stories for the 21st century are, therefore, likely to centre on ways that we try to manage and control our appetites and fears, and on attempts to repair the world (and our ways) -- on efforts to slow the rate at which the whole universe of natural beings is turned into an undifferentiated 'standing reserve' of energy. 
The counter-desecration phrasebook suggested by Finlay Macleod and further sketched by Robert Macfarlane might help. Such a phrasebook would recall and revive some of the ways in which people comprehended the world before industrialization. It might contain equivalents to (for example) the Gaelic phrase Rionnach maoim, which means 'the shadows cast on moorland by cumulous clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day.' This 'unfeasible' phrasebook, writes Macfarlane, would stand, 'not as competitor to scientific knowledge and ecological analysis but as their supplement and ally.' 
It's a beautiful idea. And if it is 'unfeasible' then this does not have to be because of competition or contradiction between scientific and poetic ways of seeing. To take just one example, the fact that algae such as Chroomonas (and possibly other life forms) exploit quantum phenomena can only enhance our sense of wonder. No, the unfeasibility would have more to do with the likelihood that a mythic (dreamtime) state of mind (being) is hard for us to access in a sustained manner because we cannot pretend innocence of the history of our civilization.
1. That, at least, is one of the resonances I find in the piece. (Wiser readers may disagree!) Certainly, On Rona contains much else. Consider, for example:
I had the sensation I always have on Atlantic Islands, in summertime, when the clouds pass quickly and light glints on the sea -- a sense that the world is bringing itself into being moment by moment.
This sentence captures very well something I tried to approach in Hypnagogia when I suggested that, though superficially stationary, an island can be like a boat and so resemble Nicholas Humphrey's image for consciousness itself. The shifting seas make more readily apparent the fourth dimension of time through which the island/boat travels (although if Julian Barbour is correct, time itself is an illusion).
2. The Toba catastrophe theory holds that between about 77,000 and 69,000 years ago the impacts of a volcanic super-eruption reduced humans to a small number of breeding pairs. Plagues and famines throughout subsequent human history, though catastrophic, have only extirpated humans locally. Perhaps the moment we came closest to extinction in recent years was the Cuban missile crisis, although it's likely that a remnant would have pulled through even the worst nuclear winter and repopulated the planet.
We live in a dream world. With a small, rational part of the brain, we recognise that our existence is governed by material realities, and that, as those realities change, so will our lives. But underlying this awareness is the deep semi-consciousness that absorbs the moment in which we live, then generalises it, projecting our future lives as repeated instances of the present. This, not the superficial world of our reason, is our true reality. All that separates us from the indigenous people of Australia is that they recognise this and we do not.
4. For Werner Hertzog that end is quite imaginable. Talking to Lawrence Krauss, Cormac McCarthy and Science Friday presenter Ira Flatow ( 8 April 2011), Herzog said, 'It is quite evident that humans as a species will vanish quite quickly - maybe two or three hundred years, maybe three thousand years, maybe thirty thousand years. It doesn’t make me nervous that soon we’ll have a planet that doesn’t contain human beings.' For more on Herzog and 'the necessary catastrophe' see Hari Kunzru's fine profile.
5. Same source as footnote 4. Krauss's sentiment can be taken as a kind of species-wide positive thinking of the kind recommended by Steve Jobs for the individual (if not necessarily followed by the corporation he leads. [Added 30 April: see this too]). We need to recognize our limits in order to be human. Indeed, as Adam Gopnik writes, 'Perhaps our intelligence is not just ended by our mortality; to a great degree it is our mortality.' See also The Most Important Fact.
6. In a meditation on Crusoe's island, the novel, rare birds and the death of his friend David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen notes boredom as a great enemy in his life. DFW was mentally ill, but boredom with self and with species is not necessarily insanity. Indefinite life extension seems deeply mistaken. As was recently written of Ray Kurzweil, 'One wonders how much of life he is missing by overthinking death.'
7. I think I share Giles Fraser's unease about Sam Harris's readiness to sacrifice humanity to the cause of a greater being. As Martin Rees and others have seen, perhaps more clearly than Harris, we have hardly begun to get our bearings on the non-human future. As Paul Broks wrote after interviewing Rees in 2010 :
We may, as a species, be suffering the cosmic equivalent of Anton’s syndrome, the neurological condition in which patients rendered totally blind by damage to the visual cortex believe they can see perfectly well. Perhaps the universe is an act of imagination. There’s no “perhaps” about it. The universe is an act of imagination, which is not to say there’s no “real world out there,” rather that our construction of it is shaped, and inescapably confined, by the powers of the human mind. Perhaps on a cosmic scale we are cosmically stupid.
An open-ended possibilianism, a la David Eagleman may be the way to go.
8. 'Standing reserve' (Bestand) is from Martin Heidegger: The Question Concerning Technology (1949). The struggle to prevent mindless destruction may be lost much of the time, but that does not mean one should give up. As Cormac McCarthy put it in his conversation with Krauss and Hertzog, 'Just because I am pessimistic about a lot of things, that’s no reason to be miserable about them.' See also Towards a Green Stoic Philosophy.
9. A Counter Desecration Phrasebook by Robert Macfarlane appears in Towards Re-enchantment: Place and Its Meanings (2010) along with Kathleen Jamie's On Rona and essays by nine other writers.
Most real creatures that we think we know embody wonders we have hardly dreamed of. And there are other beings, equally real, which for most of human experience have been beyond imagining. As Zhuangzi wrote some 2,300 years ago, “all the creatures in this world have dimensions that cannot be calculated.”
The world is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper. misattributed to Bertrand Russell
Since we cannot predict how ethics will develop, it is not irrational to have high hopes. Derek Parfit
We are never 'at home': we are always outside ourselves. Michel de Montaigne
We are monkeys with money and guns. Tom Waits
All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike – and yet it is the most precious thing we have.
If you look into infinity what do you see? Your backside! Tristan Tzara
Imagine a child playing in a woodland stream, poking a stick into an eddy in the flowing current, thereby disrupting it. But the eddy quickly reforms. The child disperses it again. Again it reforms, and the fascinating game goes on. There you have it! Organisms are resilient patterns in a turbulent flow.
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. 'Qfwfq' 75 percent to 90 percent of all living species may remain unknown to science. IIES
Human beings are now carrying out a large scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past nor be reproduced in the future. Roger Revelle (1957)
The rate of change of ocean acidity is many times faster than anything experienced in the last 55 million years. EPOCA
One cannot reasonably compare the K/T extinction with the current human destruction of the biosphere. The first was a relatively minor setback.
When the buffalo went away, the hearts of my people fell to the ground and they could not lift them up again. After this, nothing happened.
The unfolding of intelligence and complexity still has immensely far to go here on earth and probably far beyond. Martin Rees
Our quest, as a civilisation [is] to answer the question, how do we save ourselves from ourselves without losing ourselves?
If you yourself want to become really happy...I suggest you save the albatross from extinction. It can be done.
There is just one real problem -- the problem of human relations.
Antoine de Saint Exupéry
The amazing wonder of the deep is its unfathomable cruelty.
"I weep for you," the Walrus said:
"I deeply sympathize."
'The Walrus and the Carpenter'
We abandon our own language because we need extra words, for things we had never imagined; and because there are superfluous words in it, for things we cannot imagine any more.
'The Giant, O'Brien'
We take almost all of the decisive steps in our lives as a result of slight inner adjustments of which we are barely conscious.
Those were his first steps on a white sheet/Clutches of wriggling letters in black lead/Like tracks of worms on the Precambrian mud.
The mind does not err from the fact that it imagines.
We are as much automaton as mind. Blaise Pascal
Much that is intelligent in us is not specifically human. Alasdair MacIntyre
What knows he, this New England colt, of the black bisons of distant Oregon?Herman Melville
There is no counting the possible ways to the Millennium and the route to it. Norman Cohn
By the time human beings start the global nuclear war that will destroy our civilization, there won’t be any great apes left for Earth to become the Planet of the Apes. But chances are there will still be plenty of rhesus macaques around. Dario Maestripieri
Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. George Orwell
The astounding comes towards us, outrider of death and birth. John Berger
We are so far from denying there is any Unicorn at all, that we affirm there are many kinds thereof.
Even that old horse
is something to see
this snow-covered morning
We cannot see the visible except with the invisible.
Eckhart von Hochheim
You don't have to believe in God, but you should believe in the Book. Paul Erdős
If, as the poets say, life is a dream, I am sure in a voyage these are the visions which serve best to pass away the long night.
But only when someone starts up the spiralling stairs is the A Bao A Qu brought to consciousness, and then it sticks close to the visitor's heels, keeping to the outside of the turning steps, where they are most warn by the generations of pilgrims.
Jorge Luis Borges
The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children. Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Let Peter rejoice with the MOON FISH who keeps up the life in the waters by night. Let Andrew rejoice with the Whale, who is array'd in beauteous blue and is a combination of bulk and activity. Let James rejoice with the Skuttle-Fish, who foils his foe by the effusion of his ink. Let John rejoice with Nautilus who spreads his sail and plies his oar, and the Lord is his pilot. Let Philip rejoice with Boca, which is a fish that can speak.