29 December 2011

'the infinite succession of soft and radiant forms'

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?

28 December 2011

Black iron snail

A scaly foot sea snail from the Dragon Vent. The scales are covered with layers of pure pyrite and iron sulphide.

27 December 2011

Potbelly hill

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)

26 December 2011

'Bears, dolphins and the animal stories we tell'

We don’t have to understand animals in order to care about them or in order to feel obliged to treat them in a certain fashion.
-- from a review Christopher Beha of four books about animals

19 December 2011

Mind in life

Am also late off the block on this from Alva Noë:
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.

A wasp smaller than an amoeba

I missed this a few weeks ago. If you did too I recommend a look.

Hat tip Ephemeral curios

18 December 2011

'Turtles might deposit eggs in the sand of the beach where now the walrus sleeps'

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)

Duria antiquior (1830)

16 December 2011

Scientific killing

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

14 December 2011

'That beauty exists at all in a damaged world is to be celebrated'

"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.
-- from John Kinsella on Keeping poetry outside the comfort zone.

13 December 2011


via Deep Sea News

A better soundtrack, in my view, would have been Chopin's Etude op 10 no 1 in C Major

8 December 2011

Beyond the horseless carriage

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.
-- P W Singer

6 December 2011

A sixth sense

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.

5 December 2011

'Adders have faces intense with hatred; hot with it...'

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.
-- from Our Adder by Richard Kerridge

'You are not your brain'

...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.
-- from Art and limits of neuroscience by Alva Noë

25 November 2011

The earth hath bubbles, as the water has...

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.')

24 November 2011


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...
Reversing this?

22 November 2011

The Gentle Ape

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.
-- Melvin Konner

16 November 2011

Killing orangutans

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.
-- report, original paper.

15 November 2011

'To find or follow a track'

photo: Guy Moreton
'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:

10 November 2011

Happy feet

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.'

9 November 2011

'The restaurants are all full'

...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:
Eurasian Skylarks Alauda arvensis, Calandra Larks Melanocorypha calandra, Red-throated Pipits Anthus cervinus, Bluethroats Luscinia svecica, European Goldfinches Carduelis Carduelis, Fieldfares Turdus pilaris, Mistle Thrushes Turdus viscivorus, Reed Buntings Emberiza schoeniclus and White Wagtails Motacilla alba.

Monstrorum historia

Some footnotes to the my recent piece for Granta online:
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.' 
John Gray's comment appears here
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
I should write another note about (big) cats.

4 November 2011

'Libertine bubbles'

Ain't nobody here but us Scyllarides latus larvae

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.

27 October 2011

An octopus enrichment handbook

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.
-- Sy Montgomery

25 October 2011

Rhino gone

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."
-- report

23 October 2011


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

22 October 2011

C.S.I.: Dog Dump

‘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.”
-- from Natural Histories: A journey in the shadow of Ararat by Elif Batuman

17 October 2011

The waltzing kludge of eukaryotic life

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.”
-- from The two-genome waltz: how the threat of mismatched partners shapes complex life by Ed Yong

11 October 2011


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.
-- Carl Zimmer on a the world's most ginormous virus.

Some have even argued that they represent a new domain of life, although others aren’t so sure, Zimmer notes.

Jean-Michel Claverie, who discovered it, says the fact that it shares cell-like genes with the mimivirus is 'definitive proof' of a cellular ancestor.

10 October 2011

Future fish

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.
-- FDA Decision Will Lead To First Ever Genetically-Modified Animal For Consumption

Giant killer squid of the Triassic?

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
-- from here.

P Z Myers is sceptical :
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.
P.S. 11 Oct: Microecos has some fun, but Nature does not dismiss the idea out of hand.

Weed world

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.
-- Emma Marris.

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.

9 October 2011

Cultural transmission in chimpanzees

Trasmisión cultural entre primates from Proyecto Gran Simio on Vimeo.

In Tai National Part, Ivory Coast, a young chimp observes and learns from its mother how to use tools to break open nuts. The film was taken by Serge Soiret of the Great Ape Project.

8 October 2011

Jelly world

a future 'gelatinous' ocean reminiscent of the early Ediacaran if fishing and other anthropogenic stressors remain unchanged
-- from Faking Giants... Some jellyfish are increasing the amount of water in their bodies in order to increase their size and so collide with more prey.

30 September 2011

Life entangled

A useful overview article of developments in quantum biology here summarizes recent research into possible roles in smell, photosynthesis and vision.

Humans have 400 differently shaped smell receptors but can recognize 100,000 smells. Whether a quantum effect (electron tunneling) plays a role remains a matter of speculation.

26 September 2011

Metamorphosis: bifurcated being

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.
-- from Evolution's freak factory, in which Frank Ryan suggests hybridisation played a role in Cambrian explosion.

See also: Hybrids, chimeras, trees and webs

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.

23 September 2011

A monster's heartblood

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.

21 September 2011

'New dances with wolves'

In a talk advocating the reintroduction of wolves to Scotland, Jim Crumley quotes Doug Smith, the head of the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction project since it began in 1995:
Clearly this is an animal less likely to offer scientists irrefutable facts than to lure us on a long and crooked journey of learning.

16 September 2011

Uunartoq Qeqertaq

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. [1] (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. 


[1] (added 21 Sep): see Greenland Meltdown at Realclimate.

15 September 2011

Man and animal

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.
-- John Gray.  Irony apart, a better appreciation of birds and animals might help in the era of 'post-whateverism.'

14 September 2011

Invasion of the fungal body stranglers

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.
-- belatedly, from Marine Fungi are Totally Badass at Deep Sea News

12 September 2011

Adventures in rhino stimulation

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.

9 September 2011

'First there was an island -- then there was a boat'

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.
-- John Cumming, Cape Farewell

8 September 2011

The short man

Richard Freeman outlines some evidence for Orang Pendek, an elusive Sumatran great ape that, if it exists, is probably more closely related to the Orangutan than to hominins.

7 September 2011

An eight-branched spiral

Eoandromeda octobrachiata may or may not set the tree of life wobbling but it has certainly been given a beautiful name, inspired by the fact that its body plan resembles the spiral galaxy Andromeda.

5 September 2011

A map, and the territory

This poster envisions Marine Protected Areas that would be necessary if we were to start to be serious about protecting whales, dolphins and porpoises:

World Map of all Proposed and Existing Marine Mammal Protected Areas, © Lesley Frampton, Calvin Frampton and Erich Hoyt. Click pdf for full size

Key points in accompanying press release:
· 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.”

30 August 2011

'I am not a robot. I am a unicorn'

'Humans,' notes Brian Christian, 'appear to be the only things anxious about what makes them unique.'

20 August 2011

Evolving robots

[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?
-- from Evolve your own objects for 3D Printing

3 August 2011

Cane toad rex

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.
-- Sean B. Carroll

27 July 2011

'From Billions to None'

Here is a promotional video for a proposed documentary on the extermination of the passenger pigeon, and what can be learned from it (via Peter Maas):

Here's a niece bit of lore: the phrase stool pigeon originates in the use of a trapped passenger pigeon as bate to entice other birds to land.

25 July 2011

Venus, Adonis and the chicken

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.
-- Jonathan Balcombe

14 July 2011

13 July 2011

Eye of Fire Belly Newt

[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.
-- from Newts able to regenerate body parts indefinitely. Longer post from Ed Yong here.

11 July 2011

New beasts and angels

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.

They are toys no longer, though
-- from Zoobotics at The Economist.  Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, Barbara Ehrenreich contemplates The Fog of (Robot) of War

8 July 2011

Modern nature

We stayed well away from the water, so toxic, it is fit only for industrial cooling.

Yet, somehow, birds still survive, feed and breed here.

Nikhil says the river, even in its poisoned state, guides species as they migrate down from the mighty Himalayan mountains, or up from the Deccan Plateau.

It is an avian compass, directing some species east, away from the harsh winters of Central Asia and others west towards Africa.
-- from India's exotic birds find unexpected nesting places by Anu Anand

2 July 2011

Big world

Contrasting observations. This:
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. [1]
and this:
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. [2]

Sources: [1] William James, quoted by Geoffrey O'Brien in an essay review of The Tree of Life, and [2] John Steinbeck quoted by Martin Rees in Just Six Numbers.

26 June 2011

A treasure island

The world is full of fantastic and fantastical creatures, of quirky and improbable lifestyles. The more we look, the more we find.
-- Mark Wright of WWF on the discovery of over 1,000 new species in PNG.

20 June 2011

Infinite possibilities

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 Infinity here.

13 June 2011

A dragon

A report on a photographic investigation by Keith Martin-Smith of weedy sea dragons sent me back to Gould's wonderful illustration from 1832

click here for full size
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).

9 June 2011

The diving bell spider and the aqualung

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
-- report, original paper.

8 June 2011

'The only exuberant thing in this part of the cosmos'

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...
-- from the introduction to Revolutions that Made the Earth by Tim Lenton and Andrew Watson.

(The title of this post is a quote from Lewis Thomas)

5 June 2011

Next to nature

Two points from Peter Kahn:
  • 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.

I find Levi Bryant on Wilderness Ontology opaque, but will try to get to grips with it.

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.'

25 May 2011

the Louisiana Pancake Batfish...

...and other animals in the International Institute for Species Exploration's top ten new species of 2010

Image courtesy Prosanta Chakrabarty, Lousiana State University

20 May 2011

Tales from the Crysophere

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.
-- from Frost Flowers Come to Life by Jody Deming

'Gaia likes it cold,' said James Lovelock.

19 May 2011

The art of memory

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.
-- Joshua Foer

4 May 2011

A virus bestiary

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. [1]

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.

chart from Pennisi, Science, 25 March 2011
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. [2]  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 [3] -- 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'? [4], [5]

A virus within this eukaryote, Cafeteria roenbergensis,  has the largest genome of any known marine virus, with ~730,000 base pairs of double-stranded DNA. It may be a member a fourth domain of life.


[1] Like other reviewers such as Maggie Koerth-Baker at Boing Boing I received a free review copy.

[2] If I count correctly that's 1030 -- a nonillion.

[3] Eugene Koonin, Tatiana Senkevich and Valerian Dolja: The ancient Virus World and evolution of cells.

[4] 'Life', suggests Nowak, can be seen as 'an infection of pre-life.' See Super-Cooperators by Martin Nowak and Roger Highfield, and Prevolutionary dynamics and the origin of evolution by Martin Nowak and Hisashi Ohtsuki.

[5] 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.

3 May 2011

Finding out

Two observations by Richard Feynman:
Science is what we have learned about how to keep from fooling ourselves.

Our imagination is stretched to the utmost not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which are there.
Photo: Ian Parker

The quotes appear in, respectively, an article by David Deutsch, and an article about Deutsch and quantum computing by Rivka Galchen.