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.'