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.