31 December 2012

Bravos for Beings

What do you want? A medal?
Praise for The Book of Barely Imagined Beings includes the following:
"Spell-binding, brilliantly executed, extraordinary." – The Guardian
"Magnificent, bravura, astoundingly interesting, beautiful." – The Sunday Times 
"Unquestionably one of the best books of the year." – The Scotsman 
"A top title of the year." – The Irish Times
"An enlightening, beautifully produced book." – The Financial Times
"Book of the year." – Academic Department, Blackwell's Bookshop Oxford
"Clear and lucid, synoptic, nuanced, engrossing, fact-filled yet poetic. Excellent." – The Literary Review 
"Captivating, fabulous, a bounce to the writing, infectious enthusiasm, a lovely book with many charms." – The Sunday Telegraph

30 December 2012

Wonder-working worms

When scientists began decipering the chemistry that the worms use, their first idea was to enlist worms to clean up heavy metal pollution. That turned out to be a failure of the imagination. It may be that in the realm of nanotechnology, earthworm may truly shine. 
-- from The Quantum Earthworm by Carl Zimmer.  Original paper here.

29 December 2012


Thirtieth in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Chapter 21: “Unicorn– The Goblin shark

page 306: a handful of metaphors. The scientific revolution mathematicized terms that had been vague, such as mass, force, time and energy. In the 20th century, information theory came to underpin much, perhaps all, of physics. When John Archibald Wheeler said "it from bit" was he leaving metaphor behind?

page 307: the Viagra of its day. Today, of course, rhino horn is one of the products exploited for this fantasy. Ideas to stop it include injecting the horns with poison and dyeing them pink.

page 307: rhinoceros beetle. Variations include the Japanese rhino beetle, which has an enormous bifurcated horn on its forehead.

page 310: shark...diversity. There are about 400 species extant but that's diminishing fast. Weapons in the Gilbert Islands made from shark teeth reveal a “shadow diversity” – traces of sharks that disappeared from the surrounding waters before we even knew they were there.

page 311: attitudes [to sharks] are changing. Well, perhaps. “Much to the annoyance of their supporters on the shore...sharks stoke deep evolutionary terrors that a car or a chair can’t compete with.”

page 311: shark sanctuary. First Palau, now French Polynesia and the Cook Islands, which have created ocean sanctuaries of about 2.5 million square miles, or roughly 7/8ths the size of Australia.

27 December 2012

Thorny devil

Moloch horridus

Twenty-ninth in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Chapter 20: Thorny devil

page 298: remarkable Australian nativeHere is charming short paper on the Thorny devil.

page 299: Life is a pure flame. Olivia Judson compares fire to an animal like sheep a slug because it eats plants. But unlike a normal animal, it’s a shape-shifter. Francis Ponge (1942):
Fire's gait can only compared to that of an animal; it has to leave one spot to occupy another; it makes moves like both an amoeba and a giraffe, lunging forward with the neck, trailing along with the foot.
Italo Calvino (1985):
models for the process of formation of living beings “are best visualized by the crystal on the one side (invariance of specific structures) and the flame on the other (constancy of external forms in spite of relentless internal agitation).”

Picture below, by Tim Holmes, added 9 Jan

Added 18 Jan: Australian inferno previews fire-prone future.

26 December 2012

I will relate, said Finn...

I like the gull-cries, and the twittering together of the fine cranes. I like the surf-roar at Tralee, the songs of the three sons of Meadhra and the whistle of Mac Lughaidh. They also please me, man shouts at parting, cuckoo-call in May. I incline to pig-grunting in Magh Eithne, the bellowing of the stag of Ceara, the whinging of fauns in Derrynish. The low warble of the water-owls in Loch Barr also, sweeter than life that. I am fond of wing-beating in dark belfries, cow-cries in pregnancy, trout-spurt in lake-top. Also the whining small otters in nettle-beds at evening, the croaking of small-jays behind a wall, these are heart-pleasing. I am friend to the pilibeen, the red-necked chough, the parsnip land-rail, the pilibeen mona, the bottle-tailed tit, the common marsh-coot, the speckle-toed guillemot, the pilibeen sleibhe, the Mohar gannet, the peregrine plough-gull, the long-eared bush-owl, the Wicklow small-fowl, the bevil-beaked chough, the hooded tit, the pilibeen uisce, the common corby, the fish-tailed mud-piper, the cruiskeen lawn, the carrion sea-cock, the green-lidded parakeet, the brown bog-martin, the maritime wren, the dove-tailed wheatcrake, the beaded daw, the Galway hill-bantam, and pilibeen cathrach.
-- from At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien

25 December 2012

Review in The Guardian

Gavin Francis writes:
[This is] a spellbinding book that seeks to astonish us with the sheer intricacy, diversity and multiplicity of life forms that share our planet...
the 27 brilliantly executed [chapters].. are essays in the original, Montaignesque sense of the word...the reader is often treated to rocambolesque free-association, to rival that of Laurence Sterne or Robert Burton...[the] marginalia are like arpeggios on the chords that move through the symphony of the book. None is essential, but each of them adds to the harmony of the whole. I marked up so many in my own copy that when I finished it, I began again reading only in the margins...
this reviewer applauds [the author's] ambition, and [an] extraordinary book

23 December 2012

Sea butterfly

Twenty-eighth in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Chapter 19: Sea butterfly

page 285: implications. Now real-world observations.

page 288/9: Diatom names. A longer list of amazing names at 100 Diatom Greats.

page 291: millions and millions of [tiny] shells. In Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino writes:
The atomizing of things extends also to the visible aspects of the world, and it is here that Lucretius is at his best as a poet: the little motes of dust swirling in a shaft of sunlight in a dark room, the miniscule shells, all similar but each one different, that waves caste up on the bibula harena, the imbibing sand.
page 293: reduction in...primary productivity of phytoplankton. A brief explainer of the 2010 paper by Boyce et al behind this claim is here. It was also suggested that global warming was likely to reduce phytoplankton size. Recent research suggests that warmer future oceans could cause phytoplankton to thrive near the poles but shrink in the tropics.

page 293: plastic...particles are now everywhere, including the Southern Ocean. See this or this. On marine plastics (and everything about the oceans) read the magnificent but disturbing book Ocean of Life by Callum Roberts.

Review in The Sunday Times

James McConnaghie's review of "this magnificent bestiary" is the cover story of the books section in this week's Sunday Times. He says:
...the true literary ambition and inspiration that motivates [the] astoundingly interesting essays [in this book] is the freewheeling philosophical writing of...Montaigne.
bravura [essays]...exuberantly learned, [this] book...is much more than a basic bestiary. Physically, it is beautiful...Politically, it is decidedly green, but Henderson prefers lyricism to anguished howling...There is as much about the future as the past...

Eileen Battersby at The Irish Times includes Barely Imagined Beings among her Top titles from a reading year.

(Image of Ichthyostega by Nobu Tamura)

21 December 2012

The music of non-life

The previous post touched on whale music in the world ocean. Non-living systems can create kinds of music too:
Dunes near Al-Askharah in Oman sometimes sing notes of almost every possible frequency from 90 to 150 hertz, or F-sharp to D.

A black hole can project sounds across the intergalactic cloud at 56 octaves below the B flat below middle C.

Right whale

Twenty-seventh in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Chapter 18: Right whale

page 268: epigraph from The New York Times. But many whales do continue to suffer in the North Atlantic, notably through entanglement in fishing gear which can cause a lingering death over six months.

page 268: musician...recorded...long whistles. The musician was Max Eastley. A sample recording is here. My account of the expedition is here

page 269: not presence but absence. The degradation of terrestrial soundscapes is noted by Bernie Krause. See here or here.

page 269: true songs.  Complex songs have now been observed in a number of whale species besides humpbacks. Bowheads whales, for example, jam like Hendrix for months.

page 278: roar of machines. See deafening and A rising tide of noise is easy to see. Listen to the Deep links underwater observatories across the oceans with the aim of creating a global picture of noise and its effects in order to inform future policies intended to reduce noise. Whisper of the Wild describes the emerging field of terrestrial soundscape ecology.

page 279: Toni Frohoff's words were first published is Watching Whales Watching Us by Charles Siebert.

In 'Voyager, Chief', an essay published in Sightlines, Kathleen Jamie writes that whales' eardrums  (pictured above) were greatly prized by whalers:
I've heard it said that...they were the only things to emerge from the final furnace the whales' carcasses were put through - the left-over bits that is. I've read - frankly, I've read as much as I can bear about whaling -- how the whalemen, slithered and groped in the whale-gore, seeking those ear drums...I find [the eardrums] beautiful and sad and complete; all that can be said about sea-waves and sound-waves, song and utterance, is rolled together in these forms.
     ...What did they hear...? They heard us coming, that's what.

P.S. In Right Whales Decoded Julia Whitty reports on recent findings that Southern right whales are slowly repopulating New Zealand waters from which they were eliminated in the 19th century.

20 December 2012


There is a Peruvian deity, painted on a clay pot dating from around A.D. 300, believed to be responsible for guarding farms. His hair is made of snakes, entwined in braids, with wings for his headdress. Plants of various kinds are growing out of his sides and back, and a vegetable of some sort seems to be growing out of his mouth. The whole effect is wild and disheveled but essentially friendly. He is, in fact, an imaginary version of a genuine animal...a species of weevil in the mountains of northern New Guinea that lives symbiotically with dozens of plants, growing in the niches and clefts in its carapace, rooted all the way down in its flesh, plus a whole ecosystem of mites, rotifers, nematodes and bacteria attached to the garden.
-- from 'Some biomythology' in Lives of a Cell (1974) by Lewis Thomas.

There is a tendency, Thomas concluded, "for living things to join up, establish linkages, live inside each other...get along, wherever possible." 

His point is  supported by recent discoveries regarding the microbiome. As Carl Zimmer writes in When you swallow a hand grenade, this is an interdependence we’ve been evolving for 700 million years, ever since our early animal ancestors evolved bodies that bacteria could colonize. Even jellyfish and sponges have microbiomes.

18 December 2012

Notes, chapter by chapter

New on this site: a list of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, chapter by chapter.

Reviews of the book here.

Articles by me here.

Review in The Independent

There is a review by James Attlee in The Independent of The Book of Barely Imagined Beings:
...Henderson hopes to prompt a sense of responsibility as well as wonder... [This] extended paean to nature's creativity leaves us with a sense of unfinished business rather than inevitable doom.

17 December 2012

The incredible heaviness of being

Image: Mark Witton

Twenty-sixth in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Chapter 17: Quetzalcoatlus

page 246 (margin): flight consistently features in human dreams. For Italo Calvino, flight is not solely about the fantastical. In 'Lightness', one of his Six Memos for the Next Millennium, he writes:
Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space. I don't mean into escaping dreams or into the irrational. I mean that I have to change my approach, look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition and verification.
page 250: Quetzalcoatlus...may have [weighed more than] 100kg and had a wingspan of 11-12 metres. Mark Witton and Michael Habib argue it had a mass of up to 200-250kg, and a wingspan of 10-11m.

Luis Rey

page 251: More than 100 million years after Sharovipteryx, a creature called Microraptor evolved both fore and hind wings. It was not a success.

page 256: ropen: websites such as livepterosaur show that the forces of daftness have not been extinguished on Planet Earth.

page 259: the 14-bis...first flew suspended from [a] dirigible:

page 261: biofuels. There are reports that versions under development by companies such as Bio Fuel Systems could be 'better than carbon neutral.'

page 262 (margin): See Grinding the Crack and Sense of Flying.

page 263: gravity 'as sovereign as love'.  Cosmically, it is more so if Caleb Scharf is right that black holes drive the evolution of the universe.

P.S. 18 December: A section of this chapter that was cut before publication touched on aerobiology. A version of that section is here. See Caleb Scharf on trans-planetary microbes.

14 December 2012


Twenty-fifth in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Chapter 16: Pufferfish

page 242: an interesting article on Ocean sunfish here .

page 242: a report on extreme food here.

page 242: hundreds of millions are obese. From the WHO summary:
* Worldwide obesity has more than doubled since 1980.
* In 2008, more than 1.4 billion adults, 20 and older, were overweight.
* 65% of the world's population live in countries where overweight and obesity kills more people than underweight.
Ed West thinks obesity is, after the moon landings, humanity's greatest achievement.   Added 18 Dec: the Global Burden of Disease report indicates indicates that people are living longer than ever but that overeating is now a bigger problem than lack of food.

page 243: Adam Phillips. See Hungry ghosts.

13 December 2012

The ritual stance

Humans are as ritualistic today as they have ever been. This is not a comment on the changing fortunes of organised religion in different parts of the world (growing and spreading in some places while undoubtedly declining in others). It is a point about the profoundly ritualistic character of all human cultures, whether in families, schools, workplaces, governments, or international relations. Rituals persist even where gods do not. Even the most secular political systems ever devised — for instance, those under the sway of historical materialism and its vision of a Communist utopia — were as devoted to ritual as any in human history.
-- Harvey Whitehouse

11 December 2012


Twenty-fourth in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Chapter 15: Octopus

page 224 Ogden Nash.
Tell me, O Octopus, I begs
Is those things arms, or is they legs?
I marvel at thee, Octopus;
If I were thou, I'd call me Us. 
page 228: sophisticated...behaviours.  See, for example, this film of an octopus holding a shark at bay while wrestling three zip ties of a baited canister at the same time.

page 228: awareness, 'full blown' consciousness. In August 2012 a a group of cognitive neuroscientists, computational neuroscientists, neuroanatomists, neuropharmacologists an neurophysiologists declared that octopuses are among the non-human animals that possess "the neurological substrates that generate consciousness."  See also Deep Intellect: inside the mind of an octopus by Sy Montgomery.

page 229: Vampire squid. Matt Taibbi wrote a great article but he misrepresented the actual animal.  For an octopus that looks like Marge Simpson see here.

page 232: the mosaic from Pompeii looks like this:

page 233-4: Victor Hugo. According to China Miéville (M.R. James and the Quantum Vampire):
The spread of the tentacle – a limb-type with no Gothic or traditional precedents (in ‘Western’ aesthetics) – from a situation of near total absence in Euro-American teratoculture up to the nineteenth century, to one of being the default monstrous appendage of today, signals the epochal shift to a Weird culture.
page 235: Clues about the potential future of our species. See a sixth sense.

page 237: a happy childhood. In You Are Not a Gadget, Jaron Lanier distinguishes the good side of childhood, which he associates with Gaston Bachelard's Poetics of Reverie, from the bad side as expressed in works like William Goldingʼs Lord of the Flies. The good includes numinous imagination, unbounded hope, innocence and sweetness:
This aspect of childhood is the very essence of magic, optimism, creativity, and open invention of self and the world. It is the heart of tenderness and connection between people, of continuity between generations, of trust, play and mutuality. It is the time in life when we learn to use our imaginations without the constraints of life lessons. The bad is more obvious, and includes bullying, voracious irritability, and selfishness.

10 December 2012


Roughly the size of a rather large pebble, the oyster is more gnarled in appearance, less uniform in color, and brilliantly whitish. It is a world categorically closed in upon itself. And yet it can be opened: that takes gripping it in a folded rag, plying a nickel and dull-edged knife, chipping away at it over and over. Probing fingers get cut on it, nails get broken. It's a rough job. The pounding you give it scars the envelope with white rings, a sort of halo.
Within, one finds a world of possibilities for food and drink: beneath a mother-of pearl firmament (strictly speaking), the skies above settle in on the skies below, leaving only a rock-pool, a viscous green sack that ebbs and flows before the eyes and nose, fringed with a border of darkish lace.
On rare occasion the perfect formula pearls up in its nacreous throat, and we take it at once for our adornment.
-- from The Nature of Things by Francis Ponge, translated by Lee Fahnestock

9 December 2012

Painting the invisible

Watercolor of Mycoplasma mycoides by David S. Goodsell, the Scripps Research Institute.

Section through a eukaryotic cell here.

8 December 2012

"Book of the year" - The Scotsman

The Book of Barely Imagined Beings is "unquestionably one of the best books of the year" writes Bella Bathurst (who previously reviewed it here).  Jackie Kay also selects Barely Imagined Beings: "another wonder."

Last week The Independent selected Beings as one of the "best Christmas presents for the bookish."

Writing in Bath Life on 30 November, Nic Bottomley of Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights selected Barely Imagined Beings as one of two published this year that "knocks the socks of most others in terms of beauty of production and as a gift for a very wide range of recipients...The detailed cultural and natural history of each animals is engaging and accessible." The book's "stunning appearance"...will make it a "huge hit."

FT review

In a micro-review in The Financial Times, Carl Wilkinson describes The Book of Barely Imagined Beings as "an enlightening, beautifully produced book that challenges man’s perception of the natural world."

7 December 2012


Twenty-third in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Chapter 14: Nautilus

page 208: and time could exist. For a brief introduction to the nature of time as understood by a physicist see Ten things everyone should know about time by Sean Carroll. An artist's view at Refusal of Time.

page 211: deep time. My starting point is:
we need to spend a lot more time and psychic energy imagining not just life as we know in all its astonishing and disconcerting particularity, but also the stupendous beginnings of life on Earth during the Hadean, Archaean and Proterozoic eons. We will benefit from extended meditation on the forces that formed life, from the period when, for thousands of years, molten rock rained out of the sky onto an ocean of magma to the time, billions of years later, when the tides of the newly made seas – buffeted by a Moon much closer than it is today and an Earth rotating in just 18 hours – ebbed and flowed with stupendous force. We will be more alive if we envision the shallow warm pools where, perhaps, proto-life pieced itself together from the precursors of RNA, and apprehend the origins and development of photosynthesis. We will be enriched by re-imagining the Ediacarian biota, those multi-cellular enigmas of the pre-Cambrian silt which resembled quilted sacks, pizzas topped with triskelions or loofahs warped by a symmetry of gliding reflection. 
page 212: the Moon was closer. It's getting further away and both it and the Earth are slowing down:
Each day is becoming longer by about 1.7 milleseconds per century...[In the distant future, absent the explosion of the Sun], a day [would] last about 47 of our present days and the distance to the Moon [would] be 43 percent longer than today. At this point, Earth [would] spin about its axis at the same rate as the moon [orbited] the Earth — the pair [would] be tidally-locked: the moon [would] hover over the same point on Earth, rather as geostationary satellites do today.
page 213: For Nipponites, existence was one long bad hair day:

page 214: paper nautilus. Marianne Moore wrote this poem.

page 217: The images of the world created by a camera obscura flowSee the solargraphs of Justin Quinell

page 220: Boulevard du Temple. A favourite aphorism of Chris Marker is this from George Steiner:
It is not the past that rules us—it is the image of the past.
page 221: David Octavius Hill. A caption for the photo from 'Time', one of Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus in a version by Don Paterson:
Is the infinite life that our childhood awakened torn up by the roots and thrown into the grave?

6 December 2012


The thrush's song flows from the syrinx buried deep in his chest. Here membranes vibrate and squeeze the air that rushes out of the lungs. These membranes circle the confluence of the bronchi, turning a toneless exhalation into sweet music that ascends the trachea and flows out of the mouth. Only birds make sound this way, using a biological hybrid between the flute's swirling tube of air and the oboe's vibrating membranes. Birds change the texture and tone of their song by adjusting tension in the muscles that wrap the syrinx; the thrush's song is sculpted by at least ten muscles in the syrinx, each one shorter than a grain of rice.
-- David George Haskell

5 December 2012

Speak, memory

Twenty-second in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Chapter 14: Mystaceus

A version of this chapter was published by Aeon as Webs of Perception

page 201: Bagheera kiplingi lives in South America, not India

page 201: build a mental map. In a comment for the Aeon article Andrew Wilson writes:
Portia doesn't actually build a mental map; there is now strong evidence that its scanning behaviour is a real time perceptual strategy that allows it to look as if it's planning; see Chapter 4 of Louise Barrett's excellent book, 'Beyond the Brain'; the chapter is called 'The Implausible Nature of Portia' and has references to all the primary literature on this.
page 203: it is also possible to remember too much. A real life Funes was 'S', a Russian man described by A. R. Luria in his celebrated work The Mind of a Mnemonist (A little book about a vast memory). Luria writes:
[S] lived in wait [sic] of something that he assumed was to come his way, and gave himself up to dreaming and “seeing” far more than to functioning in life. The sense that he had something particularly fine was about to happen remained with him throughout his life – something which would solve all his problems and make his life simple and clear.

Thus [S] continued to be disorganized, changing jobs dozens of times – all of them merely “temporary.” At his father's bidding he entered music school; later he became a vaudeville actor; then an efficiency expert; and then a mnemonist. At some point, recalling that he knew Hebrew and Aramaic, he took advantage of ancient sources in these languages and began to treat people with herbs.

He had a family – a fine wife and a son who was a success – but this, too, he perceived as through a haze. Indeed, one would be hard put to say which was more real for him; the world of imagination in which he lived, or the world of reality in which he was but a temporary guest. 
page 203: steering a course between remembering too much and too little. See this:
According to [one] theory, our memories act as a kind of ballast that holds us steady during times of stress; they can suggest ways to solve problems and offer comfort when we are feeling wounded. When people find it hard to recall specific events from their past, however, they feel overwhelmed by life's challenges, which slowly pushes them into depression. "In the right circumstances, the effect can be striking," says [Mark] Williams... If the theory is right, there may be new ways of treating depression that directly target the underlying memory problems.
In Shakespeare's Memory by Jorge Luis Borges, the narrator says:
No one may capture in a single instant the fullness of his entire past. That gift was never granted even to Shakespeare, so far as I know, much less to me, who was but his partial heir. A man's memory is not a summation; it is a chaos of vague possibilities. St Augustine speaks, if I am not mistaken, of the palaces and caverns of memory. That second metaphor is the most fitting one. It was into those caverns that I descended.
page 205: in its entirety, A Little Fable goes like this:
"Alas", said the mouse, "the whole world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into." "You only need to change your direction," said the cat, and ate it up.
Theridion grallator

1 December 2012


Twenty-first in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Chapter 12: Leatherback

page 187: Odontochelys... P Z Myers addresses the question of how turtles got their shells here.

page 188: Archelon pictured here:

page 191: slow recovery. This can be easily reversed. In Trinidad, for example, baby Leatherbacks died in their thousands after a botched operation to move a river mouth left thousands of eggs and young crushed or eaten by predators.

page 193: gateless gate.  See Thoreau:
Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one. I know not the first letter of the alphabet. I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born. The intellect is a cleaver; it discerns and rifts its way into the secret of things.
page 195: Wolf Hilbertz. There is an error in the quote. The fifth line should read “...one was deceived into thinking one saw the sky...”

page 195: innumerable universes. See here.

30 November 2012

What in me is dark illumine

East Antarctic ice is gaining mass. The dry valleys remain cold for now so the strange beings, living in a pitch dark lake seven times as salty as the sea, 13 degrees below freezing and buried for 2800 years under 20 metres of ice, probably have a future.

P.S. 2 Dec. Search begins for life in another lake, which has been buried under three kilometres of ice for a million years. 

27 November 2012

Badger and bird

Twentieth in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Chapter 11: Kìrìpʰá-kò and Tʰìk’ìlí-ko, Honey badger and honey guide

page 173: Herodotus. A.P. David writes:
The professional historian, along with humanists of many other disciplines, is especially concerned with a thing she has invented called "methodology". Whole books of historical writing climax with vindications of their own methodology...By these lights Herodotus does not usually qualify as an historian. He is merely a "story-teller". I rather think that he is anti-methodological, and hence a kind of champion. The irony in the modern historian's verdict comes when Herodotus is treated as source material. Whenever it has been possible to corroborate elements of his narrative or description independently, almost always Herodotus has been vindicated.
page 175: super-rat. In Galapagos:
Pinzón island – home to giant tortoises, lava lizards, and Darwin's finches – is suffering an infestation of biblical proportions with an estimated 180 million rats, or 10 every square metre.
page 179: development of language.  A striking point: there are today more languages spoken by humans -- around 7,000 -- than there are species of mammal.

page 180: David Abram. Another passage, almost at random, from The Spell of the Sensuous:
Merleau-Pontyʼs thesis of perceptual reciprocity; to listen to the forest is also, primordially, to feel oneself listened to by the forest, just as to gaze at the surrounding forest is to feel oneself exposed and visible, to feel oneself watched by the forest.
Much as humans communicate not only with audible utterances but with visible movements and gestures so the land also speaks to the Koyukon [people] through visible gestures and signs. The way a raven flies in the wind, swerving or gliding upside down, may indicate success of failure in the hunt; the movement of other animals may indicate the presence of danger, or the approach of a storm, or that the spring thaw will come early this year. The assumption, common to alphabetic culture, that ʻreading omensʼ is a superstitious and utterly irrational activity, prevents us from recognizing the practical importance, for foraging peoples, of such careful attention to the behaviour or the natural surroundings. This watching of the worldʼs gestures, as if every moment bears a meaning, accords with a worldview that simply has no notion of pure meaninglessness. No event for the Koyukon is ever wholly accident or chance, but neither is any event entirely predetermined. Rather like the trickster, Raven, who first gave it its current form, the sensuous world is a spontaneous, playful and dangerous mystery in which we participate, an animate field of powers ever responsive to human actions and spoken words.
page 180: Sufi brotherhood. That is, the Brethren of Purity.

Here is a photo by Martin Schoeller published with an account of the Hadza people by Michael Finkel

24 November 2012

Many real animals are stranger than imaginary ones

Nature allows every child to play tricks with her; every fool to have judgment upon her; thousands to walk stupidly over her and see nothing; and takes her pleasure and finds her account in them all.
-- Goethe 
The wealth of the soul exists in images. I speak in images. With nothing else can I express the words from the depths. 
-- attributed to Jung

This post relates to Rereading: The Book of Imaginary Beings online at The Guardian. Short descriptions of a few imaginary creatures which Borges never knew can be found here.

In an essay published in 1971 the physician Lewis Thomas argued that a bestiary for our time would have to be a microbestiary, featuring the likes of Myxotricha paradoxa, Blepharisma and plant-animal combinations that mostly exist in the sea. Their meaning, he suggested, would be "basically the same as the meaning of a medieval bestiary. There is a tendency for living things to join up, establish linkages, live inside each other, return to earlier arrangements, get along, wherever possible."

The Book of Barely Imagined Beings was partly inspired by Thomas's claim. I looked for real animals, stranger than imaginary ones, that could help me better understand the nature of being and beings. 

See also Nature Beyond Our Wildest Imaginings.

images: the Ornate Ghost Pipefish, Solenostomus paradoxus, and the Rosey-lipped batfish, Ogcocephalus darwini.

Imaginary Beings

This one is real

Jorge Luis Borges wrote The Book of Imaginary Beings before packet switched computer networking was a twinkle in Donald Watts Davies's eye.  These days anyone with access to the Internet can compile their own anthology of imaginary beings in minutes. Here are four:

The Hai in Embassy Town by China Miéville:
The principle imaginary beings in Embassy Town are the two-mouthed Hosts. Early in the book, however, the narrator refers in passing to the Hai, putative beings deep in the immer, the beyond-space that underlies or infuses the manchmal, or "this space where we live"

 "I've spoken to [space] captains and scientists who don't believe [the Hai] to be anything like life, only aggregates of immer, their attacks and jackknife precision just the jostles of an immer chaos in which our manchmal brains can't learn to see the deep random. Myself, I've always thought they were monsters."
The Mulefa in The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman:
These elephant-like creatures lack a central spine but instead have a diamond-framed skeleton.  They have four legs, short horns, and a prehensile trunk. Signing with the trunk is an integral part of Mulefa language. Lacking two hands, it usually requires two or more Mulefa trunks working together to accomplish complex tasks like tying knots.

The Mulefa use large, disc-shaped seed pods from enormous trees as wheels. The pods fit neatly onto a spur on their front and rear legs  They propel themselves using their two side legs, like a cyclist without pedals. Ancient lava flows solidified into smooth rivers of rock run across the land and serve as roads.
A creature in The Road by Cormac McCarthy:
In the dream from which [the man] had wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease. Until they stood in a great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake. And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark.
Wentshukumishiteu is said by the Inuit to fiercely protect the young of various animal species from human hunters. It is particularly fond of otters. It can travel anywhere on or under the water, and can break through thick ice. It can also move underground through rocks.

23 November 2012

"Book of the year"

Euan Hirst, Academic Manager at Blackwell's Bookshop in Oxford, chooses The Book of Barely Imagined Beings as his book of the year.

22 November 2012

Wise worm

For more than twenty-five years, scientists have known the exact wiring diagram of the three hundred and two neurons in the C. Elegans roundworm, but in at least half a dozen attempts nobody has yet succeeded in building a computer simulation that can accurately capture the complexities of the simple worm’s nervous system.
-- Gary Marcus.

Unlike Moore's Law for processors, understanding of how the brain actually works, of the computations and circuits that are underlie neural function, is not doubling every eighteen to twenty-four months.

P.S. See also Worms do the wave to translate messages.

21 November 2012

Living colour

A previous post refers the extraordinary colour vision of Gonodactylus and other stomatopods. (If you haven't already listened to Radiolab's singing a rainbow podcast, do). But closer to home than this strange undersea creature there are creatures whose colour vision is amazingly refined compared to ours (though less refined than that of stomatopods): songbirds.

In The Forest Unseen David George Haskell describes vision in the chickadee:
Chickadee eyes...perceive more colors than mine can. I view the [ground] with eyes that are equipped with three types of color receptor, giving me three primary colors and four main combinations of primary colors. Chickadees have an extra color receptor that detects ultraviolet light. This gives them four primary colors and eleven main combinations, expanding the range of color vision beyond what humans can experience or even imagine. Bird color receptors are also equipped with tinted oil droplets that act as light filters, allowing only a narrow range of colors to stimulate each receptor. This increases the precision of color vision. We lack these filters, so even with the range of light visible to humans, birds are better able to discriminate subtle differences in color.  Chickadees live in a hyperreality of color that is inaccessible to our dull eyes.
It may be possible one day, far in the future,  to engineer something like this in humans. At present hallucinogenic drugs offer an impression or illusion that we can perceive colours far beyond the normal realm of experience.  Oliver Sacks [1] reproduces this account from a young man who was a subject in an LSD study at Columbia University in the 1950s or 60s:
The room about me receded into a tunnel of oblivion as I vanished into another world...The heavens above me, a night sky spangled with eyes of flame, dissolve into the most overpowering array of colors I have ever seen or imagined, many of the colors are entirely new -- areas of the spectrum which I seem hitherto to have overlooked. The colors do not stand still, but move and flow in every direction, my field of vision a mosaic of unbelievable complexity.
Sacks reports that a combination of amphetamine, LSD and cannabis allowed him to experience a pure indigo:
It was the color of heaven, the color, I thought, which Giotto had spent a lifetime trying to get but never achieved -- never achieved, perhaps, because the colour of heaven is not to be seen on earth. But it had existed once, I thought -- it was the color of the Paleozoic sea, the color the ocean used to be. I leaned toward it in a sort of ecstasy. And then suddenly it disappeared, leaving me with an overwhelming sense of loss and sadness that it had been snatched away. But I consoled myself: Yes, indigo exists, and it can be conjured up by the brain.
A few months later Sacks briefly experienced 'indigo' again with the aid not of drugs but the music of Monterverdi.

But by whatever means humans induce new experiences of colour in future, there will be a foundational difference between those experiences and the experiences of birds and stomatopods. In the case of the latter two, the capability is an advantage in the pursuit of prey, and has been naturally selected.


[1] Hallucinations (2012) by Oliver Sacks quoting from The Drug Experience (1961) by David Ebin.

19 November 2012

Wise monkeys

Nineteenth in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Chapter 10: Japanese macaque

page 154: Dario Maestripieri has published three books since Machiavellian Intelligence (2007) including Games Primates Play (2012), which is also the title to this blog.

page 158: Mikhail Bulgakov. No such short story exists, although Bulgakov did write a novella called The Heart of a Dog (1925) in which the testicles and pituitary gland of a man are transplanted into a dog.

page 160: The Judge in...Blood Meridian says:
It makes no difference what men think of war...War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.
page 160: Mao Zedong. See this review of Tombstone by Yang Jisheng and four other books.

page 160: behaviourism. David Deutsch thinks that behaviourism is still being applied, mistakenly, in computer science:
Thinking of an [artificial general intelligence] as a machine for translating experiences, rewards and punishments into ideas (or worse, just into behaviours) is like trying to cure infectious diseases by balancing bodily humours: futile because it is rooted in an archaic and wildly mistaken world view.
page 164: the now-famous 'mirror neurons' Taking a contrary view, Gregor Hickok says there are Eight Problems for the Mirror Neuron Theory of Action Understanding in Monkeys and Humans. (Thanks to Roman Krznaric for drawing attention to Hickok's paper.)

page 165: cooperative urges. E.O.Wilson sees it like this:
...risking oversimplification, individual selection promoted sin, while group selection promoted virtue. So it appeared that humans are forever conflicted by their prehistory of multilevel selection. They are suspended in unstable and constantly changing locations between the two extreme forces that created us. We are unlikely to yield completely to either force as an ideal solution to our social and political turmoil. To yield completely to the instinctual urgings born from individual selection would dissolve society. To surrender to the urgings from group selection would turn us into angelic robots — students of insects call them ants.
See also Paul Seabright and Mark Pagel. Paul Gilbert says "the recognition that both our evolved minds and our social context shape us, and that we have less control over our minds than we think, is to me a call to compassion."

page 167: steadily less violent over time. For evidence see, e.g., the Science special issue on conflict.

page 168: half of extant species of [primates] are in imminent danger of extinction. Here, for example are two reports - 1, 2 -  on the fate of gorillas

page 168: orangutan. An introduction to threats here. Campaign organisations here and here.

page 169: cuckoo clocks and no Italian Renaissance. John Gray looks here at the claim that artistic creativity thrives on the conflicts that go with being ruled by tyrants.

17 November 2012

An unknown

...My argument is [that] because we don't understand animal consciousness, we ought to be opening our eyes to the possibility that a great range of animals, not just mammals, not just birds, maybe invertebrates are conscious as well. It seems to me that by saying we don't understand consciousness, you're not closing off animals' consciousness. You're not denying animal consciousness altogether. You're just simply saying we don't know and therefore it might exist in a much wider range of animals...
-- Marian Stamp Dawkins

16 November 2012

La velocità

Among his many skills, Chuang-tzu [or Zhuangzi], was an expert draftsman. The king asked him to draw a crab.  Chuang-tzu replied that he needed five years, a country house and twelve servants.  Five years later the drawing was still not begun. "I need another five years," said Chuang-tzu. The king granted them. At the end of these ten years, Chuang-tzu took up his brush and, in an instant, with a single stroke, he drew a crab, the most perfect crab ever seen.
-- quoted by Italo Calvino in Quickness, one of Six Memos for the Next Millennium.

15 November 2012

Magna ludentis naturae varietas

Eighteenth in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Chapter 9: Iridogorgia

page 139: spirals [ubiquitous]... in living things -- even, it seems, in the human uterus. See also this on the golden ratio.

page 142: Nuvvuaqittuq. Looking for the most off-putting and obscure possible title for my book, I thought of combining this rock and this device for Nuvvuaqittuq Eidouranion. See here and this essay.

page 143: inserting sequences that code for text into non-coding DNA. Things have moved on a long way since I wrote this chapter! See, for example, this:
Scientists have for the first time used DNA to encode the contents of a book. At 53,000 words, and including 11 images and a computer program, it is the largest amount of data yet stored artificially using the genetic material.
An early analogy between the material (and living) world and language is found in De Rerum Natura by Lucretius, which argues that:
just as the elementa (letters of the alphabet), limited in number, are common to many different words and combine in many different orders to produce the different words included in the verses of the poem, so likewise the different kinds of atom, though limited in number, combine in different ways to produce humans, animals, plants, and all that exists.
page 143: The 101834097  books in the Library of Babel. This figure is from The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges' Library of Babel by William Goldbloom Bloch which was reviewed by Alberto Manguel here.

page 144: central dogma of molecular biology.  It turns out that things are not so simple. See, for example, The ever deepening mystery of the human genome and, especially, The Epigenetic Revolution by Nessa Carey.

page 146: the single biggest threat to Man...is the virus.  See Spillover by David Quammen and The Viral Storm by Nathan Wolfe. But see also A Planet of Viruses by Carl Zimmer.

page 147: dependent arising. David Barash draws parallels between ecology and Buddhism:
The interconnected and interdependent nature of things is the heart of ecology. It is also remarkably similar to the fundamental insight of Buddhism: ‘dependent co-arising’ or pratītyasamutpāda in Sanskrit
page 149: Beauty [can help us] see that things exist independently of our own attachments.  So, most famously, "there is grandeur in this view of life..."

page 149: deep places that are out of sight. See this on the case for deep sea conservation.

14 November 2012

From the department of amazing facts

Notes [1] today:
  • The flagellar motors in a bacterium such as Escherichia Coli rotate at up to 18,000 revolutions per minutes. Each rotation is powered by the flow of about 1,000 hydrogen ions across the inner membrane. The motor can turn the flagellum in either direction, clockwise or anticlockwise, on demand. 
  • E coli cells push their way through water about at 30μm/s -- that is, 10 or 15 times their body length. [2] (That's roughly equivalent to a human moving at 65 to 97.5 km per hour.) But when they stop turning the flagella, the don't keep coasting as a ship or submarine would. Instead, the surround water stops them in less than the diameter of a water molecule, less than a ten thousandth of their length. [3]


[1] from The Machinery of Life by David Goodsell

[2] 1μm is 0.001 mm -- a millionth, or 10-6 , of a metre

[3] A water molecule is 3x10-10 metre (A Sense of Scale

12 November 2012

Beauty, truth

Seventeenth in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Chapter 9: Iridogorgia

page 134: symmetry, beauty and why they exist in the world. Symmetry can follow from atomic structure but this is seldom apparent to our senses. One case where it does is snowflakes: "the form of the six-sided ice crystals gives a direct view of what should be invisible: the geometry of atoms [in a water molecule],"  writes David George Haskell in The Forest Unseen. Beauty and the sublime (see page 149) are linked to emotion and cultural context. So, for example, Rainer Maria Rilke:
For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror
which we are barely able to endure, and it amazes us so,
because it serenely disdains to destroy us.
Every angel is terrible.
page 134: Metallogorgia looks like a delicate, pink acacia on top of an impossibly thin trunk:

page 135: revolution in the arts. The argument goes on. So, for example, Simon Critchley:
It seems to me that if we look back at much of what is most radical and interesting in the art of the last century, we can see that we are no longer dealing with the sublime or indeed with art as the possibility of aesthetic sublimation, but with an art of de-sublimation that attempts to adumbrate the monstrous, the uncontainable, the unreconciled, that which is unbearable in our experience of reality.
page 136: in translation, the full title of Kepler's Mysterium Cosmographicum is Cosmic Mystery, or The Secret of the World.  Forerunner of the Cosmological Essays, Which Contains the Secret of the Universe; on the Marvelous Proportion of the Celestial Spheres, and on the True and Particular Causes of the Number, Magnitude, and Periodic Motions of the Heavens; Established by Means of the Five Regular Geometric Solids

page 138: organising force. See also the neo-Confucian concept of Li, which has been linked to statements such as this by the biologist Brian Goodwin:
much (and perhaps most) of the order that we see in living nature is an expression of properties intrinsic to complex dynamic systems organized by simple rules of interaction among large numbers of elements.
Compare Henry David Thoreau and William Donald Hamilton. This is from Spring in Walden (1854):
Few phenomena gave me more delight than to observe the forms which thawing sand and clay assume in flowing down the sides of a deep cut on the railroad through which I passed on my way to the village, a phenomenon not very common on so large a scale, though the number of freshly exposed banks of the right material must have been greatly multiplied since railroads were invented. The material was sand of every degree of fineness and of various rich colors, commonly mixed with a little clay. When the frost comes out in the spring, and even in a thawing day in the winter, the sand begins to flow down the slopes like lava, sometimes bursting out through the snow and overflowing it where no sand was to be seen before. Innumerable little streams overlap and interlace one with another, exhibiting a sort of hybrid product, which obeys half way the law of currents, and half way that of vegetation. As it flows it takes the forms of sappy leaves or vines, making heaps of pulpy sprays a foot or more in depth, and resembling, as you look down on them, the laciniated, lobed, and imbricated thalluses of some lichens; or you are reminded of coral, of leopard's paws or birds' feet, of brains or lungs or bowels, and excrements of all kinds. It is a truly grotesque vegetation, whose forms and color we see imitated in bronze, a sort of architectural foliage more ancient and typical than acanthus, chiccory, ivy, vine, or any vegetable leaves; destined perhaps, under some circumstances, to become a puzzle to future geologists. The whole cut impressed me as if it were a cave with its stalactites laid open to the light. The various shades of the sand are singularly rich and agreeable, embracing the different iron colors, brown, gray, yellowish, and reddish. When the flowing mass reaches the drain at the foot of the bank it spreads out flatter into strands, the separate streams losing their semi-cylindrical form and gradually becoming more flat and broad, running together as they are more moist, till they form an almost flat sand, still variously and beautifully shaded, but in which you can trace the original forms of vegetation; till at length, in the water itself, they are converted into banks, like those formed off the mouths of rivers, and the forms of vegetation are lost in the ripple marks on the bottom.

The whole bank, which is from twenty to forty feet high, is sometimes overlaid with a mass of this kind of foliage, or sandy rupture, for a quarter of a mile on one or both sides, the produce of one spring day. What makes this sand foliage remarkable is its springing into existence thus suddenly. When I see on the one side the inert bank—for the sun acts on one side first—and on the other this luxuriant foliage, the creation of an hour, I am affected as if in a peculiar sense I stood in the laboratory of the Artist who made the world and me—had come to where he was still at work, sporting on this bank, and with excess of energy strewing his fresh designs about. I feel as if I were nearer to the vitals of the globe, for this sandy overflow is something such a foliaceous mass as the vitals of the animal body. You find thus in the very sands an anticipation of the vegetable leaf. No wonder that the earth expresses itself outwardly in leaves, it so labors with the idea inwardly. The atoms have already learned this law, and are pregnant by it. The overhanging leaf sees here its prototype.
And this from Between Shoreham and Downe: Seeking the Key to Natural Beauty (1996) by W. D. Hamilton:
I remember as a startling gift of nature my first sight of how oil spreads on a pool and makes it become alive with colours; how easy it was to cause this magnificent display again with a drop from the household can. I remember as a favourite environment the bare ploughland at the foot of our garden where amid screaming lapwings I would wander hunting for colourful flint stones and fossils.. In the same field again after rain I remember how at the lower end, water coursing in the furrows laid out flat deltaic fans of pale silt beautifully marked. Firm underfoot to a first step, if trampled a little, these fans, losing their braided patterns and turning to mud would suck my bare feet down as if with a living appetite.