31 May 2012

A miraculous camel

Camel Country on BBC Radio 4 begins at a shrine that commemorates this story:
The people of Thamud gathered on a certain day at their meeting place, and the prophet Salih (peace and blessing be upon him) came and addressed them to believe in Allah, reminding them of the favors Allah had granted them. Then pointing at a rock, they demanded: "Ask your Lord to make a she camel, which must be 10 months pregnant, tall and attractive, issue from the rock for us." Salih replied: "Look now! If Allah sends you what you have requested, just as you have described, will you believe in that which I have come to you with and have faith in the message I have been sent with?" They answered: "Yes." So he took a vow from them on this, then prayed to Allah the Almighty to grant their request. Allah ordered the distant rock to split asunder, to bringing forth a great ten month pregnant she camel. When their eyes set on it, they were amazed. They saw a great thing, a wonderful sight, a dazzling power and clear evidence!

30 May 2012

'The first rationally designed genome'

In the menagerie of Craig Venter’s imagination, tiny bugs will save the world. They will be custom bugs, designer bugs — bugs that only Venter can create. He will mix them up in his private laboratory from bits and pieces of DNA, and then he will release them into the air and the water, into smokestacks and oil spills, hospitals and factories and your house.
-- from Craig Venter's Bugs Might Save the World (sic)

'The Future of Zoos'

'To Save Some Species, Zoos Must Let Others Die'

28 May 2012

Dosidicus gigas

To meet a [Humboldt] squid in the wild is one of life's great pleasures. They follow your movements with intelligent, saucer eyes. Their emotions are written on their skin in quick-fire colour changes that pulse and ripple in incandescent waves across their bodies. The Humboldt's uncertain temper adds a little frisson to any encounter. Divers have been roughed up by squid or had their masks or gear tugged. After the adrenalin rush has passed, most divers feel the animals were more curious than aggressive. If they had really wanted to hurt them, with their huge strength they could have done far worse.
-- Callum Roberts in Ocean of Life: How Our Seas Are Changing. [1]

Roberts notes that the Humboldt squid seems to have benefited from expansion of its low oxygen habitat and from the loss of big predatory sharks to overfishing. [2] According to Ron O'Dor, its range has expanded from South America all the way to Alaska as some 90% of large fish have been eliminated by Man. [3] So the species looks like a real beneficiary of the Anthropocene.

On the other hand Rui Rosa predicts the animal's metabolism will drop in future because there will be more carbon dioxide in the water."The squid will be more lethargic and so more vulnerable to their predators because they won't be able to escape them any more." [4] 

Could we, then, be witnessing a spectacular boom to be followed shortly by a spectacular bust in Humboldt squid numbers as a result of human impacts?  Is there a name for species such as this that ride the Anthropocene up and (perhaps) then crash? 


1. Reviewed in The Economist and the Financial Times. My interview with Roberts will be published in Mandarin and English by Chinadialogue
2. Invasive range expansion by the Humboldt squid
3. The incredible flying squid
4. Synergistic effects of climate-related variables suggest future physiological impairment in a top oceanic predator

27 May 2012


Neurons are highly diverse and sophisticated processors that collect, process and broadcast data via synapses, or contact points with other nerve cells...Our nervous system has perhaps 1,000 trillion synapses linking about 86 billion neurons...

...To visualize the brain's staggering complexity, recall those nature specials where a single-propeller airplane captures the immensity of the Amazon rainforest by flying for hours over the jungle. There are about as many trees in this rainforest as there are neurons in your brain (this statement will no longer be true in a few years if the forest continues to be cut down at the current pace). The morphological diversity of these trees, their distinct roots, branches, and leaves covered with vines and creeping crawlers, is comparable with that of nerve cells as well. Think about that. Your brain likened to the entire Amazonian rainforest.
-- from Christoph Koch's Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist pages 16 and 117.

Koch suggests that consciousness is a fundamental, elementary property of living matter analogous to electrical charge. Now that really is an astonishing hypothesis.

P.S. 30 May: Another way in which brains are astonishing: Microglia: the constant gardeners. Neurons account for only about 10% of the cells in the human brain.

25 May 2012

A Nuvvuagittuq Eidouranion

I dream of a new age of curiosity. We have the technical means for it; the desire is there; the things to be known are infinite; the people who can employ themselves at this task exist. Why do we suffer? From too little: the channels that are too narrow, skimpy, quasi-monopolistic, insufficient There is no point in adopting a protectionist attitude, to prevent 'bad' information from invading and suffocating the 'good.' Rather, we must multiply the paths and the possibility of comings and goings.
-- from The Masked Philosopher by Michael Foucault, quoted by Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park in an epigraph to Wonders and the Order of Nature.

H/t Philip Ball, who mentions this book as an inspiration for his recent work.

24 May 2012

Turing's Cathedral

Turing drew a parallel between intelligence and the “genetical or evolutionary search by which a combination of genes is looked for, the criteria being survival value. The remarkable success of this search confirms to some extent the idea that intellectual activity consists mainly of various kinds of search.” Evolutionary computation would lead to truly intelligent machines. “Instead of trying to produce a programme to simulate the adult mind, why not rather try to produce one which simulates a child's?” he asked. “Bit by bit one would be able to allow the machine to make more and more 'choices' or 'decisions.' One would eventually find it possible to programme it so as to make its behaviour the result of a comparatively small number of general principles. When these become sufficiently general, interference would no longer be necessary, and the machine would have 'grown up.'”...
...Organisms that evolve in a digital universe are going to be very different from us. To us, they will appear to be evolving ever faster, but to them, our evolution will appear to have been decelerating at their moment of creation – the way our universe appears to have suddenly begun to cool after the big bang. Ulam's speculations were correct. Our time is become the prototime for something else.
-- from Turing's Cathedral: the Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson (pages 262 and 302)

See also Infinite complexity from finite rules

23 May 2012

Mass extinction

Adam Rutherford is presenting a three part series on BBC Radio 4 about mass extinction events. This week's episode, the second, asks if humans are causing a sixth mass extinction event.

19 May 2012

Boundaries and thresholds

Three shorts on: widening the definition of life; finding what may be the first biological clock; and locating what may be one of its outer edges:
  • One may define life, to the extent that the question makes sense, as a 'far-from-equilibrium dissipative system,' says Charley Lineweaver;
  • An enzyme called peroxiredoxin (PRX) has acted as a biological clock in all organisms since about 2.5 billion years ago;
  • 86 million year old mud 30 metres below the sea floor contains archaea that take hundreds to thousands of years to go through one division.

18 May 2012


It hasn’t been my experience that full-force nature directs the mind toward thoughts of positive vibrations or divine master plans. Nature itself is enough, its stories written in blood and shit and electrons and birdsong, and in this we may ultimately find all the sacredness we seem to need.
-- from False Idyll by J.B.MacKinnon

See also Prey to a Crocodile by Val Plumwood, quoted here and in full via here

11 May 2012

Living in time

The motion of oscillation...introduces temporal pulse in living organisms, and is its basic pulse, or measure. Indeed, it can perhaps be said that internal temporal organisation is a fundamental requirement, as well as symptom, of life. Trying to answer the question posed by Erwin Schrodinger, which was simply 'What is life?', a mathematician, Jonathan D. H. Smith, posits that 'biological systems' are 'systems complex enough to isolate their component space-times' -- in other words, to structure the indeterminate flow of time and space through internal dynamics. Organisms are highly organised forms, and the internal structuring of time through regular motion seems to be among the earliest and most universal features of organic life. This, in fact, corresponds to what we actually know through simple observation: living organisms are entities which move of their own accord, while inanimate matter moves only under the application of external force. The measurement of organic time through oscillation also echoes philosophical intuitions dating back to Aristotle, who thought that time is the measure of motion ('the numeration of continuous movement').
-- from Time by Eva Hoffman

9 May 2012

Magnetsopirilllum magneticum

...a naturally magnetic microorganism found in ponds and lakes, which swim along the Earth's magnetic lines, aligning like a compass needle.
When they eat iron, proteins interact to produce tiny crystals of magnetite, the most magnetic of all naturally occurring minerals on Earth.
After studying how proteins inside the bacteria collect, shape and position these so-called nanomagnets, researchers copied the method and applied it outside the bacteria, in a move that has been likened to "growing" magnets.
The researchers say that enabling these nanomagnets to hold information will lead to "the hard drive of the future."
-- report

7 May 2012

Infinite complexity from finite rules

...Our universe, Leibniz theorized, was selected from an infinity of possible universes optimized so that a minimum of laws would lead to a maximum diversity of results. Leibniz's reflections on the nature of mind culminated in his monadology of 1714, a short text describing an universe of elementary mental particles that he called monads, or little minds. These intelleces, the local actual of a universal mind, reflected in their own inner state the state of the universe as a whole. According to Leibniz, relation gave rise to substance, not the other way round, as Newton had it.

“Back to Leibniz” is how Norbert Wiener entitled an article on quantum mechanics in 1932. “I can see no essential difference between the materialism which includes soul as a complicated type of material particle, and the spiritualism which includes material particles as a primitive type of soul,” Wiener added in 1934. Leibniz believed, following Hobbes and in advance of Hilbert, that a consistent system of logic, language and mathematics could be formalized by means of an alphabet of unambiguous symbols, manipulated according to mechanical rules. In 1675 he wrote to Henry Oldenberg, secretary of the Royal Society and his go-between with Isaac Newton, that “the time will come, and come soon, in which we shall have a knowledge of God and mind that is not less certain than that of figures and numbers, and in which the invention of machines will be no more difficult than the construction of problems in geometry.”...

...Envisioning what we now term software he saw the correspondence between logic and mechanism worked both ways. To his Studies of a Geometry of Situation sent to Christian Huygens in 1679, he appended the observation that “one could carry out the description of a machine no matter how complicated in characters which would be merely the letters of the alphabet and so provide the mind with a method of knowing the machine and all its parts”...

...Anticipating Gödel and Turing, Leibniz promised that through digital computing the human race will have a new kind of instrument which will increase the power of the mind much more than optical lenses strengthen the eyes. Reason will be right beyond all doubt only when it is everywhere clear and certain as only arithmetic has been until now...

...If everything is assigned a number does that diminish the meaning in the world? What Gödel and Turing proved is that formal systems will sooner or later produce meaningful statements whose truth can be proved only outside the system itself. This limitation does not confine us to a world with any less meaning. It proves on the contrary that we live in a world where higher meaning exists. “Our earthly existence, since it in itself has a very doubtful meaning, can only be a means to the goal another existence,” Gödel wrote to his mother to 1961. “The idea that everything in the world has meaning is, after all, precisely analogous to the principle has everything has a cause, on which the whole of science rests.”
-- from Turing's Cathedral by George Dyson

5 May 2012

Hooks and eyes

When male Jesus bugs want to force females to mate they grab them by the eyes with an elaborate grasping apparatus.
-- report, paper

4 May 2012

Life in the stone

Of the roughly 4,500 terrestrial minerals known today, two-thirds could not have formed without oxygen. Beautiful turquoise, azurite and green malachite exist on a fundament provided by the early single-celled organisms.
-- notes Birger Schmitz in a review of Robert Hazen's The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, From Stardust to Living Planet.

How far knowledge has come. An attempt in 1565 by Conrad Gesner at systemic categorization of fossils and other stones drew the following distinctions:
Those which take their name from something in the sky; those which bear a resemblance to certain artificial things; those which resemble trees or portions of trees; those which resemble men or four-footed animals; those which derive their names from birds; and those which resemble things which live in the sea.
Both Gessner and Hazen feature in a chapter of The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Images from Emily Young here and here

2 May 2012

The Piaroa

The Piaroa [are] a highly egalitarian society living along tributaries of the Orinoco [whom the] ethnographer Joanna Overing...describes as anarchists. They place enormous value on individual freedom and autonomy, and are quite self-conscious about the importance of ensuring that no one is ever at another person’s orders, or the need to ensure no one gains such control over economic resources that they can use it to constrain others’ freedom. Yet they also insist that Piaroa culture itself was the creation of an evil god, a two-headed cannibalistic buffoon. The Piaroa have developed a moral philosophy which defines the human condition as caught between a “world of the senses,” of wild, pre-social desires, and a “world of thought.” Growing up involves learning to control and channel in the former through thoughtful consideration for others, and the cultivation of a sense of humor; but this is made infinitely more difficult by the fact that all forms of technical knowledge, however necessary for life are, due to their origins, laced with elements of destructive madness. Similarly, while the Piaroa are famous for their peaceableness—murder is unheard of, the assumption being that anyone who killed another human being would be instantly consumed by pollution and die horribly—they inhabit a cosmos of endless invisible war, in which wizards are engaged in fending off the attacks of insane, predatory gods and all deaths are caused by spiritual murder and have to be avenged by the magical massacre of whole (distant, unknown) communities.
-- from Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (pdf) by David Graeber


Henry Nicholls has written an efficient piece on sharks and marine food webs:
...In 2005, marine biologists...set out to the Line Islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to compare the marine communities living on different reefs. They found the reef systems least disturbed by people, Kingman and Palmyra, had the healthiest corals and supported the greatest biomass of fish ever recorded on a reef. What astonished them, though, was the abundance of sharks. The vast majority of the fish biomass consisted of sharks, and the biomass of prey fish was actually lower than that on more disturbed reefs nearby.
"This turns the textbook trophic pyramid on its head," says Sheila Walsh, an expedition member now at the Nature Conservancy in Virginia. "It doesn't even seem energetically possible." The only explanation is that small fish are being eaten as fast as they breed, so their biomass at any one time is much lower than that of their longer-lived predators...
Since then the slaughter has continued, with 40 million or more sharks being killed around the world every year.
...Even if sharks survive and their numbers eventually recover, things may not go back to the way they were. "Often we find that ecosystems have shifted in ways that mean the productivity of old - or the biomass of old - cannot be recreated," says Callum Roberts. "There are various pieces that have been taken out of the food web. Those connections will probably take a very long time to reinstate."...

1 May 2012

'Beginning my studies...'

Beginning my studies the first step pleas'd me so much,
The mere fact consciousness, these forms, the power of motion,
The least insect or animal, the senses, eyesight, love,
The first step I say awed me and pleas'd me so much,
I have hardly gone and hardly wish'd to go any farther,
But stop and loiter all the time to sing it in ecstatic songs. 
-- Walt Whitman

'Which end is nearer to God?'

As we go up in this hierarchy of complexity, we get to things like muscle twitch, or nerve impulse, which is an enormously complicated thing in the physical world, involving an organization of matter in a very elaborate complexity. Then come things like 'frog'. And then we go on, and we come to words and concepts like 'man', and 'history', or 'political expediency', and so forth, a series of concepts which we use to understand things at an ever higher level.

And going on, we come to things like evil, and beauty, and hope...

Which end is nearer to God; if I may use a religious metaphor. Beauty and hope, or the fundamental laws ? I think that the right way, of course, is to say that what we have to look at is the whole structural interconnection of the thing; and that all the sciences, and not just the sciences but all the efforts of intellectual kinds, are an endeavour to see the connections of the hierarchies, to connect beauty to history, to connect history to man's psychology, man's psychology to the working of the brain, the brain to the neural impulse, the neural impulse to the chemistry, and so forth, up and down, both ways. And today we cannot, and it is no use making believe that we can, draw carefully a line all the way from one end of this thing to the other, because we have only just begun to see that there is this relative hierarchy.

And I do not think either end is nearer to God. To stand at either end, and to walk off that end of the pier only, hoping that out in that direction is the complete understanding, is a mistake. And to stand with evil and beauty and hope, or to stand with the fundamental laws, hoping that way to get a deep understanding of the whole world, with that aspect alone, is a mistake. It is not sensible for the ones who specialize at one end, and the ones who specialize at the other end, to have such disregard for each other. (They don't actually, but people say they do.) The great mass of workers in between, connecting one step to another, are improving all the time our understanding of the world, both from working at the ends and working in the middle, and in that way we are gradually understanding this tremendous world of interconnecting hierarchies.
-- Richard Feynman