30 June 2012

Night mind of the reef

Fluorescent juvenile flathead (family Platycephalidae). David Gruber and John Sparks
One by one, we shout “Diver in!” and splash into the inky water. The bright blue lights, battery packs and camera systems are then handed down from the boat, and we begin our descent. With yellow filters over our masks, the reef erupts into vivid green and red patterns. The fluorescent glow comes primarily from the stony corals and anemones, some of which glow wildly under our custom-made spectrally pure blue light source; others, curiously, exhibit no photic response...
-- from Glowing Wildly on a Moonless Night by David Gruber

A fluorescent false moray eel (family Chlopsidae). David Gruber and John Sparks

27 June 2012

'A quivering shiny brown black purse'

Sitting after lunch we heard them outside, & on Sunday there they were again hanging in a quivering shiny brown black purse to Mrs Thompsett's tombstone. We leapt about in the long grass of the graves, Percy all dressed up in mackintosh, & netted hat. Bees shoot whizz, like arrows of desire: fierce, sexual; weave like cat's cradles in the air; each whizzing from a string; the whole air full of vibration: of beauty, of the burning arrowy desire; & speed: I think the quivering shifting bee bag the most sexual and sensual symbol. 
-- from Virginia Woolf's diary, quoted by Olivia Laing

26 June 2012

Ocean acidification: 'a stealth asteroid of environmental change'

Planktonic forams floating in the upper levels of the oceans sequester about one quarter of all carbonate produced in the oceans each year.
-- from Nature's Masons by Sean B. Caroll

25 June 2012

Freedom, slavery or extinction

Reminded by Paul Evans's The Cave Horse of this from Thoreau's journal:
3 September 1851. I saw a man working with a horse in a field by the river, carting dirt; and the horse and his relation to him struck me as very remarkable. There was the horse, a mere animated machine — though his tail was brushing off the flies — his whole existence subordinated to the man’s, with no tradition, perhaps no instinct, in him of independence and freedom, of a time when he was wild and free — completely humanized. No compact made with him that he should have the Saturday afternoons, or the Sundays, or any holidays. His independence never recognized, it being now quite forgotten both by men and by horses that the horse was ever free. For I am not aware that there are any wild horses known surely not to be descended from tame ones. Assisting that man to pull down that bank and spread it over the meadow; only keeping off the flies with his tail, and stamping, and catching a mouthful of grass or leaves from time to time, on his own account — all the rest for man. It seemed hardly worth while that he should be animated for this... Now and forever he is man’s slave. [And] the more I considered, the more the man seemed akin to the horse...

23 June 2012

The body electric

cells are powered not by chemical reactions, but by a kind of electricity, specifically by a difference in the concentration of protons (the charged nuclei of hydrogen atoms) across a membrane. Because protons have a positive charge, the concentration difference produces an electrical potential difference between the two sides of the membrane of about 150 millivolts. It might not sound like much, but because it operates over only 5 millionths of a millimetre, the field strength over that tiny distance is enormous, around 30 million volts per metre. That's equivalent to a bolt of lightning.
...this [is] electrical [the] driving force the proton-motive force. It sounds like a term from Star Wars, and that's not inappropriate. Essentially, all cells are powered by a force field as universal to life on Earth as the genetic code. This tremendous electrical potential can be tapped directly, to drive the motion of flagella, for instance, or harnessed to make the energy-rich fuel ATP.
However, the way in which this force field is generated and tapped is extremely complex. The enzyme that makes ATP is a rotating motor powered by the inward flow of protons. Another protein that helps to generate the membrane potential, NADH dehydrogenase, is like a steam engine, with a moving piston for pumping out protons.
-- from Life: is it inevitable or just a fluke? in which Nick Lane once again champions the hypothesis that the proton gradient at deep sea alkaline vents drove the origin of life on Earth.  'Far from being some mysterious exception to the second law of thermodynamics...life is in fact driven by it.'

Lane argues that similar circumstances would necessarily hold on other planets, but that the jump to eukaryotic cells is likely to be vastly rarer.

22 June 2012

No man is an island...

...but sometimes it can be helpful to see him that way:
Each person can be viewed as an island-like “patch” of habitat occupied by microbial assemblages formed by the fundamental processes of community ecology: dispersal, local diversification, environmental selection, and ecological drift.

21 June 2012

On bestiaries

Medieval bestiaries...have to be understood 'as spiritual literature, not as degraded natural history.' The scenes and stories they presented furnished the mind with images that provided sense and direction to currents of experience. To these scenes and stories, moreover, were added sightings of the creatures themselves, and observations of their behaviour, in contexts of everyday life such as agriculture and hunting. 'The animal' was, in effect, a node or knot in a skein of interwoven depictions, stories, sightings and observations, none of which was ontologically prior to any other, and all of which  -- when taken together -- opened up pathways to God. 
-- from Ways of Mind-Walking by Tim Ingold

20 June 2012

Sublime horrors

What is at issue, it seems, is not the horror of alien life but of life in any form; not the existence of monsters but the monstrousness of existing. The dread that rises to the surface here hints at a culture variously afraid of sex, afraid of Darwin, afraid of DNA, afraid of aliens—afraid no matter which way it looks, forward or backward—and finding its way at last, as a last resort, to a planet of death.  
-- from a note by Geoffrey O'Brien on Prometheus

15 June 2012

'Caught in the very act of becoming'

This changing of focus in the eye, moving the eye itself when looking at things that do not move, deepens one's sense of outer reality. Then static things may be caught in the very act of becoming. By so simple matter, too, as altering the position of one's head, a different kind of world may be made to appear. Lay the head down, or better still, face away from what you look at, and bend with straddled legs til you see your world upside down. How new it has become! From the close-by sprigs of heather to the most distant fold of the land, each detail stands erect in its own validity. In no other way have I seen of my own unaided sight that the earth is round. As I watch, it arches its back, and each layer of landscape bristles -- though bristles is too much commotion for it. Details are no longer part of a grouping in a picture of which I am the focal point, the focal point is everywhere. Nothing has reference to me, the looker. This is how the earth must see itself.
From The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd

14 June 2012

'Rapid and unpredictable transformation'

When, in 2007, I started writing this blog and researching the book it supports, I discovered that many well-informed people had not heard of the Anthropocene. That has now changed. [1]

The nature and significance of the Anthropocene transformation is partly captured in this passage (in a paper from which Nature excludes non-subscribers but which David Roberts at Grist helpfully quoted a few days ago):
On the timescale most relevant to biological forecasting today, biotic effects observed in the shift from the last glacial to the present interglacial included many extinctions; drastic changes in species distributions, abundances and diversity; and the emergence of novel communities. New patterns of gene flow triggered new evolutionary trajectories, but the time since then has not been long enough for evolution to compensate for extinctions.
At a minimum, these kinds of effects would be expected from a global-scale state shift forced by present drivers, not only in human-dominated regions but also in remote regions not now heavily occupied by humans; indeed, such changes are already under way.
Given that it takes hundreds of thousands to millions of years for evolution to build diversity back up to pre-crash levels after major extinction episodes, increased rates of extinction are of particular concern, especially because global and regional diversity today is generally lower than it was 20,000 years ago as a result of the last planetary state shift. … Possible too are substantial losses of ecosystem services required to sustain the human population. … Although the ultimate effects of changing biodiversity and species compositions are still unknown, if critical thresholds of diminishing returns in ecosystem services were reached over large areas and at the same time global demands increased … widespread social unrest, economic instability and loss of human life could result.


[1] The word was probably coined in 2000 although the concept predates this. Notable articles bringing it to a large, non-specialist audience are much more recent.  Oliver Morton's cover story for The Economist, for example, was published in May 2011. (Added 21 June 2012) See Welcome to the Anthropocene by David Biello

Stereocaulon volcani

This lichen is invariably one of the first species to arrive and grow on fresh lava. Species in the genus Stereocaulon have achieved this phenomenal ability to colonize new land throughout the globe by essentially blanketing the planet with minute spores that are carried like dust high in the atmosphere. Most fall ineffectually into the sea or onto substrates not conducive to germination. Rarely, a spore settles onto a patch of bare rock of the right age and texture and with enough moisture and sunlight that it germinates and, if it is lucky enough to find its symbiotic partner, grows.
- David J Flashpohler

13 June 2012

A floating world

The universe we seeing playing out in space and time may be just the surface level, where we float like little boats while leviathans stir in the deep.
-- from Is Dark Matter a Glimpse of a Deeper Level of Reality?
...If you notice the floorboards in your house are sagging, as if there is too much weight on them, you might conclude there is an 800-pound gorilla in the room with you. You see no gorilla, so it must be invisible. You hear no gorilla, so it must be silent. You smell no gorilla, so it must be odorless. After a while, the gorilla seems so improbably stealthy that you begin to think there must be some other explanation for the sagging floorboards—the house has settled, say. Likewise, perhaps the laws of gravity and motion which led astronomers to deduce dark matter are wrong...

Tough customer

The clubs of the Peacock mantis shrimp Odontodactylus scyllarus withstand repeated very large shocks thanks to the jagged structure of chitinous fibers, which run at cross-angles. [1]  A similar solution was developed for Roman shields (report, paper).

Gonodactylus Smithii, a Mantis shrimp featured in The Book of Barely Imagined Beings,  also uses super-fast clubs to kill its prey.  But I still think its eyes are its most marvelous feature.

Note [1] Or as the original research paper puts it
Consisting of multiphase composite of oriented crystalline hydroxyapatite and amorphous calcium phosphate and carbonate, in conjunction with a highly expanded helicoidal oraganization of the fibrillar chitinous matrix, these structures display several effective lines of defense against catastrophic loading during repetitive high-energy loading events.

12 June 2012

'A grown-up conversation about synthetic biology'

Most ethical, policy and media discussions about synthetic biology start from the assumption that these aims have already been achieved: that biology has become easy to engineer for whatever ends we choose, that the toolbox is available to any student or potential terrorist, that dangerous organisms and powerful bioweapons are easy to make, and that no effective regulation is possible. The ability of synthetic biologists to overcome serious scientific and technological challenges is taken for granted, and the economic, legal, social and political conditions for the uptake of these technologies are ignored.

Commentators instead focus on potential reckless use or misuse, overestimate the pathogenic possibilities, and worry about deep questions such as: "Do we have the right to play God?". These worries are the flip side of grand claims about synthetic biology's imminent ability to solve challenges in health, environment and energy. Utopias and dystopias seem to be the only scenarios possible.

This way of framing discussions is unhelpful.
-- Claire Marris and Nikolas Rose

More heat than light, perhaps, in the yuck factor reaction to three-person IVF

10 June 2012

'Our natural and original malady'

Good to be reminded of this once more:
Presumption is our natural and original malady. The most calamitous and fragile of all creatures is man, and at the same time the proudest. He sees and feels himself placed here in the mire and dung of the world, attached and fixed in the worst, most lifeless, and most corrupt part of the universe, on the meanest floor of the house and the farthest removed from the vault of heaven, with animals of the worst condition of the three [of those that fly, swim, and live on the ground]; and he goes installing himself in his imagination that he makes himself God's equal, that he ascribes to himself divine attributes, that he winnows himself and separates himself from the mass of other creatures, determines the share allowed the animals, his colleagues of faculties and powers as seem good to him. How does he know, by the effort of intelligence, what inwardly and secret moves the animals? By what comparison of them with ourselves does he deduce the stupidity which he attributes to them? When I play with my cat, who knows whether she is not making me her pastime more than I make her mine?
Jim Broadbent is a surprising but effective voice for a well chosen selection from Montaigne's writing here.

2 June 2012

All Watched Over by Dragonflies, Fleas and Dogs

Military technology, unsurprisingly, is at the forefront of the march towards self-determining machines (see Technology Quarterly). Its evolution is producing an extraordinary variety of species. The Sand Flea can leap through a window or onto a roof, filming all the while. It then rolls along on wheels until it needs to jump again. RiSE, a six-legged robo-cockroach, can climb walls. LS3, a dog-like robot, trots behind a human over rough terrain, carrying up to 180kg of supplies. SUGV, a briefcase-sized robot, can identify a man in a crowd and follow him. There is a flying surveillance drone the weight of a wedding ring, and one that carries 2.7 tonnes of bombs.
-- Robot ethics: morals and the machine

P.S. 10 June. David Graeber writes:
One reason we don’t have robot factories is because roughly 95 percent of robotics research funding has been channeled through the Pentagon, which is more interested in developing unmanned drones than in automating paper mills.