31 July 2012

Dream bee

Anoche cuando dormía
soñé ¡bendita ilusión!
que una colmena tenía
dentro de mi corazón;
y las doradas abejas
iban fabricando en él,
con las amarguras viejas,
blanca cera y dulce miel.
Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.
Antonio Machado, quoted in Queen of the Sun

30 July 2012


"How large does a butterfly have to be before anybody notices it is disappearing?"
-- The case of Alexandra's birdwing

A few years ago I was fortunate enough to visit (albeit for a ridiculously brief time) old growth forest in Sarawak. At night our field station attracted several Atlas moths.  This huge being is actually quite common but for those of us who had never seen it before the sight was beyond astonishing, like a dream that had emerged from the shadows into our tiny circle of light.

29 July 2012

Geophony, biophony, anthrophony

What happens when [the animal] orchestra is disrupted by the anthrophony: chain saws, leaf blowers or highway traffic? If an indiscriminate sound like a loud motorcycle competes with the stridulation of an insect, the croak of a frog or the song of a bird, the affected animal may no longer be able to send its signal to mates or competitors. The voices of creatures in the choir may be drowned out. And mates and competitors will no longer be able to hear them. The integrity of the biophony is compromised...

...If you listen to a damaged soundscape — an expression of infirmity or extinction — the sense of desolation extends far beyond mere silence. The community has been altered, and organisms have been destroyed, lost their habitat or been left to re-establish their places in the spectrum. As a result, some voices are gone entirely, while others aggressively compete to establish a new place in the increasingly disjointed chorus.
-- from The Sound of a Damaged Habitat by Bernie Krause

27 July 2012

Moral enhancement

Julian Savalescu and Ingmar Persson write:
Modern technology provides us with many means to cause our downfall, and our natural moral psychology does not provide us with the means to prevent it. The moral enhancement of humankind is necessary for there to be a way out of this predicament. If we are to avoid catastrophe by misguided employment of our power, we need to be morally motivated to a higher degree (as well as adequately informed about relevant facts). A stronger focus on moral education could go some way to achieving this, but as already remarked, this method has had only modest success during the last couple of millennia. Our growing knowledge of biology, especially genetics and neurobiology, could deliver additional moral enhancement, such as drugs or genetic modifications, or devices to augment moral education.
It's good to see this argument spelled out.  But even if (and I think it may be a big if) "our growing knowledge of biology, especially genetics and neurobiology" can deliver "additional moral enhancement" can they really do so faster than foreseeable breakthroughs in energy technology can (just perhaps) solve the energy/carbon challenge?
So, for example, Benjamin Strauss of Climate Central argues that "Our best hope is some kind of disruptive technology that takes off on its own, the way the Internet and the fax took off."

Note: two recent useful pieces relating relating to the psychology of climate change are Beth's We are all climate change idiots, which notes Robert Gifford analysis of habits of mind he calls the "dragons of inaction", and Atul Gawande's Something wicked this way comes, which is actually about health insurance in the US but notes Albert O. Hirschman's anatomy of reactionary argument in three basic forms: perversity, futility, and jeopardy.

(Image: melting ice on Greenland coast)

26 July 2012

The Design and Construction of “Synthetic Species”

I merge the principles of synthetic biology and regulatory evolution to create a new species with a minimal set of known elements. Using preexisting transgenes and recessive mutations of Drosophila melanogaster, a transgenic population arises with small eyes and a different venation pattern that fulfils the criteria of a new species according to Mayr’s Biological Species Concept. The population described here is the first transgenic organism that cannot hybridize with the original wild type population but remains fertile when crossed with other identical transgenic animals. I therefore propose the term “synthetic species” to distinguish it from “natural species”, not only because it has been created by genetic manipulation, but also because it may never be able to survive outside the laboratory environment.
-- Eduardo Moreno

25 July 2012


Mike Dash notes various qualities attributed the basilisk, described in one late 16th century Polish account as having the head of a cock, the eyes of a toad, a crest like a crown, a warty and scaly skin “covered all over with the hue of venomous animals,” and a curved tail, bent over behind its body. On the one hand the beast was highly toxic:
The bodies were pulled out of the cellar with long poles that had iron hooks at the end, and Benedictus examined them closely. They presented a horrid appearance, being swollen like drums and with much-discoloured skin; the eyes “protruded from the sockets like the halves of hen’s eggs.” Benedictus, who had seen many things during his fifty years as a physician, at once pronounced the state of the corpses an infallible sign that they had been poisoned by a basilisk. When asked by the desperate senators how such a formidable beast could be destroyed, the knowledgeable old physician recommended that a man descend into the cellar to seize the basilisk with a rake and bring it out into the light. To protect his own life, this man had to wear a dress of leather, furnished with a covering of mirrors, facing in all directions.
 On the other hand it could be used in the creation of gold:   
basilisk powder, a substance supposedly made from the ground carcass of the king of snakes, was greatly coveted by alchemists, who... believed it was possible to make “Spanish gold” by treating copper with a mix of human blood, vinegar and the stuff.


Adam Frank thinks humans are extremely unlikely to travel beyond the solar system for a very long time. The implication:
While our children’s children’s great-grandchildren will live with ever more powerful technology, they will also live ever more intimately with ever more billions of others in this, our corner of the cosmos. Looking back and forward, my bets are now on...human genius, ambition and hope to rise to the occasion. We will have no other choice.

24 July 2012

Immortal beings, not of flesh or blood

The post-Civil War fourteenth amendment granted the rights of persons to former slaves, though mostly in theory. At the same time, it created a new category of persons with rights: corporations. In fact, almost all the cases brought to the courts under the fourteenth amendment had to do with corporate rights, and by a century ago, they had determined that these collectivist legal fictions, established and sustained by state power, had the full rights of persons of flesh and blood; in fact, far greater rights, thanks to their scale, immortality, and protections of limited liability. Their rights by now far transcend those of mere humans.
-- from The Great Charter, Its Fate, and Ours by Noam Chomsky

See also Angelic corporate beings

23 July 2012

'We took apart a rat and rebuilt it as a jellyfish'

We took a jellyfish, and did a bunch of studies to understand how it activates its muscles. We studied its propulsion and we made a map of where every single cell was. We used a software programme that we had developed a few years ago, borrowed from law enforcement agencies for doing quantitative analysis of fingerprints, and we used it to analyse the protein networks inside the cells.

We found something very interesting right away: the electrical signals that the jellyfish uses to coordinate its pumping are exactly like that of the heart. In the heart, the action potential [electrical signal that travels along nerves – Ed] propagates as a wave through cardiac muscle. That’s how you get this nice, smooth contraction. The activation has to spread like when you drop a pebble in water. The same thing happens in the jellyfish, and I don’t think that’s by accident. My bet is that to get a muscular pump, the electrical activity has got to spread as a wavefront.

After we had the map of where every cell was, we took a rat apart and rebuilt it as a jellyfish.
-- Kit Parker in an interview with Ed Yong.  His team also hope to reverse-engineer other marine life forms. “We’ve got a whole tank of stuff in there, and an octopus on order.”

20 July 2012

'After The Alphabets'

by W. S. Merwin:

I am trying to decipher the language of insects
they are the tongues of the future
their vocabularies describe buildings as food
they can instruct of dark water and the veins of trees
they can convey what they do not know
and what is known at a distance
and what nobody knows
they have terms for making music with the legs
they can recount changing in a sleep like death
they can sing with wings
the speakers are their own meaning in a grammar without horizons
they are wholly articulate
they are never important they are everything

(Kei Miller talks about this poem, and more.)

'An earthworm’s brain is more complicated than a lifeless galaxy'

...One cosmic possibility is, roughly, that every possible local world exists. This we can call the All Worlds Hypothesis. Another possibility, which might have obtained, is that nothing ever exists. This we can call the Null Possibility. In each of the remaining possibilities, the number of worlds that exist is between none and all. There are countless of these possibilities, since there are countless combinations of particular possible local worlds...
-- Derek Parfit 
Photo: CJ Kale and Nick Selway

17 July 2012


The apparent ability of at least some species of cetaceans to protect their ears from loud noises seems to be good news.

A downside, perhaps, is that the US Navy (and others) will probably cite the findings in support of what they plan to do anyway.  By the US Navy's own estimates, loud booms from its underwater listening devices result in temporary or permanent hearing loss for more than a quarter of a million sea creatures every year. Planned expansions could raise the annual hearing losses among sea mammals to more than one million every year.

P.S. ongoing submarine activities by the U.S. Navy are just a small part of the picture across land and sea. Ah, "the privilege of absurdity; to which no living creature is subject, but man only".

(Image: various species of Beaked whale. Can they block their ears?)

16 July 2012

Resurrection reefs

Further to Zombie reefs, word from the ICRS: the way to protect reefs is...to protect them. Melissa Gaskill reports:
The overfished reefs at Cabo Pulmo on the eastern Baja California Peninsula. are a case in point. After the establishment of the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park — and more than 10 years of local enforcement of no-take inside its boundaries — the Scripps Institution of Oceanography found that the amount of fish biomass in the protected area had increased more than fivefold, and shark biomass, tenfold. That’s the largest absolute increase in fish biomass ever measured in a marine reserve anywhere in the world.

14 July 2012

Zombie reefs

A heartfelt and sane contribution from Carl Safina to a discussion of whether it's time to give up on coral reefs:
I can’t remember who dragged me to see the movie “Jurassic Park,” but one resonant line in that movie was worth the price of admission, this unforgettable sentence: “Life finds a way.” It popped out at me because it so economically summed up a truth behind all of nature’s stunning diversity and the continuity of the living adventure of Life on Earth.
Yes, things die, lineages go extinct, and coral reefs are in a world of hurt. All true. Also true is there exist heat-tolerant corals, corals that are regularly exposed to (and routinely survive) the extreme stress of finding themselves out in the tropical air at low tide, and many ocean organisms that live through large swings in pH through tidal cycles.
Yes many coral reefs are degraded. Yes it doesn’t look good. But sometimes living diversity supplies marginal adaptations that suddenly fit perfectly into new conditions. Someone (not Darwin) called it “survival of the fittest.” That’s what the phrase means; not survival of the strongest but of the ones who find themselves in the right place at the right time as conditions change to suddenly suit them. Look around; it works.
Agreed, it is past due to raise the alarm that coral reefs in many areas have largely collapsed, and that their future looks bleak. As an anguished lover of reefs and living things generally, and as an ecologist by profession, I cannot picture what it will take for coral reef systems to survive and thrive. But I also cannot picture a world in which no reef corals adapt, persist, and flourish, simply because it’s true: Life finds a way.
Bradbury seems to suggest giving up and spending money on ways to replace the values (for example, fish) that coral reefs have provided. But what would giving up look like? Overfishing is old news, and plenty of people are, in fact, spending money trying to raise fish. Some are making money. Overpopulation: also old news and crucial to everything from water supplies to prospects for peace. One doesn’t need to certify future coral reef destruction to realize that overpopulation is bad for human health and dignity, not to mention a catastrophe for wild living systems. These problems have caused the losses to date and they continue. Warming and acidification are also building.
But to accept that reefs are doomed implies that the best response is to give up hope, thus give up effort. That means we give up on curbing overfishing and allowing rebuilding (yet these two goals are in fact are increasingly working in many places, specifically because people have not given up, and because letting fish recover can work). It means we give up on controlling pollution (in the U.S., the Clean Water Act brought great improvement to rivers so polluted that they actually caught fire multiple times; developing nations deserve to do no less for themselves). It means we give up on population, whose most effective solving strategy is to teach girls to read and write.
Giving up, while reefs still flourish in many places, means accepting what is unacceptable, and abandoning work on situations that can likely be improved. It means deciding to be hopeless. It means giving up on the reefs, the fishes, and the people, who need all the combined efforts of those who both know the science best—and who, while life exists, won’t give up.
The science is clear that reefs are in many places degraded and in serious trouble. But no science has, or likely can, determine that reefs and all their associated non-coral creatures are unequivocally, equally and everywhere, completely doomed to total non-existence. In fact, much science suggests they will persist in some lesser form. Bleak prospects have been part of many dramatic turnarounds, and, who knows, life may, as usual—with our best efforts—find a way.

'The walking dead'

The Tree ocelot, the Hoary-throated spinetail, the White-cheeked spider monkey, the Rio Branco antbird, the Brazilian tapir and the Yellow-headed poison frog.
-- list, report, paper

13 July 2012

'As though she lived on song...'

In celebration of 'John Clare day', lines from The Nightingale's Nest:
...melody seems hid in every flower,
That blossoms near thy home. These harebells all
Seem bowing with the beautiful in song ;
And gaping cuckoo-flower, with spotted leaves,
Seems blushing of the singing it has heard.
How curious is the nest ; no other bird
Uses such loose materials, or weaves
Its dwelling in such spots : dead oaken leaves
Are placed without, and velvet moss within,
And little scraps of grass, and, scant and spare,
What scarcely seem materials, down and hair...

12 July 2012

The Open

The enigmatic 'angel' of Rilke's [Duino] elegies is not a Christian spirit, a harbinger of heaven. The angel is a creature in which the transformation of the visible into the invisible, of earth into consciousness, is already complete. Potentially, the poet – or perhaps the poem itself – is the angel. The mode of being to which Rilke aspired in poetry was that which he called the 'open' (one of the terms borrowed from Heidegger)...Like the Romantics, Rilke was in search of a way of thinking and living which reconciles instrumental rationality with openness to the 'the open'. This involves him in the acceptance of finitude and of mortality, but also in a letting-go akin to the experience he underwent in the garden of Schloss Duino in 1912 when, reclining against a tree, he felt himself entered by 'the open'. He seemed to become nature itself, to share his being with tree and singing bird as inner and outer were gathered together into a single 'uninterrupted space.'
-- from The Song of the Earth by Jonathan Bate

(Image: NIH-3T3 connective tissue cells co-transduced with 5 fluorescent proteins. Dr. Daniela Malide/National Institutes of Health/Bethesda, Maryland, USA. Via boston.com)

11 July 2012

The Myth of the Chimera

The myth of the Chimera is modern as well as ancient, writes Ugo Bardi:
At its root, there is this conflict: civilization versus wilderness. The Chimera is the trees we cut to pave the land to build a shopping center. It is the mountains we destroy to get at the coal seams below. It is the people we bomb because we think they are dangerous to us. It is everything we don't want to see, and we want to destroy, while we think we are safe inside our homes. But, in reality, we are not and we know that very well.  The environment is not really something "outside", the environment is all those things that make us live. If we destroy the environment, we destroy ourselves.

These considerations are all there, inside the myth of the Chimera, once you unpack it and you take care of some details that seem to be marginal and, instead, are fundamental. So, in the Iliad that the Chimera is explicitly referred to as "Theon", which means "divine". The Chimera is no mere monster, it is a God. And no mortal can kill a God because Gods are immortal. At most, it is possible to kill the "avatar" of a God. And killing a God - even if just its avatar -  is not something that common mortals can do lightly. It brings misfortune; not rewards. Indeed, Bellerophon ends his life blind and accursed as a punishment for what he has done. So, you see? The story of the Chimera is by no means simple; it is not black and white, not good versus evil. The story is subtle and dense and it carries a lot of meaning that we can still understand if we just spend a little time in exploring it.

6 July 2012


The more distant future of time research may change our views of other fields, such as physics. Most of our current theoretical frameworks include the variable t in a Newtonian, river-flowing sense. But as we begin to understand time as a construction of the brain, as subject to illusion as the sense of color is, we may eventually be able to remove our perceptual biases from the equation. Our physical theories are mostly built on top of our filters for perceiving the world, and time may be the most stubborn filter of all to budge out of the way.
-- David Eagleman

P.S. a cartoon about time.

5 July 2012


Priapiumfish don't have a penis like humans. Instead they have a unique organ called a priapium on their chins just behind their mouths, which faces backwards and looks like a muscular nozzle.
-- Zoologer


Mourning cuttlefish cross dress and dual-signal at the same time.

4 July 2012

Imagining gods

Alan Saunders: This is curious...the common sense assumption would be that hubris, the sin of overwhelming pride, is committed when humans believe that they are or they act like gods, not when they invent or create gods, but [Cornelius] Castoriadis wants to say that to imagine gods presiding over the universe is itself one of the most extraordinary acts of human creation.
Stathis Gourgouris: Yes, it’s a glorious act. I mean, that it is an act of extraordinary imagination, that human beings find immensely complex ways to create systems of ordering of their universe, to account for the way their universe is in fact created and the way it operates and so on and so forth. This comment, of course, pertains specifically to the fact that the hubris is not so much in the act of the imagination because there is something sublime about the capacity to imagine divinity. In all human societies in the history of the world have some form of that, but the hubris exists in or resides in the fact that this act of creative imagination is actually shielded, it’s occluded, and not acknowledged as such, and what is presented is the object of this act, the imagined thing, as if that is the agent of creation, and that’s what he identifies as hubris.
-- from Thinking Out Loud, The Philospher's Zone.

(Image: Nawarla Gabarnmang)

3 July 2012

Seeing as if for the first time

'Tis not unlikely, but that there may be yet invented several other helps for the eye, as much exceeding those already found, as those do the bare eye, such as by which we may perhaps be able to discover living Creatures in the Moon, or other Planets, the figures of the compounding Particles of matter, and the particular Schematisms and Textures of Bodies.
-- from the Preface to Micrographia by Robert Hooke (1665)  

The image shows spherical colonies of Nostoc commune, a bluegreen alga. A darkfield illumination by Gerd Guenther. It is one of the prize winners in the Olympus BioScapes Digital Imaging Competition.