30 September 2012

Barely Imagined Beginning

The Book of Barely Imagined Beings will be published in the UK by Granta this Thursday, 4 October. The first newspaper review, by Stuart Kelly, appeared in The Scotsman yesterday.

From now until publication in the US by Chicago University Press next March I will, circumstances permitting,  post each week on themes and ideas relating to each chapter, from A to Z. This week: the introduction.

The photograph shows the place where I dozed off and dreamed the book (page x).


I am publishing some articles in print and online media around the time of UK publication of The Book of Barely Imagined Beings on 4 Oct:
An extract from the book was published by Aeon on 25 September.

(Note: links to the first four articles above are/were added later as the articles appeared)

29 September 2012


David Quammen cranks up his argument:
We're unique in the history of mammals. No other primate has ever weighed upon the planet to anything like the degree we do. In ecological terms, we are almost paradoxical: large-bodied and long-lived but grotesquely abundant. We are an outbreak.

'Defining reality'

One [definition] equates reality with a world without us, a world untouched by human desires and intentions. By this definition, a lot of things we usually regard as real - languages, wars, the financial crisis - are nothing of the sort. Still, it is [among the most] solid... because it removes human subjectivity from the picture.
Jan Westerhoff in an introduction to a New Scientist special issue on 'reality'.

28 September 2012

Hogacre bees

There’s no road, just a path
between Coke cans, nettles
michaelmas daisies gone wild.
ISAAC’S PARTY someone has chalked
next to a blue arrow.
The bees are across a railway bridge
and swathes of unmown grass—
a new brave hive
on a wide wooden stage.
They are very small, not furry, one
 climbs up my leg, slow and effortful.

I listen to the whirr of traffic
from the ring road
and watch a few circle
in a casual bracelet rather like midges, but bees definitely
bees who are here, who will dance their way
around the fires of rough sleepers
and under the songs of the pylons
tiny, improbable, channelling sweetness. 
-- Dorothy Yamamoto

27 September 2012

Just visiting

The recognition of these hazards may help us understand deeper mysteries about Life in the Universe. Many explanations have been offered as to why we find no evidence for the existence of advanced extraterrestrial life in the nearby Universe.  Perhaps we are too uninteresting to be worth contacting; perhaps life requires extremely improbable events to sustain it. More likely, I feel, is that life never survives for long periods. Asteroidal impacts, passing comets, bursts of gamma radiation, all these external hazards are common occurrences. We are shielded from many of them by the planet Jupiter and our large Moon. Without these gravitational shields we would have suffered a string of catastrophic impacts that would have continually reset the evolutionary clock. Couple with the threat to life offered by internal hazards like war, disease and environmental disaster, we begin to see that it is perhaps not entirely surprising that no one is 'out there' in our part of the Universe. The cosmic environment stretches far wider than Darwin ever imagined.
-- from 'Cosmic Environmentalism' in The Artful Universe (Expanded) by John Barrow

26 September 2012


I'm rereading The Origin and, geekishly, really enjoying this sort of thing (from Morphology, Chapter XIV):
Most physiologists believe that the bones of the skull are homologous with — that is, correspond in number and in relative connexion with—the elemental parts of a certain number of vertebræ. The anterior and posterior limbs in all the members of the vertebrate classes are plainly homologous. So it is with the wonderfully complex jaws and legs of crustaceans. It is familiar to almost every one, that in a flower the relative position of the sepals, petals, stamens, and pistils, as well as their intimate structure, are intelligible on the view that they consist of metamorphosed leaves, arranged in a spire. In monstrous plants, we often get direct evidence of the possibility of one organ being transformed into another; and we can actually see in flowers during their early development, as well as in crustaceans and many other animals during their embryonic states, that organs, which when mature become extremely different, are at an early stage of growth exactly alike.
Darwin asks questions such as: 'Why should the brain be enclosed in a box composed of such numerous and such extraordinarily shaped pieces of bone?' And then shows how natural selection is the necessary explanation.

25 September 2012

Phidippus mystaceus

The first published extract from The Book of Barely Imagined Beings appears today in Aeon Magazine today under 'An enigmatic spider and the fragile threads of human memory.'  Here is the illustration by Golbanou Moghaddas that appears in the book:

The text as it appears on Aeon is slightly cut from the version in the book, which has this epigraph from A Little Fable by Franz Kafka:
You need only change your direction.
And the Aeon version cut this:
The male Audax...has palps (frontal appendages) as splendidly hued as the feathers of a bird of paradise -- for what girl can resist a boy who has technicolor genitals in the middle of his face? [1]
Also missing from the Aeon version are five marginal notes that appear in the print and eBook versions. So for example the word highlighted in red here:
...as the young Ludwig Wittgenstein put it, ‘only a man who lives not in time but in the present is happy’...
is linked to this marginal note:
Marcus Chown (2007) suggests that at the Omega Point (a condition hypothesized by the cosmologist Frank Tipler as the time when technology makes possible a state of being indistinguishable from eternal life), the greatest imaginable joy any human could experience would be to return to the ‘eternal’ summer days of childhood, when your favourite dog was alive and your parents were young and full of life. Something like this, perhaps, is evoked in the final scenes of Terrence Malick’s 2011 film The Tree of Life.

[1] Turns out I have failed on a technicality here. It seems the technicoloured ‘genitals’ are in fact chelicerae, designed for transporting venom and used for courtship/wrestling in courtship but not technically sex organs. (h/t BH)

'Like sightless eels'

In the cellar, the machine was cranking towards full power. Its gases and fluids agitated intensely, with a muffled cacophony of swishing and crashing sounds like ocean turbulence in a subterranean cavern. The smell was foul beyond belief, noxious gases and corrosive acids ripped apart and recombined in the magnetic flux. 'Factitious airs' -- gases that had never existed in nature -- hissed ominously into being, jets of pressure forcing them through tubes and valves, sending them out like sightless eels into their new world.
-- from The Influencing Machine by Mike Jay.

With the Air Loom, "Man had made a machine that could turn themselves into machines."

24 September 2012

Viruses like bees

Viruses, instead of being single-minded agents of disease and death, now begin to look more like mobile genes. Evolution is still an infinitely long and tedious biologic game, with only the winners staying at the table, but the rules are beginning to look more flexible. We live in a dancing matrix of viruses; they dart, rather like bees, from organism to organism, from plant to insect to mammal to me and back again, and into the sea, tugging along pieces of this genome, strings of genes from that, transplanting grafts of DNA, passing around heredity as though at a great party. They may be a mechanism for keeping new, mutant kinds of DNA in the widest circulation among us. If this is true, the odd virus disease, on which we must focus so much of our attention in medicine, may be looked on as an accident, something dropped.
-- from Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas (1971)

23 September 2012


The temple bell stops
But I still hear the sound
Coming out of the flowers
-- Basho

The naming of parrots

Research in spectacled parrotlets, Forpus conspicillatus, has shown that each parrot has its own signature call -- a unique sound that is used only for recognising that particular individual. Basically, each parrot has its own name. Interestingly, similar to human culture, members of each parrot family have names that sound more like each other than like those for other parrot families.
-- Grrl scientist

20 September 2012


Following a post earlier today, some poetical personification from Alice Oswald:
Dense Silky Bent 

Also there is an old man dressed in a rustling softness
with long washed hair and a little beard cut square
often to be seen at dawn performing stretches to the sun
and doesn't care who watches, stares straight through anyone
with baleful, buzzard-on-a-fencepost vision.
When he leans to the side and breathes in lout and out
with accompanying swearwords, he seems small and sour
like a lost lover withered to a straw.
But when he forward-bends and his loose shirt
flops on his blinking eyes and swishes in the dirt
sometimes we kick him from behind, he doesn't mind,
just springs up green again and stares at the sun.

Vegetable love

Rob Dunn has a nice essay on the glory and diversity of leaves.

The Book of Barely Imagined Beings largely focuses on heterotrophs, but autotrophs are equally astonishing. Montaigne's words should not be forgotten:
There is a kind of respect and a duty in man...which link[s] us not merely to the beasts, which have life and feelings, but even to trees and plants.
And I like this from the conclusion of What a Plant Knows by Daniel Chamovitz:
A shared genetic past does not negate eons of evolution. While plants and humans maintain parallel abilities to sense and be aware of the physical world, the independent paths of evolution have led to a uniquely human capacity, beyond intelligence, that plants don't have: the ability to care.
So the next time you find yourself on a stroll through a park, take a second to ask yourself: What does the dandelion in the lawn see? What does the grass smell? Touch the swooping branches of a beech, knowing that the tree will remember it was touched. But it won't remember you. You, on the other hand, can remember that particular tree and carry the memory of it with you forever.
Elsewhere, Ed Yong considers whether humans will ever photosynthesize like plants.

Photo: Viburnum leaf by Michael Melford

See also The brotherhood of men and cabbages

19 September 2012

Mother whale

Humans, pilot whales and killer whales are the only known species [besides humans] in which females have a prolonged period of menopause — a time of life when they cannot reproduce. Now, a study in the journal Science reports the purpose that menopause serves in orcas: for females to care for their sons and make sure their genes are passed on to future generations.

Females have a really unique life history,” said Emma Foster, a marine biologist at Exeter University in England. “They stop reproducing in their 30s and 40s, but they can live into their 90s.”
-- report

17 September 2012

Of cruelty

Looked at casually, day-old puppies are little, blind, squirming, undifferentiated objects of things. I put one of them in the bucket of water, and instantly an extraordinary, terrible thing happened. This blind, amorphous thing began to fight desperately for its life, struggling, beating the water with its paws. I suddenly saw that it was an individual, that like me it was an 'I', that in its bucket of water it was experiencing what I would experience and fighting death, as I would fight death if I were drowning in multitudinous seas. 
-- Leonard Wolf quoted by Sarah Bakewell

16 September 2012

Niht maere

I always dream of labyrinths or mirrors. In the dream of the mirror another vision appears, another terror of my nights, and that is the idea of the mask. Masks have always scared me. No doubt I felt in my childhood that someone who was wearing a mask was hiding something horrible. These are the most terrible nightmares: I see myself reflected in a mirror, but the reflection is wearing a mask. I am afraid to pull the mask off, afraid to see my real face, which I imagine to be hideous. There may be leprosy or evil or something more terrible than anything I am capable of imagining.
-- from 'Nightmares', in Seven Nights (1980) by Jorge Luis Borges.
What if nightmares were strictly supernatural? What if nightmares were cries from hell? What if nightmares literally took place in hell? Why not? Everything is so strange that even this is possible.

14 September 2012


...But when the Man-Moth
pays his rare, although occasional, visits to the surface,
the moon looks rather different to him. He emerges
from an opening under the edge of one of the sidewalks
and nervously begins to scale the faces of the buildings.
He thinks the moon is a small hole at the top of the sky,
proving the sky quite useless for protection.
He trembles, but must investigate as high as he can climb.

                     Up the façades,
his shadow dragging like a photographer’s cloth behind him
he climbs fearfully, thinking that this time he will manage
to push his small head through that round clean opening
and be forced through, as from a tube, in black scrolls on the light.
(Man, standing below him, has no such illusions.)
But what the Man-Moth fears most he must do, although
he fails, of course, and falls back scared but quite unhurt...

13 September 2012

Upcoming readings and events

1 October 2012:   Wigtown Book Festival
3 October 2012:   Salon London
25 October 2012: The Albion Beatnik 
The Book of Barely Imagined Beings is available for preorder online, as an e-book from 3 October and in UK bookshops from 4 October.

Endless transformations

Another example of the almost unimaginable potential of evolution:
Both the TRPA1 and TRPV1 genes are hundreds of millions of years old, having arisen deep in evolutionary history, while vampire bats, pit vipers, and pythons and boas are much younger species. The histories of these genes and animals, and the repeated invention of infrared sensing, demonstrate how the evolution of new abilities does not necessarily require new genes, but new variations of very old genes and new ways of using them.
-- Sean B. Carroll

Cry Havoc and let slip the AlphaDogs of war

For Singularity Hub this is awesome

Wild Flower

On the Spanish side of the Pyrenees mountains, around 850 metres above sea level, two adjacent cliff faces hold the entire population of Borderea chouardiione of the world’s rarest plants. It’s a small herb that grows into crevices in the rock. Its leaves are heart-shaped and its flowers green and unassuming. There are around 10,000 individuals here, all growing on a square kilometre of vertical rock.
Now, Maria Garcia form the Spanish National Research Council has discovered the plant’s survival strategy, which involves three different species of ants. Through these multiple partnerships, B.chouardii quite literally clings to existence.

The plant is a relict, an ancient hanger-on from a time just after the death of the dinosaurs, when the Pyrenees enjoyed a tropical climate.
  -- Ed Yong

11 September 2012

'Priceless or worthless?'

The donor community and conservation movement are leaning increasingly towards a ‘what can nature do for us’ approach, where species and wild habitats are valued and prioritised according to the services they provide for people. This has made it increasingly difficult for conservationists to protect the most threatened species on the planet.
While the utilitarian value of nature is important conservation goes beyond this. Do these species have a right to survive or do we have a right to drive them to extinction?
-- Professor Jonathan Baillie, ZSL’s Director of Conservation, Priceless or worthless? 100 Most Threatened Species
The book starts by introducing 100 species from 48 different countries that will be the next to go if conservation action is not taken immediately. Twenty-five of the 100 are highlighted to demonstrate the diversity of life that is about to be lost. We introduce the reader to the unique traits and characteristics of each species – essentially the wonder and natural beauty of each creature, plant and fungi. We then highlight examples of species that have been brought back from the brink of extinction such as Przewalski’s horse or the Chatham Island’s black robin, demonstrating that averting extinction is possible.

Gibbon helium soprano

Not a new story but new to me:
Gibbons on helium sing like sopranos
Yes, there was a serious scientific purpose behind the experiment but it also looks like good material for an Ignobel

10 September 2012


The Book of Barely Imagined Beings will be published in the UK in early October. Starting at that time I will, conditions permitting, post new thoughts, humorous or otherwise, each week linked to a particular chapter, A through Z, of the book. There are 27 chapters (there two Xs) plus an introduction and conclusion so the posts are likely to run up to around the time of US publication next March.

The book covers a wide variety of themes, including monsters and the monstrous in nature and human imagination.  Of the latter, here are a couple of examples I happen to have come across in recent days:
One spring morning, amid the piles of dead peasants in Kharkiv market, an infant suckled the breast of its mother, whose face was lifeless grey. Passersby had seen this before...not just the dead mother and living infant but that precise scene, the tiny mouth, the last drops of milk, the cold nipple. The Ukrainians had a term for this. They said to themselves, quietly as they passed: "These are the buds of the socialist spring."
-- from Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder
Survivors remember seeing people's fingernails dropping from their fists like dried shell pasta. They remember human-sized "dolls of charcoal" slumped in alleys. Someone recalled a man struggling along on two stumps, holding a charred baby upside down. Another recalled a shirtless woman whose breasts had burst "like pomegranates".
-- from a description of the Nagasaki aftermath quoted by Sam Kean in The Violinist's Thumb

7 September 2012


I drove us out into the wheat fields, the crop thick and undulant. The sky was high and clear blue. The hot wind gusting and dusty and dotted with snapping grasshoppers. Hawks patrolled, lazing in the great warm dome or sitting sentry in a single tree here and there. I didn't say so but I drove us, to the extent memory could lead me, near to the place we buried the Americans. It's odd how a piece of ground can hold so little of its meaning – though that's lucky since for it to do so would make places sacred but impenetrable whereas they're otherwise neither. Instead it all becomes part of our complex mind, to which, if we're lucky, we can finally assent. The great fields of grain swayed and hissed and shifted colors and bent and lay back against the wind where we stopped our car. 
-- from Canada by Richard Ford

6 September 2012

'Sixth Extinction'

We didn't mean to help make the mammoth extinct. The wonderful portrait of a mammoth in Pech Merle cave reveals that early homo sapiens was fascinated by these marvellous creatures. This masterpiece of cave art is as acute as any modern work of naturalist observation. The hunters who painted in caves showed the same passion for the natural world as their descendants do. Their culture must have been bereft when the mammoth vanished – even as they helped it on its way.
In the 21st century the same paradox endures. Human activity endangers entire species, yet human culture is profoundly rooted in nature. The loss of a species is also a loss of the images, stories, symbols and wonders that we live by – to call it a cultural loss may sound too cerebral: what we lose when we lose animals is the very meaning of life. Those first artists in ancient caves portrayed animals far more than they portrayed people. It was in the wild herds around them that the power of the cosmos and the mystery of existence seemed to be located.
-- Jonathan Jones

5 September 2012


Musical performance is associated with powerful beings and is a means of communicating with them although it is not directly addressed to them...Communication may be said to occur not by singing to a powerful being but by singing it into being. Highly focused mental images are created in the minds of the performers by means of their performance...There is a consequent merging of the self with what is sung about; just as in myth powerful beings participate in human speech, so in ritual humans participate in itseke [powerful being] musicality and thereby temporarily achieve some of their transformative power.
--  Ellen Basso on the Kalapalo, quoted by Robert Bellah

(photo: Fabio Colombini)

4 September 2012

Fate of the elephants

“They were good shots, very good shots,” said Mr. Onyango, Garamba’s chief ranger. “They even shot the babies. Why? It was like they came here to destroy everything.”
-- from Elephants Dying in Epic Frenzy as Ivory Fuels Wars and Profits, the first in a series of three articles.

Garamba, a 1,900 square mile national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, used to have tens of thousands of elephants. Last year, there were around 2,800. This year, maybe 2,400. While Africa’s total elephant population is unknown, the latest figures, from 2006, put it at 472,269 to 689,671, but poaching has increased significantly since then.

3 September 2012


The ocean floor is home to 2.9×1029 single-celled organisms — that's 10 million trillion microbes for every human on the planet — but vast though it is, this figure is only 8% of the previous estimate of 35.5×1029
-- report 

Only 8% of the previous estimate is still plenty (!) and it exists alongside and/or interacts with/supports a huge amount of larger life even in the coldest darkest places. In Antarctic benthos, for example, researchers have found the Polychaete worm Spiophanes tcherniai  at densities 150,000 to 180,000 per square metre. (Hat tip DSN)

2 September 2012

Torpid state

One day, when my axe had come off and I had cut a green hickory for a wedge, driving it with a stone, and had placed the whole to soak in a pond-hole in order to swell the wood, I saw a striped snake run into the water, and he lay on the bottom, apparently without inconvenience, as long as I stayed there, or more than a quarter of an hour; perhaps because he had not yet fairly come out of the torpid state. It appeared to me that for a like reason men remain in their present low and primitive condition; but if they should feel the influence of the spring of springs arousing them, they would of necessity rise to a higher and more ethereal life. 
-- from Walden