31 January 2013

"At the bottom of the world we can look through a window into our very distant past"

...Cyanobacteria are resourceful organisms. They produce their own energy using a photosynthesis process similar to plants. Light penetrates through the ice cover and through the water down to the lake floor where the microbes grow. Because of a lack of predation and a lack of disturbance by larger organisms, these microbes grow rampant over any surface that is hospitable for growth (in this case any depth that light can reach).
This type of microbial growth is actually quite common in Antarctic and Arctic lakes. What makes Lake Untersee particularly special is that these microbes form two different types of structures – collections of millions of individuals growing together over thousands of years of layered development.

The microbes of Untersee form two distinct kinds of constructions – pinnacles and cones. Both the pinnacles and cones are types of microbial communities and represent one of the earliest forms of life, present in the fossil record nearly 3.5 billion years ago.

The pinnacles of our lake are small, between one-half inch and six inches tall and dominated by a Leptolyngbya species that is common in Antarctica. The other structures, found nowhere else on present-day earth, are the conical stromatolites. The microbes covering the cones aren’t very thick, roughly half a millimeter, but the dark purple cones can grow higher than one and a half feet. These cones consist predominately of a Phormidium species, and it’s thought that the different microbial species are somehow responsible for the creation of the different structures...
-- Michael Becker

A sense of continuity

In the shamanic past, the reasons for assuming animal form were many...and they were often highly practical, in terms of a tribe or clan’s wellbeing or even survival (the shaman might foretell, or perhaps influence the weather, for example), but what I am searching for, as I stare into the eyes of a Haida bear mask or the hooked beak of a Tlingit crow man, is a sense of continuity with other living things so rudimentary that the Inuit simply took it for granted.
-- John Burnside.

30 January 2013

Beyond reality and imagination

The Book of Imaginary Beings is a compendium of extraordinary fictions of the human brain.

The Book of Barely Imagined Beings celebrates a few of the real creatures that are stranger and more astonishing than most of the ones that humans have imagined.

Nils Aall Barricelli was, perhaps, the first to explore another category altogether -- entities that are neither 'real' in the sense that most of us customarily use that term nor fictional -- when, in the early 1950s, he created numeric organisms based on Darwinian principles.

These organisms and the universes they inhabited existed purely as mathematical values. In Barricelli's mind, however, they were true organisms, not simply mathematical models of life.

Max Tegmark believes that physical existence and mathematical existence are the same, so any structure that exists mathematically is also real.

(see also Turing's Cathedral.)

29 January 2013

The invisible life of the upper troposphere

In a recent article for New Humanist (also here) I mentioned that researchers have suggested that bacteria not only survive in the harsh, beautiful environment of clouds but thrive and reproduce there. My sources were more than four years old. Recent work appears to have amply corroborated the hypothesis, as Ed Yong writes in an excellent piece:
The sky has a microbiome too, and one that may have a critical role in the creation of weather. When water changes from vapour to liquid, it condenses around microscopic particles in the air. When it freezes into ice, the same thing happens. Without these centres, completely pure water would condense and freeze at much lower temperatures than you’d expect. Dust, soot and sea salt can all act as nuclei for water’s transformations, but so can bacteria. For example, some plant-infecting species have proteins on their surfaces that ice can crystallise upon. Just by floating in the air, species like these could kick-start the births of clouds, raindrops and snow.

28 January 2013

The evening and the morning

I have often thought, as I have passed by it, that one day, under a special dispensation, I should received from this little pool of water, from this small, green stoup of lustral water, a whisper as to the secret of life. It will be revealed to me, I have thought, as surely and as naturally as the presence of dew makes itself felt on folded twilight flowers found suddenly damp to the touch after the dry butterfly periods of a summer's day.
     Always hoping for this hour of grace, I have loitered by the pond's edge at every season...It was on a soft evening of this last September that there came to me the breath of the knowledge that I sought...All was silent, all was expectant. The messenger for who I had awaited was at last revealed.
     It was a hare. I saw her from far away and did not so much as venture to move a finger...Nearer and nearer she came. Was she actually intending to drink?...The stillness of the evening was so profound that the fur of a field mouse's jacket brushing against the stems of its grassy jungle would have been audible, while against the sky, infinitely remote, the moon hung in utter calm.
     I was suddenly awakened from my rapture. I had heard a sound, a sound sensitive and fresh as soft rain upon a leaf. It was the hare drinking.
-- Llewelyn Powys

23 January 2013

Not The End

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


page 377: the phrase A conclusion, in which nothing is concluded is from Rasselas (1759) by Samuel Johnson. In an early draft the conclusion had an epigraph from 1Q84 by Haruki Marukami:
This may be the most important proposition revealed by history: at the time no one knew what was coming.
page 378: greenhouse gases will...prevent ice ages...bumpy ride. Last January Andy Revkin carried a useful exchange on The Next Ice Age and the Anthropocene. The most important question for businesses to ask of climate skeptics, says James Murray, is what makes you hate the future so much? See too this series of articles on why climate change is probably worse than previously thought. But climate change is unlikely to be the only challenge. “We humans are not the Ark,” suggests Stephen Cave; “we are the flood.” Our fate, says Kim Stanley Robinson, is Earth: under repair, forever.

page 379: as if the life beyond us matters. See Not a single is existence unastonishing. Early in Why Does the World Exist, Jim Holt quotes Schopenhauer: “the lower a man is in an intellectual respect, the less puzzling and mysterious existence is to him”. I would tweak this, not to say that existence is more of a mystery for those of us who fool ourselves that we are clever (for as William James said, “all of us are beggars”) but that existence is the more puzzling and mysterious the more we are awake.

page 379: Just beginning. I take some courage from Henry Thoreau who wrote in the conclusion of Walden that these may be but the spring months in the life of the race.  Also Italo Calvino, who wrote:
Humanity reaches as far as love reaches; it has no frontiers except those we give it.
And Goethe, who wrote:
Every instant [nature] commences an immense journey, and every instant she has reached her goal.
James Gleick concludes The Information:
We are all patrons of the Library of Babel now, and we are the librarians too. We veer from elation to dismay and back. “When it was proclaimed that the library contained all books,” Borges tells us, “the first impression was one of extravagant happiness. All men felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal or world problem whose eloquent solution did not existing in some hexagon. The universe was justified.” Then come the lamentations. What good are the previous books that cannot be found? What good is complex knowledge in its immobile perfection? Borges worries: “The certitude that everything has been written negates us or turns us into phantoms.” To which John Donne had replied long before, “He that desires to print a book, should much more desire, to be a book.”
The library will endure; it is the universe. As for us, everything has not yet been written; we are not turning into phantoms. We walk the corridors, searching the shelves and rearranging them, looking for lines of meaning amid leagues of cacophony and incoherence, reading the history of the past and of the future, collecting our thoughts and collecting the thoughts of others, and every so often glimpsing mirrors, in which we may recognize creatures of the information.

22 January 2013

Mind and cosmos

On page 350 of The Book of Barely Imagined Beings (Xenophyophore) I wrote "perhaps consciousness is the least mysterious thing in the world and it is matter that is truly astonishing."

This probably overstates the case. I do, however, like the conspicuously sane and well considered response by H. Allen Orr to Thomas Nagel.

Orr cites Colin McGinn, who suggests our very inability to imagine a solution to the problem of consciousness might reflect our cognitive limitations as evolved creatures; the mysteriousness of consciousness may not be so much a challenge to neo-Darwinism as a result of it.

Well, maybe. In all events, the following (pace Chamovitz et al.) is likely to hold good:
There are millions of species of fungi and bacteria and nearly 300,000 species of flowering plants. None of these groups is sentient and each is spectacularly successful. Indeed mindless species outnumber we sentient ones by any sensible measure (biomass, number of individuals, or number of species; there are only about 5,500 species of mammals). More fundamentally, each of these species is every bit as much the end product of evolution as we are. The point is that, if nature has goals, it certainly seems to have many and consciousness would appear to be fairly far down on the list.

19 January 2013

Man is only wholly Man when he is playing

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

Chapter 27: Zebrafish

page 374: singularity. Gary Marcus critiques Ray Kurzweil's theory of mind and argues artificial intelligence has some way to go. Evan Goldstein has looked at the strange neuroscience of immortality in some depth.  Max Tegmark says:
[the singularity] could be the best or worst thing ever to happen to life as we know it, so if there's even a 1% chance that there'll be a singularity in our lifetime, I think a reasonable precaution would be to spend at least 1% of our GDP studying the issue and deciding what to do about it. Yet we largely ignore it, and are curiously complacent about life as we know it getting transformed. What we should be worried about is that we're not worried.
page 374: play. Attributed to Heraclitus:"We are most nearly ourselves when we achieve the seriousness of the child at play." In the final chapter of Religion in Human Evolution, Robert Bellah quotes from Friedrich Schiller's On the Aesthetic Education of Man:
Certainly nature has given even to the creatures without reason more than the bare necessities of life, and cast a gleam of freedom over the darkness of animal existence. When a lion is not gnawed by hunger and no beast is challenging him to battle, his idle energy creates for itself an object; he fills the echoing desert with his high-spirited roaring, and his exuberant power enjoys itself in purposeless display...The animal works when deprivation is the mainspring of its activity, and it plays when the fullness of its strength is the mainspring, when superabundant life is its own stimulus to activity.
Schiller -- notes Bellah -- contrasts “the sanction of need, or physical seriousness” with the “sanction of superfluity, or physical play,” but suggests that human play, though beginning in physical play, can move to a level of aesthetic play in which the full spiritual and cultural capacities of humans can be given free reign:
Man plays only when he is in the full sense of the word a Man, and he is only wholly Man when he is playing.
Also of note is what Schiller says about play and time:
The sense impulse requires variation, requires time to have a content; the form impulse requires the extinction of time, and no variation, Therefore the impulse in which both are combined (allow me to call it provisionally the play impulse), this play impulse would aim at the extinction in time and the reconciliation of becoming with absolute being, of variation with identity.
(Added 30 Jan: Play not work brings us fully to life, says Mark Rowlands)

page 375: cell biology. Since I finished writing even more ambitious visualizations than those at molecularmovies.com have been created. Our Secret Universe includes some clips of an astonishing film broadcast by the BBC in October 2012.

18 January 2013


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

Chapter 27: Zebrafish

page 369: watching the development. Here is an example of time-lapse of the first 24 hours.

page 369: investigate anything... Zebrafish have recently been made to grow 'pre-hands' instead of fins. Here's an outline of why the zebrafish is many researchers' favourite animal. (Added 24 Jan: as mentioned in an earlier note, zebrafish are being trapped in a virtual world provide a window into complex brain connections.)

page 370: since this book was written Craig Venter and his colleagues have announced the development of the first software simulation of the lifecycle of an entire organism:
The simulation, which runs on a cluster of 128 computers, models the complete life span of the cell at the molecular level, charting the interactions of 28 categories of molecules — including DNA, RNA, proteins and small molecules known as metabolites, which are generated by cell processes.
page 370: reprogramming the code of life. As one article puts it:
DNA is passé. Synthetic biologists have invented an array of new molecules called XNAs that boast all the talents of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and ribonucleic acid (RNA), as well as some special powers. XNAs could allow scientists to safely create life-forms in the laboratory that do not depend on DNA to survive and evolve.
page 371: some harbingers of change are considered artistic or creative.  See, for example, The unnatural art of synthetic biology, A museum of creatures re-engineered by humans, Bio-artists who tinker with tools of science. Here is a picture of Joris Laarman's Halflife Lamp, which is illuminated by hamster cells modified with firefly DNA.

 page 371: a sensational earlier life partly captured in the classic headline Now she has her pit bull cloned. But once she manacled a Mormon for sex.

page 373: reverse engineer dinosaurs which does, of course look like rather a mad thing to do, as does recreating Neanderthals.

page 373: scenarios for the future of humanity. Gary Marcus is a long way from addressing them all, but is pretty wise this far:
Edison certainly didn’t envision electric guitars, and even after the basic structure of the Internet had been in place for decades, few people foresaw Facebook or Twitter. It would be mistake for any of us to claim that we know exactly what a world full of robots, 3-D printers, biotech, and nanotechnology will bring. But, at the very least, we can take a long, hard look at our own cognitive limitations (in part through increased training in metacognition and rational decision-making), and significantly increase the currently modest amount of money we invest in research in how to keep our future generations safe from the risks of future technologies.

Futerra review

Ed Gillespie writes that The Book of Barely Imagined Beings is:
a book of genuinely big ideas, grappling with everything from extinction to climate change, the challenging context mollified by the delight and affection that pours from the page for the sheer exuberant, improbable wonder of the natural world. Having bought a copy for my girlfriend, I then bought another for Futerra and one for my Dad for Christmas…it really is that kind of ‘must read’ book...

...the craft, love and patience dedicated to the book shine through for the reader. It is a joyous celebration of our fleeting individual ‘instagram’ moment in evolutionary history. It hits the sweetspot of sustainability communications, marrying science with story, using the ‘poetry of facts’ that are beautiful, striking and often jaw-dropping...

14 January 2013

Yeti crab

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

Chapter 26: Yeti crab

page 355: (marginal note) Carl Woese died in December.  One overview of the man and his ideas here.  Last year, Prof. Woese kindly approved quotes from A New Biology for a New Century on page 140 and 376 of this book.

page 356: variations upon the crustacean body form. A striking example can be seen in these photos of a spider crab and a ghost shrimp. One of my favourites is the Harlequin shrimp:

page 359: robots and our attitudes towards them...the start of a mechanical Cambrian explosion.  The military is a major driver. See, for example, the DARPA robot challenge and AlphaDog. Debate on the use of drones, and what comes next is extensive. See here, here or here. In a recent overview Peter W. Singer suggests that:
the biggest ripple effect of the robot...is in reshaping the narrative in [the] realm of war. We are seeing a reordering of how we conceptualize war, how we talk about it, and how we report it.
Robert Ito details some of the quirks of interactions between humans and social robots.  Izabella Kaminska considers the robot economy and the new rentier class. Noah Smith has some suggestions as to how to fairly distribute income and wealth in the age of the robots.

page 360: the place where life emerged from non-life.  Previous posts on this topic are collected under the label Origin.  See also The beginnings of life: Chemistry’s grand question.  Jack Szostack suggests that somewhere on Earth, over 3.5 billion years ago, a bubble of fat spontaneously broke into smaller ones, giving rise to one of life's most fundamental properties - the ability to make copies of itself.

page 362: a stream of order. Vlatko Vidral makes a case for information as the surprise theory of everything.

page 364: travel to the bottom of the sea. The biggest driver for doing so is likely to be resource extraction. See A Gold Rush in the Abyss and this article arguing exploration is inevitable. More reports here and here.

10 January 2013


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

Chapter 25: Xenophyophore

page 342: Titan. See for example this report from NASA/JPL. Another candidate is Enceladus. Mars remains an enigma.

page 342: single-celled organisms. Charles Taylor says that it is not entirely appropriate to label Xenophyphores in this way. "Rather, [they] have a coenocytic or hyphal organisation, with numerous nuclei scattered throughout long branching cytoplasmic tubes."

page 344: Dali painting. The artist Rona Lee is among those who want to transform our feelings for the bottom of the sea. Neptune Canada has a Flickr stream of deep sea beasties.

page 346: Evidence for bilaterians dates back some 585 million years.

page 347: Rock is not the opposite of life but its essential partner. See, for example, a blog such as Written in the Rocks.

page 349: all stories originat[e] from a marvelous stone. In The Aleph by Jorge Luis Borges, it is reported that "the Faithful who gather at the mosque of Amr, in Cairo, are acquainted with the fact that the entire universe lies inside one of the stone pillars that ring its central court." For an attempt at an explanation based in evolutionary theory see Brian Boyd's On the Origin of Stories.

page 350: perhaps consciousness is the least mysterious thing...and it is matter itself that is truly astonishing. “It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists,” wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein. (Here is a note on consciousness and here's something on dreaming and reality.) 'It from bit', wrote John Archibald Wheeler. But what is 'bit'? James Gleick quotes Wheeler as follows:
“Deplore? No celebrate the absence of a clean clear definition of the term 'bit' as an elementary unit in the establishment of meaning...If and when we learn how to combine bits of fantastically large numbers to obtain what we call existence, we will know better what we mean by both bit and by existence.” This is the challenge that remains, and not just for scientists: the establishment of meaning.
Recent experiments suggest there is a way to go:
[Perhaps] 'particle' and 'wave' are concepts we latch on to because they seem to correspond to guises of matter in our familiar, classical world. But attempting to describe true quantum reality with these or any other black-or-white concepts is an enterprise doomed to failure.
It's a notion that takes us straight back into Plato's cave, says Radu Ionicioiu. In the... allegory, prisoners shackled in a cave see only shadows of objects cast onto a cave wall, never the object itself. A cylinder, for example, might be seen as a rectangle or a circle, or anything in between. Something similar is happening with the basic building blocks of reality. "Sometimes the photon looks like a wave, sometimes like a particle, or like anything in between," says Ionicioiu. In reality, though, it is none of these things. What it is, though, we do not have the words or the concepts to express.

8 January 2013


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

Chapter 24: Xenoglaux

page 333: cloud forests. Things I learned as a field biologist #612 gives a sense of what they're like. See also The Strange Forests that Drink—and Eat—Fog.

page 333: deforestation.  Where to begin? In November it was reported that deforestation in the Amazon was at a record low. An earlier article suggested that Colombia, for one, is increasingly reforesting.  But even where things are ostensibly getting better there may be an 'extinction debt' still to pay.  Commentators on the role of REDD include REDD monitor.

page 335: extinction...do individual species matter?...the eye of eternity...There are numerous blogs about extinction. Here is one.    As species approach extinction they become more and more valuable.  Michael McCarthy has written well about the loss of nature and the nature of loss.  Regarding the very long run consider the beginning of a fine essay by Ross Andersen:
No event, however momentous, leaves an everlasting imprint on the world. Take the cosmic background radiation, the faint electromagnetic afterglow of the Big Bang. It hangs, reassuringly, in every corner of our skies, the firmest evidence we have for the giant explosion that created our universe. But it won’t be there forever. In a trillion years’ time it is going to slip beyond what astronomers call the cosmic light horizon, the outer edge of the observable universe. The universe’s expansion will have stretched its wavelength so wide that it will be undetectable to any observer, anywhere. Time will have erased its own beginning.

On Earth, the past is even quicker to vanish. To study geology is to be astonished at how hastily time reorders our planet’s surface, filling its craters, smoothing its mountains and covering its continents in seawater. Life is often the fastest to disintegrate in this constant churn of water and rock. The speed of biological decomposition ensures that only the most geologically fortunate of organisms freeze into stone and become fossils. The rest dissolve into sediment, leaving the thinnest of molecular traces behind...
page 337: owls [fascinate] humans. Humour from David Sedaris

page 338: The caption to Goya's Capricho 43, El sueño de la razón produce monstruos, is more usually translated as 'The sleep of reason produces monsters.' (Sueño means both dream and reason.) One tag translates as 'Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the source of her wonders.'

page 339: protect and restore. Kevin McKenna makes a case for bringing wolves back to Scotland. Robert Macfarlane appreciates the philosophy behind a successful rewilding experiment in the Netherlands:
Sea eagles came here of their own accord five years ago, moving down into the area from Scandinavia. They were charismatic proof of the conservation ethic of the Oostvaardersplassen: increase scale, reduce management inputs, resist species farming, avoid deliverables and goals, and let wild nature take its course as far as possible.
But, warn the likes of Oliver Rackham, Peter Marren and Richard Mabey, the rush to reforest parts of Britain in the 1990s and 2000 may have encouraged the spread of new tree diseases (from imported stock), of which ash dieback may be just one example. For a fresh view of rewilding, look out for a book by George Monbiot published later this year. See also a post on Nature 2.0 here.

Yew Tree. Photo Dan Hartwright

6 January 2013

"It was unimaginable, but there it was"

Boulevard du Temple
In Chapter 14: Nautilus (page 218), I wrote:
the [photographic] image was not 'merely' memory or imagination...but to all appearances something real.
In The Information Peter Gleick writes:
The same year that Babbage published his essay, the artist and chemist Louis Daguerre in Paris perfected his means for capturing visual images on silver-coated plates. His English competitor William Fox Talbot, called this "the art of photogenic drawing, or of forming pictures and images of natural objects by means of solar light...By means of this contrivance" he wrote, "it is not the artist who makes the picture but the picture which makes itself." Now the images that fly before our eyes could be frozen, impressed upon substance, made permanent.
    By painting or drawing, an artist -- with skill, training and long labor -- reconstructs what the eye might see. By contrast, a daguerreotype is in some sense the thing itself -- the information, stored, in an instant. It was unimaginable, but there it was. The possibilities made the mind reel. Once storage began where would it stop?

5 January 2013

Podcast from a shed

Online from today: in December I did a talk with George Miller for a Blackwell podcast.

The interview took place in the shed where I wrote the book (photos above and below taken in a warm spell last September!)

The dark tower

In Dreaming spires: Victorian chimneys Paul Dobraszczyk recalls an observation by Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space (1964):
towers are more than simply structures; rather, they are primal images of verticality that illustrate the verticality of the human being. So, in our dreams we always go up towers (whereas we always go down into a cellar). Towers are images of ascension, the...winding steps inside them leading to dreams of flight or transcendence.
In The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges, the A Bao A Qu (see Introduction, page xix) lurks on the steps of the Tower of Victory in Chitor, from the top of which you can look out over "the loveliest landscape in the world."

Man's fate

I'm about a third of the way into The Company of Strangers by Paul Seabright (2010), one of several books I wish I had read before writing Japanese macaque. Here's a summary of Seabright's argument from his introduction:
  • the unplanned but sophisticated coordination of modern industrial societies is a remarkable fact that needs an explanation. Nothing in our species' biological evolution has show us to have any talent or taste for dealing with strangers.
  • the explanation is to be found in the presence of institutions that make human beings willing to treat strangers as honorary friends.
  • when human beings come together in the mass, the unintended consequences are sometimes startlingly impressive, sometimes very troubling
  • the very talents for cooperation and rational reflection that could provide solutions to our most urgent problems are also the source of our species terrifying capacity for organized violence between groups. Trust between groups needs as much human ingenuity as trust between individuals.
And from page 78:
reducing levels of violence has required us not to sideline the emotions but to harness them.

4 January 2013


In the chapter on the Barrel sponge, I wrote about Scotland's far north, where in some places metamorphic rocks from the Archaean form 'a magical landscape':
Promontories such as Stac Pollaidh and Suilven rise from these older rocks like the foundations of our own vanishingly brief moments of awareness.
Thanks to @Lines_Landscape I've just seen James Anderson and Niall Walker's film. For those of us who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing we like.

To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow,
All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means 
 -- Walt Whitman


Space is the place. Saturn backlit - NASA

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

Chapter 23: Waterbear

page 322: space is not a comfy place for a human. See, especially, Packing for Mars by Mary Roach. Even on that comparatively short trip, the biggest threat to human voyagers would be the cumulative radiation exposure during the long trip.

page 324: [the waterbear's] ability to wait out the most unfavourable times. Some months after completing the book, I re-read Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams (one of my top ten nature writing recommendations) and came across this passage which I had quite forgotten:
The coming and going of the animals during the short summer gives the Arctic a unique rhythmic shape, but is is to be felt only in certain places. Mostly, summer and winter, the whole land is still. The arctic explorer George de Long called it “a glorious country to learn patience in.” Time here, like light, is a passing animal. Time hovers above the tundra like the rough-legged hawk, or collapses altogether lie a bird keeled over with a heart attack leaving the stillness we call death. In the thick film of moisture that coats a bit of moss on a tundra stone, you can find, with a strong magnifying glass, a world of movement buried within the larger suspended world: ageless pinpoints of life called water bears migrate over the wet plains and canyons of jade-green vegetation. But even here time is on the verge of collapse. The moisture freezes in winter. Or a summer wind may carry the water bear off and drop it among bare stones. Deprived of moisture, it shrivels slowly into a dessicated granule. If can endure like this for thirty or forty years. It waits for its time to come again.
page 325: to fill empty places with phantasms. In an LRB review-essay titled That Wilting Flower, Hilary Mantel observes that ‘until the idea of space flight became credible, there were no aliens; instead there were green men who hid in the woods’:
On the lonely road by moonlight, the parts of ourselves oppressed by our intelligence come out to play. We meet ancestral selves, neither gods nor demons but short semi-humans with hairy ears and senses differently attuned – the eyesight of an eagle, the nose of a hound. The phenomena are internal, generated by the psychological mechanisms that connect us to each other and to our evolutionary past.
page 329: endurance.  Some are optimistic about human exploration of space. On Earth,  microbes will rule the far future.

2 January 2013

Venus´s girdle

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

Chapter 22: Venus's Girdle

page 316: a translucent ribbon. A fuller description here.

page 319: As far as we can tell, most [animals] enjoy sex. We now know more that we did about the wild thing between dinosaurs. But what must it be like for echidnas, where the penis of the male has one shaft and four heads? In banana slugs, the penis emerging from the head of each of the hermaphrodites is as long as its body. Then there is the astonishing coupling of leopard slugs.

Intercourse across species boundaries can have unfortunate consequences. Alan Root tells of a crowned crane that fell in love with a standpipe. Here is a thoughtful piece about social attitudes and the law where people are involved.