25 February 2013

"Book of the Week"

...at The Book Depository (25 Feb):

P.S. On 3 March: Cara Fielder for Waterstone's Blog chose Barely Imagined Beings as one of her top ten for Mother's Day

24 February 2013

"The real littleness of ourselves"

It is not the soft power of humanity, it is not that feeble spark of benevolence which Nature has lighted up in the human heart, that is thus capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love. It is a stronger power, a more forcible motive, which exerts itself upon such occasions. It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct. It is he who, whenever we are about to act so as to affect the happiness of others, calls to us, with a voice capable of astonishing the most presumptuous of our passions, that we are but one of the multitude, in no respect better than any other in it; and that when we prefer ourselves so shamefully and so blindly to others, we become the proper objects of resentment, abhorrence, and execration. It is from him only that we learn the real littleness of ourselves, and of whatever relates to ourselves, and the natural misrepresentations of self-love can be corrected only by the eye of this impartial spectator. It is he who shows us the propriety of generosity and the deformity of injustice; the propriety of resigning the greatest interests of our own, for the yet greater interests of others, and the deformity of doing the smallest injury to another, in order to obtain the greatest benefit to ourselves.
-- from The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith (1759) quoted by Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011).

23 February 2013

An illusion of being

Much of what we take for granted about our inner lives, from visual perception to memories, is little more than an elaborate construct of the mind. The self is just another part of this illusion.
And it seems to serve us well. In that respect, the self is similar to free will, another fundamental feature of the human experience now regarded by many as an illusion. Even as the objective possibility of free will erodes, our subjective experience of it remains unchanged: we continue to feel and act as though we have it.
The same will surely be true about the self. The illusion is so entrenched, and so useful, that it is impossible to shake off. But knowing the truth will help you understand yourself – and those around you – better.
-- Richard Fisher in one of a package of articles on the self, in which Michael Bond notes that the self is, in large part, a social construct.

22 February 2013

Big bird

On page 298 of The Book of Barely Imagined Beings I describe Stirton's Thunder Bird, which could grow three metres tall and weigh half a tonne as "probably the largest bird ever to have lived." 

Sebastian Robinson, a reader, recently got in touch with the following:
According to my limited information (Extinct Birds by Errol Fuller), there have in historic times been birds both taller than Stirton's, and about as heavy. 
According to Fuller, the moas (genus Dinornis) "were all truly spectacular birds, the tallest known examples towering to heights in excess of 3.6m (12 ft)."  Just when they died out seems to be a confused and controversial question, but at least one species is listed as having disappeared after 1600 -- and there are vague reports of individual giant flightless birds in New Zealand as late as the 19th century. 
When it comes to heavy birds, Aepyornis maximus, the Elephant Bird of Madagascar, seems from its remains to have been pretty much in the Stirton's class: an estimate (Amadon 1947) put the weight of A. maximus at 454 kg (1,000 lb), or about three and a third times the weight of a full-grown ostrich. Fuller suggests a potentially limiting factor to even larger size: "Engineers calculate that structurally and functionally it is impossible for an egg to be bigger [than Aepyornis's 30-cm long monster]; they may not be right, of course!"
Drawing of Dromornis stirtoni by Nobu Tamura.

21 February 2013

Wolf children

In Train Dreams, Denis Johnson tells of a child that has been raised by wolves and has become wolf-like.  The description is especially vivid, as if the reality were seen by flashes of lightning.

Is it credible, though, that a child can adapt and change to such a degree?  Most supposedly documented cases of wild children turn out to be bogus or distorted.  Even so, intelligent people continue to find them plausible.  Shinichi Suzuki included the following in his book Nurtured By Love (English translation 1983):
In 1941, two professors from Denver and Yale universities received an account of a valuable piece of research. A priest in India had found two small children who had been raised by a wolf. One was about two years old and the other about seven...The discovery was made northwest of Calcutta in a jungle zone...
     Head, breast and shoulders of both children were covered with thick hair, After it was cut, they looked like human beings.
     In the wolf's cave, the infants crawled on all fours, their eyes seeing clearly in the dark. Their noses were extremely sensitive. They ran fast on all fours, like a dog, and people could not overtake them. Their shoulders were wide, their legs powerful, with bent thighs that would not stretch out straight. They grasped things with their mouths, not with their hands...

19 February 2013

Trophic cascade

Wiping out top predators like lions, wolves and sharks is tragic, bad for ecosystems – and can make climate change worse. Mass extinctions of the big beasts of the jungles, grasslands and oceans could already be adding to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
-- report, original paper.

It looks as if, across a range of terrestrial and marine ecosystems, climates and predators, carbon dioxide emissions typically increased more than tenfold after the predators are removed.

(Photo by Brian Skerry: Gray reef shark at Kingman Reef, where predator populations remain large)

17 February 2013

A many legged beast

Extra legs sprouting on frogs, first observed in North America in the 1990s, were found to be caused by the parasitic flatworm Ribeiroia, writes Carl Zimmer:
Ribeiroia starts out life in snails. It grows and reproduces inside the snails, which it castrates so that they don’t waste time on making eggs or looking for a mate. In its castrated host, the parasite produces a new generation of flatworms that can escape the snail and swim in search of a vertebrate host. They typically infect fish or tadpoles. When they invade tadpoles, the parasites bury themselves in the tiny buds that will eventually grow into legs.
An apparent increase in the rate of these deformities may be due to increased concentrations of pesticides in the ponds in which the frogs live. Pesticides can kill off the parasites but they also lower the defenses of the frogs, which may lead to higher infections.

A paper in Nature suggests another factor in the success of leg-deforming parasites: declining biodiversity. In ponds with 'high' biodiversity – up to six species of amphibians – the parasites do much worse at getting transmitted than in low diversity ponds. This is not a small difference: there is a 78.5% decline in deformed frogs in high-diversity sites.

15 February 2013

Machines of Nature

Those effects of Bodies, which have been commonly attributed to Qualities, and those confess’d to be occult, are perform’d by the small Machines of Nature.
-- Robert Hooke, quoted by Philip Ball

Image: kinesin

12 February 2013

Sound and light

The most powerful tool we have for understanding the universe is right between our two ears. And those same ears provide a wealth of information beyond what our eyes can actually see. When we open up our ears and open up our minds, we open up ourselves to an entirely new way of understanding the universe.
-- Robert Alexander, Using the Sun to Make Music


9 February 2013

Far life

Lichens and algae could be the first life forms we find on Earth-like exoplanets, by looking for their light signatures in a planet's distinctive colouring.
-- original article, report

From the department of tortuous animal metaphors

‘America is the global tiger and Japan is Asia’s wolf and both are now madly biting China’, Colonel Liu Mingfu the National Defence University in Beijing is quoted as having said. ‘Of all the animals, Chinese people hate the wolf the most.’... Liu advised Australia to be a ‘kind-hearted lamb’; to that end China would ‘discourage it from being led astray’. He further opined that: ‘Australia should never play the jackal for the tiger or dance with the wolf.’
Geremie R Barmé

8 February 2013


What a chimera is man! What a novelty, what a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sewer of uncertainty and error, the glory and the scum of the universe.
Blaise Pascal, quoted by Steven Pinker in an epigraph to The Better Angels of Our Nature

7 February 2013

Life in "the world’s largest wetland"

Scientists say they have found bacteria living in the cold and dark deep under half a mile of Antarctic ice, a discovery that might advance knowledge of how life could survive on other planets or moons and that offers the first glimpse of a vast ecosystem of microscopic life in underground lakes in Antarctica.
-- New York Times report

P.S. 8 March Russian scientist claim to have found new kind of bacterial life in Lake Vostok.

6 February 2013

Beyond syntax to semantics

...Ethologists who study animal behaviour increasingly accept the idea that fear keeps animals away from predators, lust draws them toward each other, panic motivates their social solidarity and care glues their parent-offspring bonds. Just like us, they have an inner life because it helps them navigate their outer life...

...After you spend time with wild animals in the primal ecosystem where our big brains first grew, you have to chuckle at the reigning view of the mind as a computer...Our rational mind is truly embodied, and without this emotional embodiment we have no preferences. In order for our minds to go beyond syntax to semantics, we need feelings. And our ancestral minds were rich in feelings before they were adept in computations...The brain that ‘feels’ precedes the brain that ‘thinks’...
-- Stephen T. Asma.

Asma's On Monsters is referenced in this post.

5 February 2013

Old mind

What made animals the real stars of ice-age art? It may be because this art reflects a long-lost system of religious belief that saw animals as supernatural creatures, divine beings, gods.

It was the mammoth, the bison and the horse that captured the imaginations of these artists and inspired their greatest work...The modern human mind begins with the same questions about gods and monsters, the same curiosity about nature and capacity for fantasy, that have shaped it ever since.
-- Jonathan Jones.

See A bestiary of 25,000 years.

Psychedelic smiley face

The Superb Bird of Paradise:

More here, here and here.

4 February 2013

The space around the line

...we would assume that what it is we meant

would have been listed in some book set down
beyond the sky's far reaches, if at all
there was some purpose here. But now I think
the purpose lies in us all and that we fall

into an error if we do not keep
our own true notebook of the way we came,
how the sleet stung, or how a wandering bird
cried at the window...
-- lines from The Lost Notebooks of Loren Eiseley, quoted by Esther Woolfson in Field Notes from a Hidden City

"Our life is not the line, but the space around that line", writes Nat Case

3 February 2013


A Tibetan mystic saying goes: We are here to realize the illusion of our separateness. The spiritual sentiment has a biological cognate. Our xenotropic drive — to merge with what is not us, temporarily in sex, or permanently in symbiosis or cross-species hybrids — is more than a metaphor. But it also offers spiritual solace. When we hook up with another, in sex or love (or, more rarely, both) we prove that our isolation is not permanent. In the fullness of time, we may all be linked...
-- from Death and Sex by (Tyler Volk and) Dorion Sagan quoted by Maria Popova

2 February 2013

"Living crystals"

Spontaneous formation of colonies of bacteria or flocks of birds are examples of self-organization in active living matter. Here, we demonstrate a form of self-organization from nonequilibrium driving forces in a suspension of synthetic photoactivated colloidal particles. They lead to two-dimensional "living crystals," which form, break, explode, and reform elsewhere...
-- from Living Crystals of Light-Activated Colloidal Surfers

1 February 2013

Příhody lišky Bystroušky

The Cunning Little Vixen, at once a charming children's tale and a profound allegory of modern life, may be Janáček's greatest achievement. It begins innocuously, as a folksy old forester -- as a child Janáček dreamed of being a forester -- captures a fox cub and brings her to his home. She runs amok, slaughters the chickens, and in banished to the woods. There she finds a handsome lover and woos him to music that parodies Wagnerian opera, notably Strauss in his kitschier moods. In Act III, the vixen is felled by a rifle shot, and the opera takes on an altogether different tone. In the final scene the forester steps out of his folk tale role and meditates on the passage of time. He seems to be musing about the very opera that he's in. "Is this fairy tale or reality? Reality or fairy tale?" The forester falls asleep, and when he wakes the animals of the woods surround hum. He sees fox cubs play and realizes that they are the vixen's children. He then catches a little frog in his hand, thinking he's seeing the same "clammy little monster" whom he met in the first scene of the opera.
Forester: Where have you come from?
Frog: That wasn't me, that was grandpa! They told me all about you.
In other words, the animals of the forest have been telling stories about the forester over the course of their brief lives, as if he were a hero from long ago. In the disjuncture between human and animal time we see him -- and ourselves -- across an immense space.
 -- from The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross