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Posts Tagged ‘biology

“That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim”*…

 

universe

 

What does it mean to be alive? Science, shockingly, still doesn’t have a consensus. For example, is it fair to say that the novel coronavirus now sweeping the world is alive? The short answer is there isn’t one agreed-upon answer — for something so basic, you’d think life would be easier to define.

The first recorded definition of life came from Aristotle in ancient Greece, around 350 BC. He posited that to be alive, something must grow, maintain itself, and reproduce. In contrast, the most well-known modern definition is probably NASA’s, which says living things must be “a self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution.” Take, for example, great apes: given appropriate resources like food and water, the “machinery” of a great ape — its organs and nervous system — regulates itself, keeping the great ape functioning in most conditions. They are also capable of evolution — just look at us. But this isn’t the only accepted definition of life. There are actually over 100 published definitions!

A lot of the debate comes down to the fact that the various fields of science approach the topic quite differently. A geneticist, whose focus is on known organisms and their genomes, will very likely have a different view on what constitutes life than an astrophysicist, who considers a more expansive, universal definition.

But beyond that, most of these definitions of life fall short in another, very subtle way: They are based on the origins of life on our planet. This means our hypotheses for what sentient and conscious aliens look like almost always reflect humankind. You only have to look at a Star Trek episode to see it — humanity likes to make the world in our image, which is partially why in sci-fi and fantasy a lot of the “aliens” look a lot like ourselves. (Okay, and because it’s easier to dress a human up as a humanoid alien)…

Cal Tech scientist (and published poet) Alison Koontz explains why none of the 100 definitions of life we have may be accurate away from “home”: “Our concept of life is too Earth-centric — alien life might look totally different.”

* Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Slaughterhouse-Five

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As we confront our chauvinism, we might send speculative birthday greetings to Harlan Jay Ellison; he was born on this date in 1934.  A member (with Philip K. Dick, Samuel Delany, Thomas Disch, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Roger Zelazny) of the American “new wave” science fiction vanguard, Ellison wrote more than 1,700 short stories, novellas, screenplays, comic book scripts, teleplays, essays, and a wide range of criticism covering literature, film, television, and print media.  Some of his best-known work includes the Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever“, his A Boy and His Dog cycle, and his short stories “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” and “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman“… for which he won many, many awards, including multiple Hugos, Nebulas, and Edgars.

Ellison is also remembered for his outspoken, sometimes combative personality, of which Robert Bloch (the author of Psycho) said “[Ellison is] the only living organism I know whose natural habitat is hot water.”

200px-Harlan_Ellison_at_the_LA_Press_Club_19860712_(cropped_portrait)

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Written by LW

May 27, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Time … thou ceaseless lackey to eternity”*…

 

600BC-chronus-deity

Source art: Chronos and His Child by Giovanni Francesco Romanelli

 

The human mind has long grappled with the elusive nature of time: what it is, how to record it, how it regulates life, and whether it exists as a fundamental building block of the universe…

Quanta‘s fascinating timeline traces our evolving understanding of time through a history of observations in culture, physics, timekeeping, and biology: “Arrows of Time

* Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece

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As we try to Be Here Now, we might send amusingly insightful birthday greetings to Richard Philips Feynman; he was born on this date in 1918.  A theoretical physicist, Feynman was probably the most brilliant, influential, and iconoclastic figure in his field in the post-WW II era.

Richard Feynman was a once-in-a-generation intellectual. He had no shortage of brains. (In 1965, he won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on quantum electrodynamics.) He had charisma. (Witness this outtake [below] from his 1964 Cornell physics lectures [available in full here].) He knew how to make science and academic thought available, even entertaining, to a broader public. (We’ve highlighted two public TV programs hosted by Feynman here and here.) And he knew how to have fun. The clip above brings it all together.

– From Open Culture (where one can also find Feynman’s elegant and accessible 1.5 minute explanation of “The Key to Science.”)

 

Written by LW

May 11, 2020 at 1:01 am

“When I feel like exercising, I just lie down until the feeling goes away”*…

 

exercise

 

The oldest film included on the National Film Registry of the US Library of Congress features a pale boy calmly swinging a pair of wooden clubs, apparently as part of an exercise routine. Approximately twelve seconds long, Newark Athlete was directed by the Scottish inventor and early associate of Thomas Edison, William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson, in collaboration with cinematographer William Heise at Edison’s laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey, sometime in the late spring of 1891.

Though the wooden clubs brandished by the Newark athlete in this jumpy fragment are now a thing of the past, evidence of their influence can still be seen…

Though largely forgotten today, exercise by club swinging was all the rage in the 19th century.  Daniel Elkind explores the rise of the phenomenon in the U.S., and how such efforts to keep trim and build muscle were inextricably entwined with the history of colonialism, immigration, and capitalist culture: “Eastern Sports and Western Bodies– the ‘Indian Club’ in the United States.”

* Paul Terry (founder of the Terrytoons animation studio)

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As we revise our routines, we might send healthy birthday greetings to William Cumming Rose; he was born on this date in 1887.  After a grounding in the sciences at Davidson College, Rose became a biochemist and nutritionist whose work focused on understanding amino acids.  His research determined the necessity for essential amino acids (amino acids that the body cannot itself synthesize) in diet and the minimum daily requirements of all amino acids for optimal growth.  In the course of his work, he identified the amino acid acid threonine.

wrose source

 

“All things play a role in nature, even the lowly worm”*…

 

worm

Artist’s rendering of Ikaria wariootia. It would have lived on the seafloor.

 

A worm-like creature that burrowed on the seafloor more than 500 million years ago may be key to the evolution of much of the animal kingdom.

The organism, about the size of a grain of rice, is described as the earliest example yet found in the fossil record of a bilaterian.  These are animals that have a front and back, two symmetrical sides, and openings at either end joined by a gut.

The scientists behind it say the development of bilateral symmetry was a critical step in the evolution of animal life.

It gave organisms the ability to move purposefully and a common, yet successful way to organise their bodies.

A multitude of animals, from worms to insects to dinosaurs to humans, are organised around this same basic bilaterian body plan.

Scott Evans, of the University of California at Riverside, and colleagues have called the organism Ikaria wariootia

How a 555 million year old worm paved our developmental path: “Fossil worm shows us our evolutionary beginnings.”  Read the underlying paper in the journal PNAS.

* Gary Larson

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As we celebrate symmetry, we might recall that it was on this date in 1858 that Hyman L. Lipman, of Philadelphia was issued the first U.S. patent for a combination lead pencil and eraser (No. 19,783).  The pencil was made in the usual manner, with one-fourth of its length reserved inside one end to carry a piece of prepared india-rubber, glued in at one edge.  Thus, cutting one end prepared the lead for writing, while cutting the other end would expose a small piece of india rubber.  This eraser was then conveniently available whenever needed, and not likely to be mislaid.  Further, the eraser could be sharpened to a finer point to make a more precise erasure of fine lines in a drawing, or cut further down if the end became soiled.

US19783-drawings-page-1 source

 

Written by LW

March 30, 2020 at 1:01 am

“We have nothing to fear and a great deal to learn from trees”*…

 

bristlecone

 

About forty-five hundred years ago, not long after the completion of the Great Pyramid at Giza, a seed of Pinus longaeva, the Great Basin bristlecone pine, landed on a steep slope in what are now known as the White Mountains, in eastern California. The seed may have travelled there on a gust of wind, its flight aided by a winglike attachment to the nut. Or it could have been planted by a bird known as the Clark’s nutcracker, which likes to hide pine seeds in caches; nutcrackers have phenomenal spatial memory and can recall thousands of such caches. This seed, however, lay undisturbed. On a moist day in fall, or in the wake of melting snows in spring, a seedling appeared above ground—a stubby one-inch stem with a tuft of bright-green shoots.

Most seedlings die within a year; the mortality rate is more than ninety-nine per cent. The survivors are sometimes seen growing in the shadow of a fallen tree. The landscape of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, as this area of the White Mountains is called, is littered with fragments of dead trees—trunks, limbs, roots, and smaller chunks. Pinus longaeva grows exclusively in subalpine regions of the Great Basin, which stretches from the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada to the Wasatch Range, in Utah. Conditions are generally too arid for the dead wood to rot; instead, it erodes, sanded down like rock. The remnants may harbor nutrients and fungi that help new trees grow. Bristlecones rise from the bones of their ancestors—a city within a cemetery.

Coast redwoods and giant sequoias, California’s gargantuan world-record-holding trees, can grow fifty feet or more in their first twenty years. Bristlecones rise agonizingly slowly. After four or five years, the seedling on the steep slope would have been just a few inches higher, sprouting needles in place of the embryonic shoots. The needles are a deep green, tough, resinous, and closely bunched, in groups of five. On a mature tree, they live for fifty years or more. Decades may have passed before the tree was human height, and decades more before it resembled a conventional pine. Bristlecone saplings grow straight up, with relatively sparse foliage, looking like undernourished Christmas trees. After a few hundred years—by which time the Old Kingdom of Egypt had fallen—it was probably forty or fifty feet in height.

Many tree species live for hundreds of years. A smaller but not inconsiderable number, including the sequoias and certain yews, oaks, cypresses, and junipers, survive for thousands. Once a bristlecone has established itself in the unforgiving conditions of the White Mountains, it can last almost indefinitely. The trees tend to grow some distance from one another, so fires almost never destroy an entire stand. Because only a few other plant species can handle the dry, cold climate, the bristlecones face little competition. Unlike most plants, they tolerate dolomite soil, which is composed of a chalky type of limestone that is heavily alkaline and low in nutrients. As for insect threats, bristlecone wood is so dense that mountain-pine beetles and other pests can rarely burrow their way into it.

Empires rose and fell; wars raged; people were enslaved and freed; and the tree from 2500 B.C. continued its implacable slow-motion existence, adding about two-hundredths of an inch to the diameter of its trunk each year. Minute changes in the tree-ring record make bristlecones an exceptionally useful source of data about changing conditions on earth. When rains are heavier than normal, the rings widen. When volcanic eruptions cause global cooling, frost rings make the anomaly visible. The precision of these records means that bristlecones have periodically butted into other disciplines: geology, archeology, climatology. In the nineteen-sixties and seventies, the trees contributed to the upending of the canonical theory that Bronze Age civilization had spread westward from Egypt and the Near East. Bristlecones have also affected modern political discourse: the famous “hockey stick graph,” which two decades ago raised awareness of human-driven global warming, relied on bristlecone data…

Bristlecone pines have survived various catastrophes over the millennia, and they may survive humanity: “The Past and Future of the Earth’s Oldest Trees.”

[A grateful TotH to PN]

For a rather different look at bristlecones (as a setting): “‘Anne Brigman: A Visionary in Modern Photography’ at the Nevada Museum of Art.” [TotH to EWW]

* Marcel Proust

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As we take the long view, we might spare a thought for Saint Valentine; he was martyred (beheaded) by Claudius II (for performing unauthorized marriage ceremonies) on this date in 269– an annual occasion observed as been observed as the Feast of Saint Valentine (Saint Valentine’s Day) since 496 AD.  From the High Middle Ages, his Saints’ Day is associated with a tradition of courtly love (and more recently, of course, with sickly-sweet candy hearts).

180px-Leonhard_Beck_-_Heiliger_Valentin_(Veste_Coburg)

Oil painting by Leonhard Beck, circa 1510

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Written by LW

February 14, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Even bad coffee is better than no coffee at all”*…

 

caffeine-coffee

 

You’re reading this with a cup of coffee in your hand, aren’t you? Coffee is the most popular drink in many parts of the world. Americans drink more coffee than soda, juice and tea — combined.

How popular is coffee? When news first broke that Prince Harry and Meghan were considering Canada as their new home, Canadian coffee giant Tim Hortons offered free coffee for life as an extra enticement.

Given coffee’s popularity, it’s surprising how much confusion surrounds how this hot, dark, nectar of the gods affects our biology…

From drip coffee to pourovers to stovetop espresso, the variations in– and the effects of– coffee-based drinks are plenty: The Biology of Coffee.

[Image above, source]

* David Lynch

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As we take a sip, we might recall that it was on this date in 1976 that Sesame Street aired episode #847, featuring Margaret Hamilton reprising her role as the Wicked Witch of the West from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz.  It scared children so badly that the episode has never been re-aired. (This, after she had appeared as herself in three episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, between 1975 and 1976– because Fred Rogers wanted his young viewers to recognize the Wicked Witch was just a character and not something to fear.)

220px-Sesame_Street_Margaret_Hamilton_Oscar_The_Grouch_1976 source

 

Written by LW

February 10, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Just as the twig is bent, the tree’s inclined”*…

 

Crown shyness

 

In certain forests, when you look up you will see a network of cracks formed by gaps between the outermost edges of the tree branches. It looks like a precisely engineered jigsaw puzzle, each branch growing just perfectly so it almost—but not quite—touches the neighboring tree. This beautiful phenomenon is called crown shyness.

Crown shyness doesn’t happen all the time, and scientists aren’t completely certain why it happens at all…

The forest keeps its secrets… Despite decades of study– and a profusion of postulation– no one yet fully understands “The Mysteries of Crown Shyness.”

* Alexander Pope

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As we keep to ourselves, we might spare a thought for Gregor Johann Mendel; he died on this date in 1884. After a profoundly-unpromising start, Mendel became a scientist, Augustinian friar, and abbot of St. Thomas’ Abbey in Brno, Moravia (today’s Czech Republic).  A botanist and plant experimenter, he was the first to lay the mathematical foundation of the science of genetics (of which he is now consider the “Father”).  Over the period 1856-63, Mendel grew and analyzed over 28,000 pea plants.  He carefully studied the height, pod shape, pod color, flower position, seed color, seed shape and flower color of each– and from those observations derived two very important generalizations, known today as the Laws of Heredity.

 source

 

Written by LW

January 6, 2020 at 1:01 am

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