(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘biology

“Consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms. For consciousness is absolutely fundamental. It cannot be accounted for in terms of anything else.”*…

Representation of consciousness from the seventeenth century by Robert Fludd, an English Paracelsian physician (source)

… but that doesn’t mean that we won’t attempt to answer “the hard problem of consciousness.” Indeed, as Elizabeth Fernandez notes, some scientists are using Schrödinger’s own work to try…

Supercomputers can beat us at chess and perform more calculations per second than the human brain. But there are other tasks our brains perform routinely that computers simply cannot match — interpreting events and situations and using imagination, creativity, and problem-solving skills. Our brains are amazingly powerful computers, using not just neurons but the connections between the neurons to process and interpret information.

And then there is consciousness, neuroscience’s giant question mark. What causes it? How does it arise from a jumbled mass of neurons and synapses? After all, these may be enormously complex, but we are still talking about a wet bag of molecules and electrical impulses.

Some scientists suspect that quantum processes, including entanglement, might help us explain the brain’s enormous power, and its ability to generate consciousness. Recently, scientists at Trinity College Dublin, using a technique to test for quantum gravity, suggested that entanglement may be at work within our brains. If their results are confirmed, they could be a big step toward understanding how our brain, including consciousness, works… 

More on why maybe the brain isn’t “classical” after all: “Brain experiment suggests that consciousness relies on quantum entanglement,” from @SparkDialog in @bigthink.

For an orthogonal view: “Why we need to figure out a theory of consciousness.”

* Erwin Schrödinger

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As we think about thinking, we might spare a thought for Alexius Meinong; he died on this date in 1920. A philosopher, he is known for his unique ontology and for contributions to the philosophy of mind and axiology– the theory of value.

Meinong’s ontology is notable for its belief in nonexistent objects. He distinguished several levels of reality among objects and facts about them: existent objects participate in actual (true) facts about the world; subsistent (real but non-existent) objects appear in possible (but false) facts; and objects that neither exist nor subsist can only belong to impossible facts. See his Gegenstandstheorie, or the Theory of Abstract Objects.

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“Let there be bass”*…

Sometimes, it really is all about that bass…

A recent study in the journal Current Biology found that people danced 12% more when very low frequency bass was played.

The study was done by scientists at the LIVElab at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, who wanted to see what musical ingredients make us want to dance.

“We look at things like what kinds of rhythms most pull people into that steady beat that we groove along with, and what kinds of interesting, syncopated, complex rhythms make us really drawn in and want to move more,” said Daniel Cameron, a neuroscientist and the lead author of the study.

Now, the lab for this experiment wasn’t the classic fluorescent lights, white coats and goggles setup. Instead, the LIVElab space was converted into an electronic dance music concert, and EDM duo Orphx performed live for volunteers adorned with headbands that had a motion capture sensor.

The lab was equipped with special special speakers that can play a very low frequency bass, undetectable to the human ear. The set lasted about an hour, and researchers introduced that very low bass every 2.5 minutes, and found that the concertgoers moved more when the speakers were on – even though they couldn’t hear it.

“It’s the inner-ear structures that give us a sense of where our head is in space,” he said. “That system is sensitive to low-frequency stimulation, especially if it’s loud.”

“We also know that our tactile system, that’s our sense of touch … is also sensitive to low-frequency stimulation, low-frequency sound.”…

“And that’s feeding into our motor system in the brain, the movement control system in our brain,” Cameron said. “So it’s adding a little bit of gain. It’s giving a little more energy … from that stimulation through those systems.”…

What makes us dance? It really is all about that bass,” from @NPR.

For more on ultra-low frequency sounds and their effects, see “How low can you go?“; and lest we think this phenomenon restricted to humans, “Watch These Rats ‘Dance’ to the Rhythms of Mozart, Lady Gaga, and Queen.”

Leo Fender

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As we go low, we might recall that it was on this date in 1792, during George Washington’s first term as president, that the first edition of The Farmer’s Almanac was published.  (It became The Old Farmer’s Almanac in 1832 to distinguish itself from similarly-titled competitors.)  Still going strong, it is the oldest continuously-published periodical in the U.S.

Almanac

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 25, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Uniformity is not nature’s way; diversity is nature’s way”*…

The U.S. boasts an impressively vast array of agricultural and botanical species. In an attempt to document that fact, The United States Department of Agriculture collected over 7,500 botanical watercolour paintings of evolving fruit and nut varieties in its Pomological Watercolor Collection, assembled between 1886 and 1942…

Independent publishing house Atelier Éditions is now revisiting this documentation of American pomology with the release of its latest book: An Illustrated Catalog of American Fruits & Nuts. “I came across the collection a few years back while researching botanical artworks,” says Pascale Georgiev, editorial director of Atelier. “There was such potential for a book with this collection, and it fits with our way of building archival or collection-based volumes.” The book is a biophilic wonder, with beautiful images of fruits popping with gentle colours and careful watercolour work. Accompanying them are often texts by well-versed experts, giving a fascinating insight into the agriculture behind the produce.

“We only produce and consume a handful of varieties today, mainly hybrids that cater to our desire for a certain sweetness, juiciness, smoothness, even specific shapes and lack of seeds,” says Pascale on the importance of the book’s current publication. “In some respects, the collection is a time capsule, and a reminder about the importance of diversity and conservation,” she adds…

Joey Levenson in discussion with Pascal: “We talk to Atelier Éditions about its new Illustrated Catalog of American Fruits & Nuts,” in @itsnicethat. More at Atelier Éditions.

Vandana Shiva

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As we fancy favorite fruits, we might carefully compose a birthday greeting to Pierre Athanase Larousse, the French grammarian and lexicographer, born in Toucy on this date in 1817.  In 1856 Larousse and his partner Augustin Boyer published the New Dictionary of the French Language, the forerunner of the Petit Larousse.   On December 27, 1863 the first volume of Larousse’s masterwork, the great encyclopedic dictionary, the Grand dictionnaire universel du XIXe siècle (Great Universal 19th-Century Dictionary), appeared.

The cover of the first Larousse French dictionary (1856)

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Then, in 1938, the Larousse publishing house published an encyclopedia of gastronomy, Larousse Gastronomique edited by Prosper Montagne.

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And Happy Mole Day (or to be more precise, October 23 at 6:02 pm, in honor of Avogadro’s number: 6.02 x 1023 items are in a mole — it’s the chemist’s version of a dozen)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 23, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Life is a whim of several billion cells to be you for a while”*…

An AI-designed xenobot (parent organism, C shape, red) sweeping up stem cells that have been compressed into a ball (incipient offspring, green)

The more we understand how cells produce shape and form, Philip Ball explains, the more inadequate the idea of a genomic blueprint looks…

Where in the embryo does the person reside? Morphogenesis – the formation of the body from an embryo – once seemed so mystifying that scholars presumed the body must somehow already exist in tiny form at conception. In the 17th century, the Dutch microscopist Nicolaas Hartsoeker illustrated this ‘preformationist’ theory by drawing a foetal homunculus tucked into the head of a sperm.

This idea finds modern expression in the notion that the body plan is encoded in our DNA. But the more we come to understand how cells produce shape and form, the more inadequate the idea of a genomic blueprint looks, too. What cells follow is not a blueprint; if they can be considered programmed at all, it’s not with a plan of what to make, but with a set of rules to guide construction. One implication is that humans and other complex organisms are not the unique result of cells’ behaviour, but only one of many possible outcomes.

This view of the cell as a contingent, constructional entity challenges our traditional idea of what a body is, and what it can be. It also opens up some remarkable and even disconcerting possibilities about the prospects of redirecting biology into new shapes and structures. Life suddenly seems more plastic and amenable to being reconfigured by design. Understanding the contingency and malleability of multicellular form also connects us to our deep evolutionary past, when single-celled organisms first discovered the potential benefits of becoming multicellular. ‘The cell may be the focus of evolution, more than genes or even than the organism,’ says Iñaki Ruiz-Trillo of the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona. Far from the pinnacle of the tree of life, humans become just one of the many things our cells are capable of doing.

In one of the most dramatic demonstrations to date that cells are capable of more than we had imagined, the biologist Michael Levin of Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts and his colleagues have shown that frog cells liberated from their normal developmental path can organise themselves in distinctly un-froglike ways. The researchers separated cells from frog embryos that were developing into skin cells, and simply watched what the free cells did.

Culturing cells – growing them in a dish where they are fed the nutrients they need – is a mature technology. In general, such cells will form an expanding colony as they divide. But the frog skin cells had other plans. They clustered into roughly spherical clumps of up to several thousand cells each, and the surface cells developed little hairlike protrusions called cilia (also present on normal frog skin). The cilia waved in coordinated fashion to propel the clusters through the solution, much like rowing oars. These cell clumps behaved like tiny organisms in their own right, surviving for a week or more – sometimes several months – if supplied with food. The researchers called them xenobots, derived from Xenopus laevis, the Latin name of the African clawed frog from which the cells were taken.

Levin and colleagues have recently found a new type of behaviour that xenobots can exhibit. They discovered that these pseudo-organisms can even replicate, after a fashion. Xenobots placed in a dish of cells will move to marshal those loose cells into piles that, over the course of a few days, cluster into new xenobots that then take off through the liquid themselves. Left to their own devices, the xenobots typically manage to produce only a single generation of offspring. But the researchers wondered if they could do better. They made computer simulations to search for xenobot shapes that were better at making new xenobots, using an AI program devised by their team member Josh Bongard of the University of Vermont. The simulations suggested that structures like C-shaped half-doughnuts could sweep up cells more efficiently than the spheroidal xenobots could, making larger (spherical) clusters of ‘offspring’.

The work shows that, by combining biological xenobots with the exploratory power of AI, it’s possible to make a kind of ‘living machine’ devised for a purpose. ‘AI can be brought in to exaggerate an innate capability,’ says Bongard. ‘The AI can “program” new behaviours into organisms by rearranging their morphology rather than their genes.’ The researchers wonder if the simulations might identify other shapes that can assemble different structures, or perhaps perform other tasks entirely. ‘One of my primary interests in this project is exactly how ‘far’ from the wild type [the natural, spontaneously arising form of xenobots] an AI can push things,’ says Bongard. ‘We’re now working on incorporating several new behaviours into xenobots via AI-driven design.’

This perspective entails a new way of thinking about cells: not as building blocks assembled according to a blueprint, but as autonomous entities with skills that can be leveraged to make all manner of organisms and living structures. You might conceive of them as smart, reprogrammable, shapeshifting robots that can move, stick together, and signal to one another – and, by those means, build themselves into elaborate artifacts.

This might also be a better way to conceptualise how our own bodies are built during embryogenesis…

The generative potential of cells equipped for multicellular construction was evident almost as soon as this became a lifestyle option, in evolutionary terms. In the Cambrian explosion around 540 million years ago, all manner of strange body shapes appeared, many of which are no longer exhibited by any creatures on Earth. Perhaps we should regard those forgotten ‘endless forms most beautiful’, to borrow Charles Darwin’s resonant phrase, as an illustration of the constructive potential of the metazoan cell – an exuberant expression of the palette of solutions to the problem of cell assembly, which natural selection then stringently pruned.

Acknowledging that the human form is a contingent outcome of the way our cells are programmed for construction raises some mind-bending questions. Are there, for example, human xenobots (perhaps we might call them anthrobots)? If so, are they truly ‘human’? Might there be a kind of organ or tissue that our cells could make but don’t normally get the chance to? Might our still cells ‘remember’ older evolutionary body shapes?…

How our understanding of genetics is changing– a fascinating dispatch from the frontiers of experimental biology: “What on earth is a xenobot?,” from @philipcball in @aeonmag. Eminently worth reading in full.

* Groucho Marx

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As we ponder possibility, we might spare a thought for Hans Spemann; he died on this date in 1941. An embryologist, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1935 for his discovery of embryonic induction, an effect involving several parts of the embryo in directing the development of the early group of cells into specific tissues and organs.

In a way that can be said to have foreshadowed the work described above, Spemann showed that the in the earliest stage, tissue may be transplanted to different areas of the embryo, where it then develops based on the new location and not from where it came. (For example, early tissue cut from an area of nervous tissue might be moved to an area of skin tissue where it then grows into the same form as the surrounding skin.)

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 12, 2022 at 1:00 am

“What is the pattern that connects the crab to the lobster and the primrose to the orchid, and all of them to me, and me to you?”*…

Crab-like body plans have evolved independently at least five times. As Jason P. Dihn explains, biologists are still trying to figure out exactly why…

In 1989, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould proposed a thought experiment: What would the world look like if we turned back time and replayed the evolutionary tape? “I doubt that anything like Homo sapiens would ever evolve again,” he concluded. Maybe not. But crabs might.

Evolution just can’t stop creating crabs. Believe it or not, the flat-and-wide body plan has evolved at least five different times. The process is called carcinization, and it’s inspired comics, memes and entire subreddits.

Still, biologists don’t know why crabs keep evolving. Figuring it out would satisfy the online masses, sure, but it would also be a step toward solving other important scientific mysteries. For instance, why some species share evolutionary paths while others forge unique ones (looking at you, platypus)…

Convergent evolution: “Evolution Only Thinks About One Thing, and It’s Crabs,” from @JasonPDinh in @DiscoverMag.

Will crabs need to (re-)evolve a sixth time? “Alaska’s snow crabs have disappeared. Where they went is a mystery.”

(Image above: source)

* Gregory Bateson

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As we fiddle with phylogeny, we might spare a thought for Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild; he died on this date in 1937. A British banker, politician and soldier, he is best remembered for his pursuit of his passion— zoology and his collection of species. At its largest, Rothschild’s collection included 300,000 bird skins, 200,000 birds’ eggs, 2,250,000 butterflies and 30,000 beetles, as well as thousands of specimens of mammals, reptiles, and fishes. They formed the largest zoological collection ever amassed by a private individual (and are now part of the Natural History Museum). He named dozens of animal taxa, published Novitates Zoologicae, and authored or co-authored scores of scientific papers.

Related: “How Bird Collecting Evolved Into Bird-Watching.”

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 27, 2022 at 1:00 am

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