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Posts Tagged ‘biology

“Now I can look at you in peace; I don’t eat you any more.”…

 

TulaneFishArchiveInterior

Hidden in a bend of the Mississippi River just south of New Orleans, 29 concrete bunkers lie on a grid of dirt and grass roads. Some hold remnants from the past—40-year-old gas masks and biohazard signs still hang on a wall. Most of them have been abandoned for decades. But inside two of those bunkers, 15 million fish eyes stare at the walls through the glass of their jars. This is the Royal D. Suttkus Fish Collection, the largest collection of preserved fish in the world, and almost no one knows it exists…

More of the story– and explore the collection– at “A Pair of WWII Bunkers in New Orleans Contains 7 Million Fish.”

* Franz Kafka (commenting on his then new-found vegetarianism)

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As we ponder preservation, we might spare a thought for David Starr Jordan; he died on this date in 1931.  The leading ichthyologist of his time, he was also an educator and advocate for science.  He became the youngest President of Indiana University, then founding President of Stanford; he was an expert witness at the Scopes Trial, testifying for the efficacy of the theory of evolution.

His career was not unblemished however: he helped cover up the murder of Jane Stanford, and argued in favor of eugenics.

220px-Portrait_of_David_Starr_Jordan source

 

 

“Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents”*…

 

st-patrick-snakes

During St. Patrick’s Day, most revelers won’t remember the patron saint of Ireland for his role as a snake killer. But legend holds that the Christian missionary rid the slithering reptiles from Ireland‘s shores as he converted its peoples from paganism during the fifth century A.D.

St. Patrick supposedly chased the snakes into the sea after they began attacking him during a 40-day fast he undertook on top of a hill. An unlikely tale, perhaps—yet Ireland is unusual for its absence of native snakes. It’s one of only a handful of places worldwide—including New Zealand, Iceland, Greenland, and Antarctica—where Indiana Jones and other snake-averse humans can visit without fear.

But St. Patrick had nothing to do with Ireland’s snake-free status, scientists say….

Find out what actually happened to those snakes at : “Snakeless in Ireland: Blame Ice Age, Not St. Patrick.”

[image above: source]

* Luke 10:12

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As we just say no to serpents, we might send chronically-correct birthday greetings to Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon; he was born on this date in 1707.  A naturalist, mathematician, cosmologist, and encyclopédiste, Buffon formulated a crude theory of evolution, and was the first to suggest that the earth might be older than suggested by the Bible: in 1778 he proposed that the Earth was hot at its creation and, judging from the rate of its cooling, calculated its age to be 75,000 years, with life emerging some 40,000 years ago.

In 1739 Buffon was appointed keeper of the Jardin du Roi, a post he occupied until his death. There he worked on the comprehensive work on natural history for which he is remembered, Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière. He began in 1749, and it dominated the rest of his life.  It would eventually run to 44 volumes, covering quadrupeds, birds, reptiles and minerals.  As Max Ernst remarked, “truly, Buffon was the father of all thought in natural history in the second half of the 18th century.”

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Written by LW

September 7, 2018 at 1:01 am

“It would be a very naive sort of dogmatism to assume that there exists an absolute reality of things which is the same for all living beings”*…

 

Clockwork sized-archive-trunk

Detail of the nerves of the trunk from Cerebri Anatome 1664 by Thomas Willis

 

The model of nature as a complex, clockwork mechanism has been central to modern science ever since the 17th century. It continues to appear regularly throughout the sciences, from quantum mechanics to evolutionary biology. But for Descartes and his contemporaries, ‘mechanism’ did not signify the sort of inert, regular, predictable functioning that the word connotes today. Instead, it often suggested the very opposite: responsiveness, engagement, caprice. Yet over the course of the 17th century, the idea of machinery narrowed into something passive, without agency or force of its own life. The earlier notion of active, responsive mechanism largely gave way to a new, brute mechanism…

The idea that nature is a humming, complex, clockwork machine has been around for centuries. Is it due for a revival? “Alive and Ticking.”

* Ernst Cassirer, An Essay on Man: An Introduction to a Philosophy of Human Culture

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As we muse on the mechanical, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Loren Eiseley; he was born on this date in 1907.  An anthropologist, educator, philosopher, and natural science writer, he was one of the preeminent literary naturalists of our time.   Publishers Weekly called him “the modern Thoreau.” Fellow science writer Orville Prescott praised him as a scientist who “can write with poetic sensibility and with a fine sense of wonder and of reverence before the mysteries of life and nature.” And Ray Bradbury, praising Eiseley’s “The Unexpected Universe,” remarked, “[Eiseley] is every writer’s writer, and every human’s human… One of us, yet most uncommon…”

You can find his annotated bibliography here.

220px-Eiseley_UPenn source

 

Written by LW

September 3, 2018 at 1:01 am

“All you can do is hope for a pattern to emerge”*…

 

smiling_baby_10-1024x576

If you construct a Lego model of the University of London’s Senate House – the building that inspired the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four – the Lego blocks themselves remain unchanged. Take apart the structure, reassemble the blocks in the shape of the Great Pyramid of Giza or the Eiffel Tower, and the shape, weight and colour of the blocks stay the same.

This approach, applied to the world at large, is known as atomism. It holds that everything in nature is made up of tiny, immutable parts. What we perceive as change and flux are just cogs turning in the machine of the Universe – a huge but ultimately comprehensible mechanism that is governed by universal laws and composed of smaller units. Trying to identify these units has been the focus of science and technology for centuries. Lab experiments pick out the constituents of systems and processes; factories assemble goods from parts composed of even smaller parts; and the Standard Model tells us about the fundamental entities of modern physics.

But when phenomena don’t conform to this compositional model, we find them hard to understand. Take something as simple as a smiling baby: it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to explain a baby’s beaming smile by looking at the behaviour of the constituent atoms of the child in question, let alone in terms of its subatomic particles such as gluons, neutrinos and electrons. It would be better to resort to developmental psychology, or even a narrative account (‘The father smiled at the baby, and the baby smiled back’). Perhaps a kind of fundamental transformation has occurred, producing some new feature or object that can’t be reduced to its parts.

The notion of emergence can help us to see what’s going on here. While atomism is all about burrowing down to basic building blocks, emergence looks upward and outward, to ask whether strange new phenomena might pop out when things get sufficiently large or complex…

Does everything in the world boil down to basic units – or can emergence explain how distinctive new things arise?  Paul Humphreys helps us understand at “Out of nowhere.”

[Image above: source]

* Chuck Palahniuk, Lullaby

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As we forage for the fundamental, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Ernest Everett Just; he was born on this date in 1883.  A pioneering biologist, academic, and science writer, he contributed mightily to the understanding of cell division, the fertilization of egg cells, experimental parthenogenesis, hydration, cell division, dehydration in living cells, and the effect of ultra violet rays on egg cells.

An African-American, he had limited academic prospects on his graduation from Dartmouth, but was able to land a teaching spot at Howard University.  Just met  Frank R. Lillie, the head of the Department of Zoology at the University of Chicago and director of the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) at Woods Hole, Mass.  In 1909 Lillie invited Just to spend first one, then several summers at Woods Hole, where Just pioneered the study of whole cells under normal conditions (rather than simply breaking them apart in a laboratory setting).  In 1915, Just was awarded the first Spingarn Medal, the highest honor given by the NAACP.

But outside MBL, Just experienced discrimination.  Seeking more opportunity, he spent most of the 1930s in various European universities– until the outbreak of WW II hostilities caused him to return to the U.S. in late 1940.  He died of pancreatic cancer the next year.

Ernest_Everett_Just source

 

Written by LW

August 14, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The earth laughs in flowers”*…

 

The first flower?

With the incredible diversity of flowers that exist today—from pinprick-sized duckweed to the meters-high blooms of a corpse flower—it’s hard to imagine that they all descend from just a single species. Charles Darwin himself wrung his hands over how flowering plants exploded in diversity early in their evolution. Now, researchers have figured out what the ancestral flower might have looked like. The study may help them uncover how flowers took over the world.

Fossils are the surest way to learn about organisms that lived in the past, but these are hard to come by for early flowers: The earliest preserved blossoms date back some 130 million years—at least 10 million years after the time when researchers think the ancestor of all flowering plants was alive. But there is another way to learn about species that are long gone: by taking a careful look at the forms of their modern descendants, and tracing the history of those forms back to the trunk of their family tree.

To that end, dozens of researchers participating in the eFLOWER project amassed data from scientific papers to create the largest database of the structures of modern flowers, like their sexual organs and the layouts of their petals. The analysis included more than 13,000 data points spanning back to a 1783 description by famous evolutionary biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Combining those data with a DNA-based family tree and information about fossils, the scientists tested millions of configurations of how flowers may have changed through time to determine the most likely structure and shape for the earliest flowers.

Though the team’s reconstructed ancestral flower [pictured above] doesn’t look radically different than many modern flowers, it does have a combination of traits not found today…

Pick (up) the tale in toto at: “The world’s first flower may have looked like this.”

* Ralph Waldo Emerson

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As we cultivate our gardens, we might send fecund birthday greetings to Sidney Walter Fox; he was born on this date in 1912.  A biochemist interested in the biological origin of life, he studied the synthesis of amino acids from inorganic molecules.  He gave the name proteinoid to the protein-like polymer that results from a mixture of amino acids subjected to such considerable heating as would be present during the volcanic primordial earth (in the “primordial soup” as it’s colloquially known).  Fox observed that when proteinoids or “thermal proteins,” are placed in water, they self-organize into microspheres or protocells, possible precursors of the contemporary living cell.  Fox argued that RNA or DNA need not date back to the origin of life; and he showed that proteinoid “microspheres,” as he called them, exhibit growth, metabolism, reproduction (by budding), and responsiveness to stimuli – all properties of life – though without a genetic system.

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Written by LW

March 24, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Energy is liberated matter, matter is energy waiting to happen”*…

 

We’ve certainly come a long way since the ancient Greek atomists speculated about the nature of material substance, 2,500 years ago. But for much of this time we’ve held to the conviction that matter is a fundamental part of our physical universe. We’ve been convinced that it is matter that has energy. And, although matter may be reducible to microscopic constituents, for a long time we believed that these would still be recognizable as matter—they would still possess the primary quality of mass.

Modern physics teaches us something rather different, and deeply counter-intuitive. As we worked our way ever inward—matter into atoms, atoms into sub-atomic particles, sub-atomic particles into quantum fields and forces—we lost sight of matter completely. Matter lost its tangibility. It lost its primacy as mass became a secondary quality, the result of interactions between intangible quantum fields. What we recognize as mass is a behavior of these quantum fields; it is not a property that belongs or is necessarily intrinsic to them.

Despite the fact that our physical world is filled with hard and heavy things, it is instead the energy of quantum fields that reigns supreme. Mass becomes simply a physical manifestation of that energy, rather than the other way around…

Modern physics has taught us that mass is not an intrinsic property: “Physics Has Demoted Mass.”

* Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

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As we watch all that is solid melt into air, we might spare a jaundiced thought for Trofim Denisovich Lysenko; he died on this date in 1976.  A Soviet biologist and agronomist, he believed the Mendelian theory of heredity to be wrong, and developed his own, allowing for “soft inheritance”– the heretability of learned behavior. (He believed that in one generation of a hybridized crop, the desired individual could be selected and mated again and continue to produce the same desired product, without worrying about separation/segregation in future breeds.–he assumed that after a lifetime of developing (acquiring) the best set of traits to survive, those must be passed down to the next generation.)

In many way Lysenko’s theories recall Lamarck’s “organic evolution” and its concept of “soft evolution” (the passage of learned traits), though Lysenko denied any connection. He followed I. V. Michurin’s fanciful idea that plants could be forced to adapt to any environmental conditions, for example converting summer wheat to winter wheat by storing the seeds in ice.  With Stalin’s support for two decades, he actively obstructed the course of Soviet biology and caused the imprisonment and death of many of the country’s eminent biologists who disagreed with him.

Interestingly, some current research suggests that heritable learning– or a semblance of it– may in fact be happening, by virtue of epigenetics… though nothing vaguely resembling Lysenko’s theory.

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Written by LW

November 20, 2017 at 1:01 am

“We can learn a lot from trees: they’re always grounded but never stop reaching heavenward”*…

 

Cook pines at U.C. Irvine

… or reaching in some direction, anyway:

California’s Cook pines have a weird characteristic. The towering trees lean conspicuously to one side, always toward the south, as though buffeted by years of strong winds.

But no one really understands why.

So a few years ago, botanists from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo took up the mystery. They collected data from 100 or so trees in California. Every one leaned south.

Then came an “aha” moment.

The scientists reached out to a colleague in Australia and asked him to check the Cook pines there. What he told them was “crazy,” said Jason Johns, who was the lead author of a study drawn from the research.

“The pattern was there,” he said, “just in the opposite direction.” The trees appeared to be leaning toward the Equator, a trait never before documented in the plant kingdom.

Cook pines are native to New Caledonia, an archipelago in the South Pacific, but they’ve spread the globe, including thousands in California. The Cal Poly researchers found that the leaning pattern held with measurements from Cook pines taken on five Continents.

According to their calculations, the odds that it resulted from chance, said Mr. Johns, “were point zero, zero, with like 14 zeros in front of it. It was pretty clear.”

The why, however, remains an open question.

Mr. Johns was reluctant to venture a theory. Pressed, he talked about a cell process called “signaling cascade” and the interplay between growth, sunlight and gravity.

The Cook pine discovery, he offered, was an example of how far science has to go in understanding the way the world works.

“As you know with anything,” he said, “the more you uncover, the more you realize how little you know.”

The biological compass.

* Everett Mamor

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As we orient to due south, we might spare a thought for Herbert Faulkner Copeland; he died on this date in 1968.  An biologist, he delineated four biological kingdoms, instead of the (then-canonical) two for plants and animals.  A decade after Darwin’s Origin of Species, Ernst Haekel had proposed (1866) adding a kingdom, Protista, for microorganisms, but it was never adopted.  Copeland further discriminated among the microorganisms in a paper in 1938, splitting them into two kingdoms: Monera and Protista.  Copeland identified Monera as organisms without nuclei, and Protista as being largely unicellular, with nuclei.  By 1956, he published a book, The Classification of Lower Organisms, still trying “to persuade the community of biologists” to adopt these four kingdoms.  Change came slowly, but continues now beyond Copeland’s ideas to five or six.  He was the son of botanist Edwin B. Copeland, from whom he learned the principles of classification.

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Written by LW

October 15, 2017 at 1:01 am

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