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Posts Tagged ‘biology

“Science is a process”*…



Paul Klee, “The Bounds of the Intellect,” 1927 (detail)


When my grandfather died last fall, it fell to my sisters and me to sort through the books and papers in his home in East Tennessee. My grandfather was a nuclear physicist, my grandmother a mathematician, and among their novels and magazines were reams of scientific publications. In the wood-paneled study, we passed around great sheaves of papers for sorting, filling the air with dust.

My youngest sister put a pile of yellowing papers in front of me, and I started to leaf through the typewritten letters and scholarly articles. Then my eyes fell on the words fundamental breakthroughspectacular, and revolutionary. Letters from some of the biggest names in physics fell out of the folders, in correspondence going back to 1979.

In this stack, I found, was evidence of a mystery. My grandfather had a theory, one that he believed to be among the most important work of his career. And it had never been published…

The remarkable– and illuminating– story of Veronique (Nikki) Greenwood’s quest to determine whether her grandfather was “a genius or a crackpot”: “My Grandfather Thought He Solved a Cosmic Mystery.”

* T.S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolution


As we note that the history of science is, effectively, the history of the instruments developed to help us “see” things smaller, larger, smaller, farther, or outside our human sensory range, we might recall that it was on this date in 1664 that natural philosopher, architect and pioneer of the Scientific Revolution Robert Hooke showed an advance copy of his book Micrographia— a chronicle of Hooke’s observations through various lens– to members of the Royal Society.  The volume (which coined the word “cell” in a biological context) went on to become the first scientific best-seller, and inspired broad interest in the new science of microscopy.

source: Cal Tech

Note that the image above is of an edition of Micrographia dated 1665.  Indeed, while (per the above) the text was previewed to the Royal Society in 1664 (to wit the letter, verso), the book wasn’t published until September, 1665.  Note too that Micrographia is in English (while most scientific books of that time were still in Latin)– a fact that no doubt contributed to its best-seller status.


Written by LW

November 4, 2018 at 1:01 am

“From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved”*…



This Tree of Life diagram is based primarily on the evolutionary relationships so wonderfully related in Dr. Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale, and timetree.org. The smallest branches are purely illustrative. They are intended to suggest the effect of mass extinctions on diversity, and changes in diversity through time. This diagram is NOT intended to be a scholarly reference tool! It is intended to be an easy-to-understand illustration of the core evolution principle; we are related not only to every living thing, but also to everything that has ever lived on Earth

Climb around in The Interactive Tree of Life Explorer.

* Charles Darwin


As we ponder our progenitors, we might a thought for Kenneth Page Oakley; he died on this ate in 1981.  An anthropologist, paleontologist, and geologist, he  developed a method of dating fossilized bones by measuring their fluoride levels (based on a French mineralogist’s theory that bones would gradually absorb fluoride from surrounding soil).  He was able to use his technique, in 1953, to expose the “Piltdown Man” skull as a forgery.  It had been “unearthed” in 1912, in Piltdown, England, and had for decades been said to represent the “missing link” in human evolution.

Oakley source


Written by LW

November 2, 2018 at 1:01 am

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



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)


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”*…



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


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.”



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


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”*…



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


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


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.



Written by LW

March 24, 2018 at 1:01 am

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