Posts Tagged ‘biology’
The local men rounded up 30 wild horses and mules from the surrounding savannah in the plains of Venezuela and forced them into a muddy pool of water filled with electric eels. It was March 19, 1800, and Alexander von Humboldt, a Prussian explorer, naturalist and geographer, was intent to conduct an open-air experiment on the power of the eels’ shock. He and his retinue watched as the fish emerged from their muddy refuge in the bottom of the pond and gathered on the surface of the water. The eels shot electric shocks, and within a few minutes, two of the horses were already stunned and drowned.
The locals kept corralling the wild horses into the pond as the eels continued to attack. An unlikely drawing produced four decades later even depicts the eels leaping right out of the water, flying through the air towards the flanks of terrified horses…
While it’s a pivotal point of the second volume of von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America During the Years 1799-1804, the sensationalist nature of the explorer’s account and the related illustration have raised eyebrows among most modern eel biologists.
“It’s what you might call a great fish story from [von Humboldt’s] adventures in South America,” says Kenneth Catania, a professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt University and the author of a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
I thought that was crazy,” Catania says. Electric eels, while fascinating animals that do use their shocking power to hunt and protect themselves, had not been known to leap out of the water or intentionally attack larger creatures. “I didn’t believe that that was likely to have happened.”
Until he witnessed it himself…
Watch ’em fly at “Science Proves Electric Eels Can Leap From Water to Attack.”
* Little Orphan Annie
As we rethink our sushi orders, we might send aquatic birthday greetings to Sir John Arthur Thomson; he was born on this date in 1861. A naturalist and Professor of Natural History at Aberdeen University in Scotland, Thomson was his time’s leading expert in the marine life of his region. He authored many books, some academic accounts of his biological research, others aimed at popularizing science (The Outline of Science was a best-seller) or at reconciling science and religion. And he gave the prestigious Gifford Lecture in 1914 and 1916 (an honor that he has shared, over time, with William James, Alfred North Whitehead, John Dewey, Henri Bergson, Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Hannah Arendt, Niels Bohr, Freeman Dyson, and Steven Pinker, among others).
“Nothing can better cure the anthropocentrism that is the author of all our ills than to cast ourselves into the physics of the infinitely large (or the infinitely small)”*…
* Julio Cortázar,
As we step on the scales, we might send fiendishly ingenious birthday greetings to Rube Goldberg; he was born on this date in 1883. A cartoonist, sculptor, author, engineer, and inventor, he is best remembered as a satirist of the American obsession with technology for his series of “Invention” cartoons which used a string of outlandish tools, people, plants, and steps to accomplish simple, everyday tasks in the most complicated possible way. (His work has inspired a number of “Rube Goldberg competitions,” the best-known of which, readers may recall, has been profilled here.)
Goldberg was a founder and the first president of the National Cartoonists Society, and he is the namesake of the Reuben Award, which the organization awards to the Cartoonist of the Year.
… Or so Schopenhauer argues.
Neuroscientists from Charité –Universitätsmedizin Berlin have run an experiment, using a “duel” game between human and brain-computer interface (BCI), to find out “Do we have free will?”
* Arthur Schopenhauer
As we act as though we do, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to Paul Karl Feyerabend; he was born on this date in 1924. A student of Karl Popper, Feyerabend became a philosopher, largely concerned (as was his mentor) with the practice and communication of science. He came to be a opponent of rigid understandings of “the scientific method” and a critic of rules that might, in their arbitrariness and constraint, both alienate scientists from the people (general humanity) the are meant to serve and impede scientific progress. For this, he was often accused of having an anarchistic view of science; in any case, he seems clearly to have believed in a scientist’s free will.
As an increasing number of folks “modify” their bodies, hacking them to add (often electronic) enhancements, the Age of Radical Evolution is upon us…
Dallas is at the center of two movements that are each trying to bring implants to the mainstream. Tattoo artists and technophiles head one, and well-heeled university neurologists and medical device engineers form the vanguard of the other.
The fringe commercial types, who design and inject mail-order devices into their bodies, call themselves “grinders.” The high-end researchers, with advanced degrees and government contracts, call themselves “bioengineers.” They have radically different approaches, but they’re actually pulling humanity in the same direction — toward a fusion of hardware and wetware by incorporating technology into the body.
The prime driver of both of these movements is the shrinking size of wireless electronics. Implanted electronic devices are not new; surgeons in Sweden installed the first heart pacemakers in 1958 and researchers first implanted cochlear implants to mitigate hearing loss in the 1970s. But this is the iPhone generation, and electronics have grown small and powerful enough to appear in some unlikely places…
* George Saunders, “Buddha Boy,”
As we conspire in our futures, we might send bio-identifiable birthday greetings to Sir Alec John Jeffreys; he was born on this date in 1950. A geneticist, Sir Alec discovered and developed the techniques of DNA fingerprinting and profiling, used for unique identification of humans, animals and other organisms from their DNA material.
“I think no question containing ‘either/or’ deserves a serious answer, and that includes the question of gender”*…
In the US, as in much of the world, trans people are often unable to access the healthcare they need. For many people transitioning, finding a doctor willing or able to help, let alone a clinic that offers hormonal treatment, can be costly and difficult.
Ryan Hammond, an artist and tactical biologist based in Baltimore, wants to make the process easier using genetically modified plants. He plans to engineer transgenic tobacco plants to produce gender hormones like estrogen and testosterone, allowing anyone to grow their own supplements at home.
To do this, Hammond is attempting to crowdfund $22,000, which would cover the costs of his training, lab access, and living costs for a year at Pelling Lab in Ottawa, Canada. Hammond has a background in art and has been working in a community biohacking lab in Baltimore called BUGSS, where he been exploring Synthetic Biology and learning new techniques in the field…
[image above: source]
As we think analog, not digital, we might spare a thought for Joshua Abraham Norton, better known as “Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico; he was buried on this date in 1880. An immigrant from South Africa, Norton became disgruntled with what he considered the inadequacies of the legal and political structures of his adopted home. On September 17, 1859, he took matters into his own hands and distributed letters to the various newspapers in the city, proclaiming himself “Emperor of these United States”:
At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the last 9 years and 10 months past of S. F., Cal., declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these U. S.; and in virtue of the authority thereby in me vested, do hereby order and direct the representatives of the different States of the Union to assemble in Musical Hall, of this city, on the 1st day of Feb. next, then and there to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring, and thereby cause confidence to exist, both at home and abroad, in our stability and integrity.
—NORTON I, Emperor of the United States
Norton issued a number of decrees, some of them visionary (e.g., the establishment of a League of Nations, the construction of a bridge connecting San Francisco and Oakland). Ignored by the local, state, and national governments, he spent his days inspecting San Francisco’s streets in an elaborate blue uniform with gold-plated epaulettes, given to him by officers of the United States Army post at the Presidio of San Francisco.
Norton died in poverty; but a group of San Francisco businessmen, members of the Pacific Club, established a funeral fund and arranged a suitably-dignified farewell. The Emperor’s funeral cortege was two miles long; the procession and ceremony were attended by an estimated 10-30,000 people– at a time when San Francisco had only 230,000 residents.
“The reason some portraits don’t look true to life is that some people make no effort to resemble their pictures”*…
In Stranger Visions artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg creates portrait sculptures from analyses of genetic material collected in public places. Working with the traces strangers unwittingly leave behind, Dewey-Hagborg calls attention to the impulse toward genetic determinism and the potential for a culture of biological surveillance. Designed as an exploratory project based on emerging science, the forecast of Stranger Visions has proved prescient. For an example of DNA phenotyping at work in forensics check out the companies Parabon NanoLabs and Identitas and read about their collaboration with the Toronto police. Also see Mark Shriver’s research at Penn State on predicting faces from DNA…
As we strike a pose, we might send twisted birthday greetings to Francis Harry Compton Crick; he was born on this date in 1916. A biochemist and biophysicist, Crick shared (with James Watson and Maurice Wilkins– but not, surely unjustly, with Rosalind Franklin) the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for the determination of the molecular structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the chemical substance ultimately responsible for hereditary control of life functions– a cornerstone of genetics, widely regarded as one of the most important discoveries of 20th-century biology.
For about a billion years, life on earth was a relatively simple proposition: it was composed entirely of single-celled organisms (prokaryotes) in either the bacteria or archaea families. Then, about 2.1 billion years ago, one of those single-celled critters crawled inside another; the two merged, and a new kind of life– multi-cellular (eukaryotic) life– was born…
This inner cell—a bacterium—abandoned its free-living existence and eventually transformed into mitochondria. These internal power plants provided the host cell with a bonanza of energy, allowing it to evolve in new directions that other prokaryotes could never reach.
If this story is true, and there are still those who doubt it, then all eukaryotes—every flower and fungus, spider and sparrow, man and woman—descended from a sudden and breathtakingly improbable merger between two microbes. They were our great-great-great-great-…-great-grandparents, and by becoming one, they laid the groundwork for the life forms that seem to make our planet so special. The world as we see it (and the fact that we see it at all; eyes are a eukaryotic invention) was irrevocably changed by that fateful union—a union so unlikely that it very well might not have happened at all, leaving our world forever dominated by microbes, never to welcome sophisticated and amazing life like trees, mushrooms, caterpillars, and us.
Read the extraordinary story of how one freakish event may well account for all sophisticated life on earth in “The unique merger that made You (and Ewe, and Yew).”
* Lao Tzu
As we fill out our family trees, we might send microscopic birthday greetings to Carl Woese; he was born on this date in 1928. A microbiologist, Woese recognized and defined (in 1977) the existence of archaea as a third domain of life, distinct from the two previously-recognized domains, bacteria and “life other than bacteria” (eukaryotes). The discovery revolutionized the understanding of the “family tree” of life. And the technique he used to make it– phylogenetic taxonomy of 16S ribosomal RNA— revolutionized the practice of microbiology.