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Posts Tagged ‘biology

“God help us — for art is long, and life so short”*…

 

The creation of a homunculus, an artificially made miniature human, from an 1899 edition of Goethe’s Faust

Making life artificially wasn’t as big a deal for the ancients as it is for us. Anyone was supposed to be able to do it with the right recipe, just like baking bread. The Roman poet Virgil described a method for making synthetic bees, a practice known as bougonia, which involved beating a poor calf to death, blocking its nose and mouth, and leaving the carcass on a bed of thyme and cinnamon sticks. “Creatures fashioned wonderfully appear,” he wrote, “first void of limbs, but soon awhir with wings.”

This was, of course, simply an expression of the general belief in spontaneous generation: the idea that living things might arise from nothing within a fertile matrix of decaying matter. Roughly 300 years earlier, Aristotle, in his book On the Generation of Animals, explained how this process yielded vermin, such as insects and mice. No one doubted it was possible, and no one feared it either (apart from the inconvenience); one wasn’t “playing God” by making new life this way.

The furor that has sometimes accompanied the new science of synthetic biology—the attempt to reengineer living organisms as if they were machines for us to tinker with, or even to build them from scratch from the component parts—stems from a decidedly modern construct, a “reverence for life.” In the past, fears about this kind of technological hubris were reserved mostly for proposals to make humans by artificial means—or as the Greeks would have said, by techne, art…

Philip Ball digs into myth, history, and science to untangle the roots of our fears of artificial life: “Man Made: A History of Synthetic Life.”

* Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust: Part One

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As we marvel that “it’s alive!,” we might send carefully-coded birthday greetings to John McCarthy; he was born on this date in 1927.  An eminent computer and cognitive scientist– he was awarded both the Turning Prize and the National Medal of Science– McCarthy coined the phrase “artificial Intelligence” to describe the field of which he was a founder.

It was McCarthy’s 1979 article, “Ascribing Mental Qualities to Machines” (in which he wrote, “Machines as simple as thermostats can be said to have beliefs, and having beliefs seems to be a characteristic of most machines capable of problem solving performance”) that provoked John Searle‘s 1980 disagreement in the form of his famous Chinese Room Argument… provoking a broad debate that continues to this day.

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“Things require a seed to start from”*…

 

Deep inside a mountain on a remote island in the Svalbard archipelago, halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, lies the Global Seed Vault, a fail-safe seed storage facility, built to stand the test of time — and the challenge of natural or man-made disasters.  The Seed Vault holds the world’s largest collection of crop diversity….

The most important freezer in the world:  more here and here.

* William Shakespeare

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As we ponder preservation, we might send well-contained birthday greetings to Earl Silas Tupper; he was born on this date in 1907.  A businessman and inventor, he is best known as the inventor of Tupperware, a collection of airtight plastic containers for storing food.

The story of Tupper and his wares here.

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Written by LW

July 28, 2016 at 1:01 am

“Leapin’ lizards!”*…

 

Illustration of leaping eels published in 1843 as the frontispiece for The Naturalist Library, Ichthyology, Volume V, Part II, the Fishes of Guiana, by Robert H. Schomburgk, friend of Alexander von Humboldt

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

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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).

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“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)”*…

 

From illustrator John Hendrix, a series of graphics (based on an essay by Gregory Laughlin)–  see them all (and in larger sizes) at “How Big Can Life Get?

* Julio Cortázar, Around the Day in Eighty Worlds

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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.

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Written by LW

July 4, 2016 at 1:01 am

“Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills”*…

 

… 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

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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.

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Written by LW

January 13, 2016 at 1:01 am

“The mind is a machine that is constantly asking: What would I prefer?”*…

 

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…

More at “Body hackers and bioengineers are trying to make DFW a hub of implantable electronics.

* George Saunders, “Buddha Boy,” The Braindead Megaphone

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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.

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Written by LW

January 9, 2016 at 1:01 am

“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…

More at “Queer Artist Launches DIY Gender Hormone Biohacking Project” and at Open Source Gendercodes.

[image above: source]

* Kate Bornstein, Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us

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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.

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Written by LW

January 8, 2016 at 1:01 am

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