(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘biology

“There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread”*…

 

We stand at the precipice if we don’t re-evaluate our understanding of poverty and inequality. The narrative in the neo-liberal west is that if you work hard, things work out. If things don’t work out, we have the tendency to blame the victim, leaving them without any choices. Brexit, Le Pen, and the defeat of Hillary Clinton are examples of the cracks that result from inequality and poverty, symptoms of my childhood experience writ large. The Piketty pitchforks are out, and the march to global disorder can only be arrested by adopting measures that begin to price in the stacked deck that I and anyone else born into deep poverty sees, and resents.

I believe we will see the Italian Five Star Movement submit a referendum to leave the EU this year, and that Marine Le Pen has better than even odds of winning the French election. The EU is in danger of buckling under a globalist defeat and may exist in name only two years from now.

These trends are being accelerated by the blind belief that the poor have failed to seize the opportunities that the market or globalization has created. This myth deserves to be taken off life support—and the emerging, empirical, and carefully observed science of poverty can help us do so if we pay it the attention it deserves…

A powerful plea for a fundamental re-understanding of the economic inequality that vexes our society, and of the myth of meritocracy that has helped sustain it: “Why Poverty Is Like a Disease.”

* Mahatma Gandhi

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As we agree with FDR that “the test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little,” we might recall that this date in 1907 was “Bloody Tuesday.”  The San Francisco streetcar strike, which had begun two days earlier, erupted into violence when armed strikebreakers fired into an angry crowd of strike supporters.  Soon armed strike sympathizers returned fire.  2 died; 20 were injured.

Armed strike breaker, left, shoots into the crowd on Bloody Tuesday, May 7, 1907. The original caption in The San Francisco Examiner said that “Photographer Coleman” took the picture “the moment before the man running beside him was fatally shot.”

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Written by LW

May 7, 2017 at 1:01 am

“When you have mastered numbers, you will in fact no longer be reading numbers, any more than you read words when reading books. You will be reading meanings.”*…

Errors of judgment about large numbers can have a big impact on the way you view policies and government decisions. The rationale goes like this: The National Science Foundation received $7.463 billion for fiscal year 2016 through the Consolidated Appropriations Act. The total United States budget outlay for 2016 was $3.54 trillion. If you’re someone who perceives the difference between a billion and a trillion as relatively small, you’d think the US is spending a lot of money on the National Science Foundation—in fact, depending on your politics, you might applaud the federal government’s investment or even think it wasteful. But, if you understand that a billion is a thousand times less than a trillion, you can calculate that the Foundation got a paltry 0.2 percent of the budget outlay last year. (It may be more straightforward to think of the budget as roughly one-half to one-third of reported costs for the proposed US-Mexico border wall, and let your values guide you from there.)…

On the significance of scale: “How to Understand Extreme Numbers.

[The image above is, of course, from the ever-wonderful xkcd.]

* W.E.B. Du Bois

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As we nudge ourselves toward numeracy, we might spare a thought for Sewall Wright; he died on this date in 1988.  A geneticist, he was known for his influential work on evolutionary theory and also for his work on path analysis. He was a founder (with Ronald Fisher and J.B.S. Haldane) of population genetics– a major step in the development of the modern evolutionary synthesis combining genetics with evolution.   He is perhaps best remembered for his concept of genetic drift (called the Sewall Wright effect): when small populations of a species are isolated, the few individuals who carry certain relatively rare genes may fail, out of pure chance, to transmit them. The genes may therefore disappear and their loss may lead to the emergence of new species– although natural selection has played no part in the process.

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Written by LW

March 3, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Widespread public access to knowledge, like public education, is one of the pillars of our democracy, a guarantee that we can maintain a well-informed citizenry”*…

 

Top Row (left to right): André Breton; Buster Keaton; László Moholy-Nagy   Middle Row (left to right): Gertrude Stein; H. G. Wells; Frank O’Hara; Alfred Stieglitz   Bottom Row (left to right): Evelyn Waugh; D. T. Suzuki; Paul Nash; Mina Loy

Via Public Domain Review

Pictured above is our top pick of those whose works will, on 1st January 2017, enter the public domain in many countries around the world. Of the eleven featured, five will be entering the public domain in countries with a “life plus 70 years” copyright term (e.g. most European Union members, Brazil, Israel, Nigeria, Russia, Turkey, etc.) and six in countries with a “life plus 50 years” copyright term (e.g. Canada, New Zealand, and many countries in Asia and Africa) — those that died in the year 1946 and 1966 respectively. As always it’s a varied gaggle who’ve assembled for our graduation photo, including the founder of the Surrealist movement, a star of the silent film era, the Japanese author behind the popularisation of Buddhism in the West, two female writers at the heart of the Modernist scene, and one of the “fathers of science fiction”…

More on each of the “graduates” at Class of 2017.

* Scott Turow, attorney, author, President of the Author’s Guild

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As we share and share alike, we might send foresightful birthday greetings to Erasmus Darwin; he was born on this date in 1731.  Erasmus was an accomplished doctor (he declined an offer to be personal physician to Charles III).  He was also a restless inventor, devising both a copying machine and a speaking machine to impress his friends (inventions he shared rather than patenting). But he is better remembered as a key thinker in the “Midlands Enlightenment”– a founder of the Lunar Society of Birmingham and author of (among other works) The Botanic Garden, a poem that anticipates the Big Bang theory in its description of an explosion, a “mass” which “starts into a million suns,” and Zoonomia, or, The Laws of Organic Life, which contained one of the first formal theories of evolution… one that foreshadowed the theories of Erasmus’ reader– and grandson– Charles… all of which are in the public domain.

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“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

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