(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘biology

“Poetry is the art of creating imaginary gardens with real toads”*…

Olivia Fanny Tonge , A Toad, c. 1905

Before the swallow, before the daffodil, and not much later than the snowdrop, the common toad salutes the coming of spring after his own fashion, which is to emerge from a hole in the ground, where he has lain buried since the previous autumn, and crawl as rapidly as possible towards the nearest suitable patch of water. Something – some kind of shudder in the earth, or perhaps merely a rise of a few degrees in the temperature – has told him that it is time to wake up: though a few toads appear to sleep the clock round and miss out a year from time to time – at any rate, I have more than once dug them up, alive and apparently well, in the middle of the summer.

At this period, after his long fast, the toad has a very spiritual look, like a strict Anglo-Catholic towards the end of Lent. His movements are languid but purposeful, his body is shrunken, and by contrast his eyes look abnormally large. This allows one to notice, what one might not at another time, that a toad has about the most beautiful eye of any living creature. It is like gold, or more exactly it is like the golden-coloured semi-precious stone which one sometimes sees in signet rings, and which I think is called a chrysoberyl…

From George Orwell (in 1946): “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad.” From The Orwell Foundation, via Berfrois.

* Marianne Moore


As we appreciate amphibians, we might we might recall that it was on this date in 1913 that cartoonist John Randolph (J.R.) Bray first exhibited his animated film, “The Artist’s Dream” (later retitled “The Dachshund and the Sausage” for reasons that will be obvious).  Bray was not the first animator; indeed, he was following purposefully in the steps of fellow cartoonist Windsor McCay, who had added animations of “Little Nemo” and “How a Mosquito Operates” to his stage presentations.  But Bray earned a place in the history of the art by being among the first– arguably the first– animator to organize his work and his studio according to the principles of industrial production (that’s to say, with division of labor)– an approach that has survived to this day.



“I like it when a flower or a little tuft of grass grows through a crack in the concrete. It’s so f#@kin’ heroic.”*…

From dilapidated power plants, abandoned medical facilities, and amusement parks left in rusted ruin, the compelling scenes that French photographer Jonathan Jimenez, aka Jonk (previously), captures are evidence of nature’s endurance and power to reclaim spaces transformed by people. Now compiled in a new book titled Naturalia II, 221 images shot across 17 countries frame the thriving vegetation that crawls across chipped concrete and architecture in unruly masses.

This succeeding volume is a follow-up to Jonk’s first book by the same name and focuses on the ways the ecological crisis has evolved during the last three years. He explains the impetus for the book in a statement:

On the one hand, the situation has deteriorated even further with yet another species becoming extinct every single day. Global warming continues and has caused repeated natural catastrophes: floods, fires, droughts, etc. On the other hand, our collective awareness has widely increased. We are still a long way from the commitment needed to really change things, but we are heading in the right direction. Millions of initiatives have already emerged, and I hope that my photos and the message contained within them can play a small part in the collective challenge facing us all…

More at “Nature Resurges to Overtake Abandoned Architecture in a New Book of Photos by Jonk” and at his site.

On an apposite note: “Forest the size of France regrown worldwide over 20 years, study finds.”

* George Carlin


As we inspect the inexorable, we might spare a thought for Hugo Marie de Vries; he died on this date in 1935. A botanist, he introduced the experimental study of organic evolution– and was, thus, was one of the first geneticists. His rediscovery in 1900 (simultaneously with the botanists Carl Correns and Erich Tschermak von Seysenegg) of Gregor Mendel’s principles of heredity and his theory of biological mutation, though considerably different from a modern understanding of the phenomenon, resolved ambiguous concepts concerning the nature of variation of species that, until then, had precluded the universal acceptance and active investigation of Charles Darwin’s system of organic evolution.

He suggested the concept of genes and introduced the term “mutation”, and developed a mutation theory of evolution.


“To be overly concerned with the original materials, which are merely sentimental souvenirs of the past, is to fail to see the living building itself”*…

The human body replaces its own cells regularly. Scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, have finally pinned down the speed and extent of this “turnover.” About a third of our body mass is fluid outside of our cells, such as plasma, plus solids, such as the calcium scaffolding of bones. The remaining two thirds is made up of roughly 30 trillion human cells. About 72 percent of those, by mass, are fat and muscle, which last an average of 12 to 50 years, respectively. But we have far more, tiny cells in our blood, which live only three to 120 days, and lining our gut, which typically live less than a week. Those two groups therefore make up the giant majority of the turnover. About 330 billion cells are replaced daily, equivalent to about 1 percent of all our cells. In 80 to 100 days, 30 trillion will have replenished—the equivalent of a new you…

Our Bodies Replace Billions of Cells Every Day: “A New You in 80 Days.”

* Douglas Adams, Last Chance to See


As we sail on the Ship of Theseus, we might spare a thought for Hans Ernst August Buchner; he died on this date in 1902. A bacteriologist, he was a pioneer in the field of immunology, the first to discover a substance in blood, gamma globulins, natural bactericides capable of destroying bacteria.  He also worked with his brother Eduard Buchner, a chemist who won the Nobel Prize in 1907 for his work on fermentation (which helped pave the way for our understanding of the work of enzymes); Ernst had died in 1902, and so did not share in the honor.


“He was a killer, a thing that preyed, living on the things that lived, unaided, alone, by virtue of his own strength and prowess, surviving triumphantly in a hostile environment where only the strong survive”*…

One notes that there are only three states with unique predators: two with apex predators– Alaska (the polar bear); Florida (the crocodile)– and Hawaii (the domestic cat). A ‘o ia!

The largest land predators in each state. (TotH to @simongerman600)

* Jack London, The Call of the Wild


As we watch our backs, we might spare a thought for Alexander Emmanuel Rodolphe Agassiz; he died on this date in 1910. Following in his father‘s footsteps, he made important contributions to systematic zoology, serving as curator of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology (1873-85), which was founded by his father.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 27, 2021 at 1:01 am

“Do you think that the soul first shows itself by a gnashing of teeth?”*…

In January 2020, as a new plague began to upend life on Earth, a small research team from Tufts, the University of Vermont, and Harvard announced that they, too, had turned life on Earth upside-down. Their discovery wasn’t quite so dramatic at first glance. Any regular person peering through a microscope at their creation would see little more than a few globs of dirty pond water in a petri dish. But those globs were alive; in fact, they were alive in a way that nothing has ever been alive before, in an uncharted space between biology and technology. They called them Xenobots, the world’s first living robot—the world’s first programmable organism.

Xenobot: Xeno as in Xenopus laevis, a voracious frog native to the wetlands of Sub-Saharan Africa; bot, of course, as in robot. It’s an unconventional name for an unconventional organism, so novel that even its makers struggle to conceptualize it. “The terminology that has served us well for many years is just not any good anymore,” concedes Michael Levin, the team’s iconoclastic biologist. His collaborator Josh Bongard, a computer scientist and robotics expert, has called Xenobots “novel living machines.” Sam Kriegman—the team’s postdoc—prefers the term “Computer Designed Organism,” although he’s been trying on “living deepfake” for size recently.

And they’re all right, in a way. Xenobots are deepfakes in the sense that they aren’t what they seem. They’re robots in the sense that they’re autonomous, programmable agents. They’re Computer Designed in the sense that their morphology—the form their tiny bodies take—was designed by an evolutionary computer algorithm in Bongard’s UVM lab. They’re living in the sense that they’re made of embryonic frog cells, and they’re machines in the sense that humans are machines: biological mechanisms made up of constituent parts.

Xenobots are the first living creatures whose immediate evolution occurred inside a computer and not in the biosphere. The result is a simple organism. Xenobots have no brains; the shape of their bodies is what determines how they behave. And yet, Levin and Bongard do not fully understand why Xenobots behave the way they do. “What you’re seeing de novois a completely novel creature with new proto-cognitive capacities, preferences, capabilities, IQ,” Levin explains. “All of those things appear out of nowhere.” Sometimes a Xenobot will head in one direction and then abruptly double back, as though changing its mind. What force guides such behaviors? Can a frog’s cells, in some way, think? Xenobots seem to have “nano free-will,” Levin jokes.

And this is where the can of worms—or tadpoles, maybe—pops open…

The word “robot” recently celebrated its centennial. It comes from the Czech playwright Karel Čapek’s 1920 play “Rossum’s Universal Robots,” about a worker uprising in a robot factory. Čapek’s robots are biological, the result of a vaguely alchemical process involving “albumen” with a “raging thirst for life.” Our conception of a robot as being something metallic, with clanging gears and servo-motors, is more recent baggage, a consequence of the science-fiction stories and films of the mid-twentieth century. In order to understand what Xenobots might mean for our future, we’ll have to divest ourselves from the idea that a robot—or any kind of autonomous being—can be wholly defined by its materiality…

As Norbert Weiner, the father of cybernetics, observed: “Let us remember that the automatic machine is the precise economic equivalent of slave labor. Any labor which competes with slave labor must accept the economic consequences of slave labor.”

Claire Evans (@TheUniverse) explains how “Xenobots may change how we think about intelligence.”

For apposite background, see also “The Link Between Bioelectricity and Consciousness.”

Karel Čapek, R.U.R. (Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti, or in English, Rossum’s Universal Robots)


As we ponder life itself, we might recall (with, perhaps, a touch of nostalgia) that it was on this date in 1959 that Texas Instruments (TI) demonstrated the first working integrated circuit (IC), which had been invented by Jack Kilby. Kilby created the device to prove that resistors and capacitors could exist on the same piece of semiconductor material. His circuit consisted of a sliver of germanium with five components linked by wires. It was Fairchild’s Robert Noyce, however, who filed for a patent within months of Kilby and who made the IC a commercially-viable technology. Both men are credited as co-inventors of the IC. (Kilby won the Nobel Prize for his work in 2000; Noyce, who died in 1990, did not share.)


Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 24, 2021 at 1:01 am

%d bloggers like this: