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Posts Tagged ‘Life

“To imagine a language is to imagine a form of life”*…

 

Jeremy England is concerned about words—about what they mean, about the universes they contain. He avoids ones like “consciousness” and “information”; too loaded, he says. Too treacherous. When he’s searching for the right thing to say, his voice breaks a little, scattering across an octave or two before resuming a fluid sonority.

His caution is understandable. The 34-year-old assistant professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is the architect of a new theory called “dissipative adaptation,” which has helped to explain how complex, life-like function can self-organize and emerge from simpler things, including inanimate matter. This proposition has earned England a somewhat unwelcome nickname: the next Charles Darwin. But England’s story is just as much about language as it is about biology…

A new theory on the emergence of life’s complexity: “How Do You Say ‘Life’ in Physics?

* Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

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As we resist the urge to simplify, we might send carefully-constructed birthday greetings to Sir Karl Raimund Popper; he was born on this date in 1902.  One of the greatest philosophers of science of the 20th century, Popper is best known for his rejection of the classical inductivist views on the scientific method, in favor of empirical falsification: A theory in the empirical sciences can never be proven, but it can be falsified, meaning that it can and should be scrutinized by decisive experiments. (Or more simply put, whereas classical inductive approaches considered hypotheses false until proven true, Popper reversed the logic: conclusions drawn from an empirical finding are true until proven false.)

Popper was also a powerful critic of historicism in political thought, and (in books like The Open Society and Its Enemies and The Poverty of Historicism) an enemy of authoritarianism and totalitarianism.

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Written by LW

July 28, 2017 at 1:01 am

“The missing link in cosmology is the nature of dark matter and dark energy”*…

 

Familiar visible matter can be thought of as the privileged percent—actually more like 15 percent—of matter. In business and politics, the interacting 1 percent dominates decision making and policy, while the remaining 99 percent of the population provides less widely acknowledged infrastructure and support—maintaining buildings, keeping cities operational, and getting food to people’s tables. Similarly, ordinary matter dominates almost everything we notice, whereas dark matter, in its abundance and ubiquity, helped create clusters and galaxies and facilitated star formation, but has only limited influence on our immediate surroundings today…

The common assumption is that dark matter is the “glue” that holds together galaxies and galaxy clusters, but resides only in amorphous clouds around them. But what if this assumption isn’t true and it is only our prejudice—and ignorance, which is after all the root of most prejudice—that led us down this potentially misleading path?…

Indeed,  Harvard theoretical physicist and cosmologist Lisa Randall asks, “Does dark matter harbor life?

* Stephen Hawking

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As we reach reflexively for a flashlight, we might send particular birthday greetings to Abraham Pais; he was born on this date in 1918.  After earning his Ph.D. in physics in Holland five days before a Nazi deadline banning Jews from receiving degrees, he went into hiding– and worked out ideas in quantum electrodynamics (later shared with Niels Bohr) that became the building blocks of the theory of elemental particles.  He was later a colleague of Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton.

Pais was also an widely-respected historian of science.  Among his many works were a biography of Bohr and (the work for which he’s best remembered as a historian) Subtle Is the Lord: The Science and Life of Albert Einstein, which is considered the definitive Einstein biography.

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Written by LW

May 19, 2017 at 1:01 am

“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

“I believe alien life is quite common in the universe, although intelligent life is less so. Some say it has yet to appear on planet Earth”*…

 

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If the range of habitable radii is sufficiently broad, most inhabited planets are likely to be closer in size to Mars than the Earth. Furthermore, since population density is widely observed to decline with increasing body mass, we conclude that most intelligent species are expected to exceed 300kg…

From the summary of University of Barcelona cosmologist Fergus Simpson‘s paper, “The Nature of Inhabited Planets and their Inhabitants” (which can be downloaded as a PDF here).

* Stephen Hawking

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As we phone home, we might recall that it was on this date in 1960 that the first weather satellite, TIROS I, was launched from Cape Kennedy (or Canaveral, as then it was) and sent back the first television pictures from space. The first in a long series of launches in the TIROS program (Television Infrared Observation Satellite), it was NASA’s initial step, at a time when the effectiveness of satellite observations was still unproven, in determining if satellites could be useful in the study of the Earth.  In the event, TIROS I and it successors proved extremely useful in weather forecasting.

TIROS I prototype at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

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Written by LW

April 1, 2015 at 1:01 am

“Such is the essential mystery”*…

 

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

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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.

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Written by LW

July 15, 2014 at 1:01 am

“I find it hard to believe that human beings are the crowning achievement of life on earth. Something better than us has to come along”*…

 

Data From: Reader, John. (1986). The Rise of life. London: Roxby Prehistory Press. – Lutgens, Frederick K. (2006). Essentials of geology. Pearson Education. Inc.

click here, and again on the image, for a larger version

From Columbian designers Carlos Ramos, Zamira Saab, William León, The History of Life As We Know It.

* Doug Coupland

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As we put things into perspective, we might recall that it was on this date in 1922, after a 10-year hiatus, that the muse of the Duino Elegies returned to Rainer Maria Rilke, who completed his hugely-influential cycle of poems in a week.  

Rilke had completed the first two elegies and drafts of the next two in 1912, while staying at the Duino Castle as a guest of Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis.  But his experience as a conscript in World War I threw him into a deep depression.  News of the death of a close friend of his daughter’s shocked him out of his funk.  On February 2, 1922, Rilke set to work on his Sonnets to Orpheus (in which he frequently refers to his daughters departed friend).  On February 9 he began working on the The Elegies as well; then having finished the remaining eight, completed the Sonnets by February 23.  Rilke’s February fecundity has come to be known as his “creative hurricane.”

A sketch of Rilke by Leonid Pasternak (father of novelist and poet Boris Pasternak)

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Written by LW

February 9, 2014 at 1:01 am

“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated…”*

 

Capt. Kirk facing a Horta, a silicon-based life-form (in “Devil in the Dark” from “Star Trek: The Original Series”

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Silicon-based (and other alternate) forms of life are a staple of speculative fiction.  But are they as far-fetched as they might seem?  In Smithsonian‘s Daily Planet blog, astrobiologist Dirk Schulze-Makuch suggests not

It would be extremely “earth-centric” to presume that the biochemistry on our planet is the only way life can operate. But just how different can it be? One extreme example are the “Horta,” the silicon-based life portrayed in Star Trek. Could we expect organisms like that on a terrestrial, meaning Earth-type, planet? Most likely not, because the biochemistry of life is intrinsically related to its environment. On Earth, silicon and oxygen are the main building blocks of Earth’s crust and mantle. Most rocks, particularly volcanic and igneous rocks, are built from silicate minerals, which are based on a silicon and oxygen framework. Any free silicon would be bound in these rocks, which are inert at moderate temperatures. Only at very high temperatures does the framework become more plastic and reactive, which led Gerald Feinberg and Robert Shapiro to suggest the possible existence of lavobes and magmobes that could live in molten silicate rocks

Adam and 3-CPO, from “Darths and Droids”

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One can read the full story at “Is Silicon-Based Life Possible?

And one can muse on a resonant issue: if we earth-bound humans tend to be pretty precious about our definition of life, we are even more sensitive– indeed, often down-right chauvinistic– in our understandings of consciousnesssentience and who/what can or can’t enjoy them.

* Confucius

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As we study up for the Turing Test, we might send animated birthday greetings to Hans Adolf Eduard Driesch; he was born on this date in 1867.  The father of experimental embryology and the first person to clone an animal, Driesch was also the creator of the philosophy of entelechy—  and thus the last the last great spokesman for vitalism.  Following in the footsteps of Epicurus, Galen, and Pasteur, Driesch argued that life cannot be explained as physical or chemical phenomena.

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Written by LW

October 28, 2013 at 1:01 am

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