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Posts Tagged ‘microscopy

“The daily hummingbird assaults existence with improbability”*…

Black Metaltail Hummingbird (Metallura phoebe), Peru

High in the Andes, thousands of meters above sea level, speedy hummingbirds defy near-freezing temperatures. These tiny flyers endure the cold with a counterintuitive trick: They lower their body temperature—sometimes as much as 33°C [over 90°F] —for hours at a time, new research suggests…

Among vertebrates, hummingbirds have the highest metabolism for their size. With a metabolic rate roughly 77 times that of an average human, they need to feed nearly continuously. But when it gets too cold or dark to forage, maintaining a normal body temperature is energetically draining. Instead, the small animals can cool their internal temperature by 10°C to 30°C. This slows their metabolism by as much as 95% and protects them from starvation, says Blair Wolf, a physiological ecologist at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.

In this state, called torpor, a bird is motionless and unresponsive. “You wouldn’t even know it was alive if you picked it up,” Wolf says. But when the morning comes and it’s time to feed, he says, the birds quickly warm themselves back up again. “It’s like hibernation but regulated on an even tighter schedule.”…

One of Nature’s (many) marvelous tricks: “To survive frigid nights, hummingbirds cool themselves to record-low temperatures.”

* Ursula K. Le Guin, No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters


As we admire adaptation, we might send closely-observed birthday greetings to Antonie Philips van Leeuwenhoek; he was born on this date in 1632. A largely self-taught man in science, he is commonly known as “the Father of Microbiology“, and one of the first microscopists and microbiologists (he discovered bacteria, protists, sperm cells, blood cells, and numerous structures in animal and plant tissues). A central figure in the Golden Age of Dutch science and technology, his letters to the Royal Society were widely read and richly influential… which is fair dues, as it’s widely believed that van Leeuwenhoek was inspired by illustrations in  Robert Hooke’s earlier book, Micrographia [and here].


“There’s one area though where the world isn’t making much progress, and that’s pandemic preparedness”*…



Soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas, ill with Spanish flu at a hospital ward at Camp Funston, 1918


As we wonder at the ultimate impacts of the novel coronavirus, we might look to history and the lessons of earlier contagions, as University of Michigan law professor Nicholas Bagley did in 2016…

A couple of weeks ago, my wife (also a law professor) and I wrapped up the final session of a seminar that we co-taught called Contagion. We wanted to offer an introduction to the outbreaks of infectious disease that have reshaped American life and law.

The class was one of Michigan Law’s “at home mini-seminars,” which meant we hosted a dozen students at our home over the course of six evening sessions. Really more of a book club than a formal class, we focused on a different disease each time we met: cholera, Spanish flu, polio, AIDS, SARS, and Ebola.

We also drank beer, which makes death and disease more tolerable.

The class was a hoot. And it had a surprising coherence. Every disease provokes its own unique dread and its own complex public reaction, but themes recurred across outbreaks.

  1. Governments are typically unprepared, disorganized, and resistant to taking steps necessary to contain infectious diseases, especially in their early phases.
  2. Local, state, federal, and global governing bodies are apt to point fingers at one another over who’s responsible for taking action. Clear lines of authority are lacking.
  3. Calibrating the right governmental response is devilishly hard. Do too much and you squander public trust (Swine flu), do too little and people die unnecessarily (AIDS).
  4. Public officials are reluctant to publicize infections for fear of devastating the economy.
  5. Doctors rarely have good treatment options. Nursing care is often what’s needed most. Medical professionals of all kinds work themselves to the bone in the face of extraordinary danger.
  6. In the absence of an effective treatment, the public will reach for unscientific remedies.
  7. No matter what the route of transmission or the effectiveness of quarantine, there’s a desire to physically separate infected people.
  8. Victims of the disease are often thought to deserve the affliction, especially when those victims are mainly from marginalized groups.
  9. We plan, to the extent we plan at all, for the last pandemic. We don’t do enough to plan for the next one.
  10. Historical memory is short. When diseases fall from the headlines, the public forgets and preparation falters.

Not every one of those themes was present for every disease; the doughboys who died of the Spanish flu, for example, were not thought to deserve their fate. But the themes were persistent enough over time to establish a pattern…

For a list of the books that Bagley and the group considered, visit the post quoted above: “Contagion.”

For a measured (but still deeply concerning) assessment of the potential impact of the coronavirus, see The Economist‘s leader.  But lest we leap to the assumption that the stock market is an augur (of either depth or duration of impact) see “How to Think About the Plummeting Stock Market.”  For a much deeper dive into the historical antecedents of our current quandary, see “Pandemics and Markets” at Jamie Catherwood‘s Investor Amnesia (“We’ve been here before”).

Finally, there’s been much written about the ways in which Xi’s handling of the crisis in China might provoke a backlash against him and the Party, both within China and around the world.  But one might also keep an eye on Iran, where the government’s handling of the coronavirus is leading observers to wonder if this (coming as it does in the midst of severe internal tensions, aggravated by the economic pressure of sanctions) could be a “Chernobyl moment” for the regime; see “How Iran Became a New Epicenter in the Coronavirus Outbreak.”  And then, of course, there’s the potential political fallout in the United States.  See also the always-insightful Bruce Mehlman‘s “Washington in the Time of Corona.”

* Bill Gates, at a 2018 conference on epidemics hosted by the Massachusetts Medical Society and the New England Journal of Medicine (Here are Gate’s more current– but consistent– thoughts on “How to respond to COVID-19.”


As we take precautions, we might spare a thought for Robert Hooke; he died on this date in 1703.  A natural philosopher and polymath, Hooke was a virtuoso scientist whose scope of research ranged widely, including physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology, geology, architecture, and naval technology.  He discovered the law of elasticity, known as Hooke’s law, and invented the balance spring for clocks.  He served as the Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society, London; and after the Great Fire of London (1666), he served as Chief Surveyor and helped rebuild the city.  He also invented or improved meteorological instruments such as the barometer, anemometer, and hygrometer.

But relevantly to the item above, Hooke was a pioneer in microscopy.  His Micrographia, (1665) was a book describing observations made with microscopes (and telescopes), as well as some original work in biology.  Indeed, Hooke coined the term cell for describing biological organisms, a term suggested to him by the resemblance of plant cells to cells of a honeycomb.


Hooke’s microscope, from an engraving in Micrographia [source]



Written by LW

March 3, 2020 at 1:01 am

Leading horses to water…

… and making them drink:

from Spiked Math.

On a more serious note… many are skeptical of “the Singularity”– the hypothetical point at which technological progress will have accelerated so much that the future becomes fundamentally unpredictable and qualitatively different from what’s gone before (click here for a transcript of the talk by Vernor Vinge that launched the concept, and here for a peek at what’s become of Vernor’s initial thinking).  But even those with doubts (among whom your correspondent numbers) acknowledge that technology is re-weaving the very fabric of life.  Readers interested in a better understanding of what’s afoot and where it might lead will appreciate Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants (and the continuing discussion on Kevin’s site).

As we re-set our multiplication tables, we might recall that it was on this date in 1664 that natural philosopher, architect and pioneer of the Scientific Revolution Robert Hooke showed an advance copy of his book Micrographia— a chronicle of Hooke’s observations through various lens– to members of the Royal Society.  The volume (which coined the word “cell” in a biological context) went on to become the first scientific best-seller, and inspired broad interest in the new science of microscopy.

source: Cal Tech

UPDATE: Reader JR notes that the image above is of an edition of Micrographia dated 1665.  Indeed, while (per the almanac entry above) the text was previewed to the Royal Society in 1664 (to wit the letter, verso), the book wasn’t published until September, 1665.  JR remarks as well that Micrographia is in English (while most scientific books of that time were still in Latin)– a fact that no doubt contributed to its best-seller status.

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