(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Science

“History will be kind to me for I intend to write it”*…

 

In July, Harvard scientists used a gene-editing technology first developed in 2013 to programme bacteria to do something astounding: play back an animation of a galloping horse.

The GIF animation was generated from an iconic image series created in 1878 by the motion-picture pioneer Eadweard Muybridge.

The breakthrough involved the scientists translating image pixels into genetic code, which they fed to the cells one frame at a time. The bacteria incorporated and reproduced the sequence in their DNA, demonstrating the possibility of using living cells as information recording and storage devices.

The tech world was, predictably, agog. But beyond the hype, scientists’ goal of applying the technique to human cells has deep philosophical implications.

A future in which our bodies are used as hard drives could, in effect, change the entire way we conceive of human history and perceive life.

Today, it is impossible to imagine a world without history: from the vast array of chronicles housed in the world’s libraries to the countless traces of the past accumulating in the data farms that support the digital cloud, history surrounds us.

But it wasn’t always this way. Starting around 4000 BCE, the rise and spread of city-states, from Mesopotamia to Ancient Greece, radically changed the relationship between humans and our physical world…

How history is– and may in the future be– “made,” and what that might mean: “Will whoever controls gene editing control historical memory?

* Winston Churchill

###

As we think in time, we might recall that it was on this date in 44 BCE that Cicero delivered the first of his oratorical attacks, Philippicae,  on Mark Antony. He went on to make 14 of them over the next several months. Modeled on Demosthenes‘ Philippic (Ad Atticus, 2.1.3, leveled by the Greek orator against Philip of Macedon), the Philippicae attacked Antony both for his leadership in Julius Caesar’s assassination and for other offenses against the realm.  While Cicero had been sympathetic with the conspirators who acted on the Ides of March, he favored Julius’ adopted son and heir, Octavian as the next leader.

While Octavian ultimately prevailed, Cicero’s effort to force out Antony failed.  Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus formed a Triumvirate to rule; and Cicero was “proscribed”– made an enemy of the state.  He fled, but was captured and ultimately beheaded. Antony requested that the hands that wrote the Philippics also be removed; his head and hands were publicly displayed in the Roman Forum to discourage any who would oppose the new Triumvirate.

 source

 

 

Written by LW

September 2, 2017 at 8:28 am

“Mathematics is the art of giving the same name to different things”*…

 

A 3,700-year-old clay tablet has proven that the Babylonians developed trigonometry 1,500 years before the Greeks and were using a sophisticated method of mathematics which could change how we calculate today.

The tablet, known as Plimpton 332, was discovered in the early 1900s in Southern Iraq by the American archaeologist and diplomat Edgar Banks, who was the inspiration for Indiana Jones.

The true meaning of the tablet has eluded experts until now but new research by the University of New South Wales, Australia, has shown it is the world’s oldest and most accurate trigonometric table, which was probably used by ancient architects to construct temples, palaces and canals…

More of the remarkable story at “3,700-year-old Babylonian tablet rewrites the history of maths – and shows the Greeks did not develop trigonometry.”

* Henri Poincaré

###

As we struggle to remember the difference between a sine and a cosine, we might recall that it was on this date in 1842 that the United States Naval Observatory was authorized by an act of Congress. One of the oldest scientific agencies in the U.S., its primary task was to care for the Navy’s charts, navigational instruments, and chronometers, which were calibrated by timing the transit of stars across the meridian.  It’s now probably best known as the home of the “Master Clock“, which provides precise time to the GPS satellite constellation run by the United States Air Force… and for its non-scientific mission: a house located within the Naval Observatory complex serves as the official residence of the Vice President of the United States.

Initially located at Foggy Bottom in the District of Columbia (near the current location of the State Department), the observatory moved in 1893 to its present near Embassy Row.

 source

 

Written by LW

August 31, 2017 at 1:01 am

“The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss”*…

 

The oldest gliding mammals ever discovered are strengthening the case for taking to the skies.

Well, they couldn’t exactly soar like the eagles, but the two new species, discovered in China, at least sampled the aerial life. Both date to around 160 million years ago during the Jurassic Period, when mammals as a lineage were first getting off the ground — both metaphorically and literally. They’re not directly related to the gliders of today, however. Gliding instead seems to be advantageous enough that it has appeared several times throughout our evolutionary history…

Both fossils belong to a group of ancestral mammals that have long been extinct. As such, there is no line connecting them to gliding mammals today, indicating that mammalian aerial skills disappeared and re-emerged at least once throughout history. Using birds as an obvious example, flight is a powerful advantage to have. Even as a (temporarily) airborne creature you expend less energy, move faster and evade potential predators — all benefits that make the evolutionary trade-offs worthwhile. It’s not just mammals either, many frog species and even some fish have gained the ability to glide, with evidence that the trait has appeared more than once in those species as well…

The full story at: “Oldest Gliding Mammals Shed Light on the History of Flight.”

* Douglas Adams on flying, in Life, the Universe and Everything

###

As we take to the air, we might recall that it was on this date in 1829 that Chang and Eng Bunker, arrived in Boston aboard the ship Sachem to be exhibited to the Western world.  The original “Siamese Twins,” they were  joined at the waist by a band of cartilage, about 8 in. circumference and 4 in. long.  In 1828 British merchant Robert Hunter “discovered” them and paid their family to let them be exhibited as a curiosity during a world tour; at the end of that engagement, the brothers went into business for themselves.  In 1839, they visited Wilkesboro, N.C. with P. T. Barnum; they found the town appealing, settled there, took the surname “Bunker,” became United States citizens, and in 1843 married two sisters with whom they raised 10 children. Only after their death was it discovered that the cartilage that connected them could have been easily and safely removed.

Click here for Mark Twain’s short story, “The Siamese Twins,” based on Chang and Eng.

Chang and Eng Bunker

source

 

Written by LW

August 16, 2017 at 1:01 am

“All of today’s DNA, strung through all the cells of the earth, is simply an extension and elaboration of [the] first molecule”*…

 

The first biological teleporter sits in a lab on the lower level of the San Diego building that houses Synthetic Genomics Inc. (SGI), looking something like a super-sized equipment cart.

The device is actually conglomeration of small machines and lab robots, linked to each other to form one big machine. But this one can do something unprecedented: it can use transmitted digital code to print viruses.

In a series of experiments culminating last year, SGI scientists used genetic instructions sent to the device from elsewhere in the building to automatically manufacture the DNA of the common flu virus. They also produced a functional bacteriophage, a virus that infects bacterial cells.

Although that wasn’t the first time anyone had made a virus from DNA parts, it was the first time it was done automatically, without human hands.

The device, called a “digital-to-biological converter” was unveiled in May. Though still a prototype, instruments like it could one day broadcast biological information from sites of a disease outbreak to vaccine manufacturers, or print out on-demand personalized medicines at patients’ bedsides…

… or project life-as-we-know it into outer space. More at “Biological Teleporter Could Seed Life Through Galaxy.”

* Lewis Thomas, The Medusa and the Snail

###

As we beam up, we might spare a thought for Sidney Walter Fox; he died on this date in 1998.  A biochemist, he was responsible for a series of discoveries about the origin of life.  Fox believed in the process of abiogenesis, by which life spontaneously organized itself from the colloquially known “primordial soup,” poolings of various simple organic molecules that existed during the time before life on Earth.  In his experiments (which possessed, he believed, conditions like those of primordial Earth), he demonstrated that it is possible to create protein-like structures from inorganic molecules and thermal energy.  Dr. Fox went on to create microspheres that he said closely resembled bacterial cells and concluded that they could be similar to the earliest forms of life or protocells.

 source

 

Written by LW

August 10, 2017 at 1:01 am

“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

###

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.

 source

 

 

 

Written by LW

July 28, 2017 at 1:01 am

“It was all so very businesslike that one watched it fascinated. It was pork-making by machinery, pork-making by applied mathematics.”*…

 

In the mid-to-late 1800s, the meat industry — from the cowboys and cattle drives to the Chicago slaughterhouses to the refrigerated railcars delivering steaks to New York’s finest restaurants — was the largest industry in America. At the heart of this industry were entrepreneurs like Philip Danforth Armour and Gustavus Franklin Swift, who pioneered business practices later adopted by the automobile industry and whose company names survive to this day:

“[In the meat industry in the mid-1800s], automation was the secret ingredient. Overhead wheels were introduced to carry the hog or the steer from one fixed worksta­tion to the next. Before long, this approach evolved into an over­head trolley system driven by steam engines and industrial belts. Specific repetitive tasks were assigned to each worker along what became, in effect, the first assembly line, although the actual work was disassembly. It was from studying this process in the Chicago slaughterhouses that Henry Ford came up with his own method for assembling automobiles — a development that would revolutionize mass manufacturing…

More at “The American Meat Colossus,” an excerpt from Cattle Kingdom: The Hidden History of the Cowboy West, by Christopher Knowlton.

* “It was all so very businesslike that one watched it fascinated. It was pork-making by machinery, pork-making by applied mathematics. And yet somehow the most matter-of-fact person could not help thinking of the hogs; they were so innocent, they came so very trustingly; and they were so very human in their protests – and so perfectly within their rights! They had done nothing to deserve it; and it was adding insult to injury, as the thing was done here, swinging them up in this cold-blooded, impersonal way, without pretence at apology, without the homage of a tear.”  – Upton Sinclair (author of The Jungle)

###

As we ponder protein, we might recall that it was on this date in 1921 that Canadians Sir Frederick Banting and his assistant Charles Best isolated insulin (from canine subjects).  Later that year, working with a University of Toronto colleague,  J.J.R. MacLeod, Banting developed a diabetes treatment for humans– for which he and MacLeod shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine.  Banting and Best (with whom he shared his Nobel Prize money) later improved both the sourcing process for insulin (discovering how to extract it from an intact pancreas) and the diabetes detection process.

Best (left) and Bantling with with one of the diabetic dogs used in their experiments with insulin

source

 

Written by LW

July 27, 2017 at 1:01 am

“I like my new telephone, my computer works just fine, my calculator is perfect, but Lord, I miss my mind!*…

 

Before electronic calculators became affordable in the 1970s, logarithm tables and slide rules were the most common calculation tools used by scientists, engineers, financiers, and navigators.  But in the early 1940s there emerged a purely mechanical, pocket-sized calculator, the Curta; the “pepper mill,” as it was known, was short-lived – only 30 years or so – but it remains a mechanical marvel.

More at “Curta: a mechanical pocket calculator.”

* anonymous

###

As we add it up, we might send intricately-interconnected birthday greetings to Mark D. Weiser; he was born on this date in 1952.  After earning an MA and a PhD in computing at the University of Michigan, Mark worked for a variety of computer-related startups.  But in 1987 he joined Xerox PARC, and began the work for which he is best remembered: he widely considered to be the father of ubiquitous computing, a term he coined in 1988 to describe the field he pioneered.

Mark was also the drummer of Severe Tire Damage, a garage (pun intended) rock band, the first band to perform on the internet: on June 24, 1993, the band was playing a gig at PARC while elsewhere in the building, scientists were discussing new technology (the MBone) for broadcasting on the Internet using multicasting.  As proof of their technology, the band was broadcast and could be seen live in Australia (by a scientist there alerted by the Palo Alto crew) and elsewhere.

Then. on Friday, November 18, 1994, the Rolling Stones decided to broadcast one of their concert tours on the Internet. Before their broadcast, Severe Tire Damage returned to the Internet, this time becoming the “opening act” for the Stones– so instead of an obscure Australian researcher, the entire world press was watching, and Severe Tire Damage was elevated from obscurity to Warholian fame.  Newsweek described STD as “a lesser known rock band.”  The Rolling Stones told The New York Times: “the surprise opening act by Severe Tire Damage was a good reminder of the democratic nature of the Internet.”

 source

 

Written by LW

July 23, 2017 at 1:01 am

%d bloggers like this: