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Posts Tagged ‘Science

“All things play a role in nature, even the lowly worm”*…

 

worm

Artist’s rendering of Ikaria wariootia. It would have lived on the seafloor.

 

A worm-like creature that burrowed on the seafloor more than 500 million years ago may be key to the evolution of much of the animal kingdom.

The organism, about the size of a grain of rice, is described as the earliest example yet found in the fossil record of a bilaterian.  These are animals that have a front and back, two symmetrical sides, and openings at either end joined by a gut.

The scientists behind it say the development of bilateral symmetry was a critical step in the evolution of animal life.

It gave organisms the ability to move purposefully and a common, yet successful way to organise their bodies.

A multitude of animals, from worms to insects to dinosaurs to humans, are organised around this same basic bilaterian body plan.

Scott Evans, of the University of California at Riverside, and colleagues have called the organism Ikaria wariootia

How a 555 million year old worm paved our developmental path: “Fossil worm shows us our evolutionary beginnings.”  Read the underlying paper in the journal PNAS.

* Gary Larson

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As we celebrate symmetry, we might recall that it was on this date in 1858 that Hyman L. Lipman, of Philadelphia was issued the first U.S. patent for a combination lead pencil and eraser (No. 19,783).  The pencil was made in the usual manner, with one-fourth of its length reserved inside one end to carry a piece of prepared india-rubber, glued in at one edge.  Thus, cutting one end prepared the lead for writing, while cutting the other end would expose a small piece of india rubber.  This eraser was then conveniently available whenever needed, and not likely to be mislaid.  Further, the eraser could be sharpened to a finer point to make a more precise erasure of fine lines in a drawing, or cut further down if the end became soiled.

US19783-drawings-page-1 source

 

Written by LW

March 30, 2020 at 1:01 am

“What is mathematics? It is only a systematic effort of solving puzzles posed by nature.”*…

 

unicorn-tapestry

 

In 1998, the Cloisters—the museum of medieval art in upper Manhattan—began a renovation of the room where the seven tapestries known as “The Hunt of the Unicorn” hang. The Unicorn tapestries are considered by many to be the most beautiful tapestries in existence. They are also among the great works of art of any kind. In the tapestries, richly dressed noblemen, accompanied by hunters and hounds, pursue a unicorn through forested landscapes. They find the animal, appear to kill it, and bring it back to a castle; in the last and most famous panel, “The Unicorn in Captivity,” the unicorn is shown bloody but alive, chained to a tree surrounded by a circular fence, in a field of flowers. The tapestries are twelve feet tall and up to fourteen feet wide (except for one, which is in fragments). They were woven from threads of dyed wool and silk, some of them gilded or wrapped in silver, around 1500, probably in Brussels or Liège, for an unknown person or persons, and for an unknown reason—possibly to honor a wedding. A monogram made from the letters “A” and “E” is woven into the scenery in many places; no one knows what it stands for. The tapestries’ meaning is mysterious: the unicorn was a symbol of many things in the Middle Ages, including Christianity, immortality, wisdom, lovers, marriage. For centuries, the tapestries were in the possession of the La Rochefoucauld family of France. In 1922, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., bought them for just over a million dollars, and in 1937 he gave them to the Cloisters. Their monetary value today is incalculable…

As the construction work got under way, the tapestries were rolled up and moved, in an unmarked vehicle and under conditions of high security, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which owns the Cloisters. They ended up in a windowless room in the museum’s textile department for cleaning and repair. The room has white walls and a white tiled floor with a drain running along one side. It is exceedingly clean, and looks like an operating room. It is known as the wet lab, and is situated on a basement level below the museum’s central staircase.

In the wet lab, a team of textile conservators led by a woman named Kathrin Colburn unpacked the tapestries and spread them out face down on a large table, one by one. At some point, the backs of the tapestries had been covered with linen. The backings, which protect the tapestries and help to support them when they hang on a wall, were turning brown and brittle, and had to be replaced. Using tweezers and magnifying lenses, Colburn and her team delicately removed the threads that held each backing in place. As the conservators lifted the backing away, inch by inch, they felt a growing sense of awe. The backs were almost perfect mirror images of the fronts, but the colors were different. Compared with the fronts, they were unfaded: incredibly bright, rich, and deep, more subtle and natural-looking. The backs of the tapestries had, after all, been exposed to very little sunlight in five hundred years. Nobody alive at the Met, it seems, had seen them this way…

Philippe de Montebello, the director of the museum, declared that the Unicorn tapestries must be photographed on both sides, to preserve a record of the colors and the mirror images. Colburn and her associates would soon put new backing material on them, made of cotton sateen. Once they were rehung at the Cloisters, it might be a century or more before the true colors of the tapestries would be seen again.

The manager of the photography studio at the Met is a pleasant, lively woman named Barbara Bridgers. Her goal is to make a high-resolution digital image of every work of art in the Met’s collections. The job will take at least twenty-five years; there are between two and two and a half million catalogued objects in the Met—nobody knows the exact number. (One difficulty is that there seems to be an endless quantity of scarab beetles from Egypt.) But, when it’s done and backup files are stored in an image repository somewhere else, then if an asteroid hits New York the Metropolitan Museum may survive in a digital copy.

To make a digital image of the Unicorn tapestries was one of the most difficult assignments that Bridgers had ever had. She put together a team to do it, bringing in two consultants, Scott Geffert and Howard Goldstein, and two of the Met’s photographers, Joseph Coscia, Jr., and Oi-Cheong Lee. They built a giant metal scaffolding inside the wet lab, and mounted on it a Leica digital camera, which looked down at the floor. The photographers were forbidden to touch the tapestries; Kathrin Colburn and her team laid each one down, underneath the scaffold, on a plastic sheet. Then the photographers began shooting. The camera had a narrow view; it could photograph only one three-by-three-foot section of tapestry at a time. The photographers took overlapping pictures, moving the camera on skateboard wheels on the scaffolding. Each photograph was a tile that would be used to make a complete, seamless mosaic of each tapestry…

It took two weeks to photograph the tapestries. When the job was done, every thread in every tile was crystal-clear, and the individual twisted strands that made up individual threads were often visible, too. The data for the digital images, which consisted entirely of numbers, filled more than two hundred CDs. With other, smaller works of art, Bridgers and her team had been able to load digital tiles into a computer’s hard drives and memory, and then manipulate them into a complete mosaic—into a seamless image—using Adobe Photoshop software. But with the tapestries that simply wouldn’t work. When they tried to assemble the tiles, they found that the files were too large and too complex to manage. “We had to lower the resolution of the images in order to fit them into the computers we had, and it degraded the images so much that we just didn’t think it was worth doing,” Bridgers said. Finally, they gave up. Bridgers stored the CDs on a shelf and filed the project away as an unsolved problem…

Enter Gregory and David Chudnovsky, brothers whose work was so intertwined that they considered themselves a single mathematician.  Over four months– and after 30 hours of continuous running– their self-designed supercomputer successfully performed the 7.7 quadrillion calculations needed to produce the image for the Met.

Richard Preston tells the genuinely-fascinating story: “Capturing the Unicorn.”

It was a return of sorts for Preston, who, thirteen years earlier, had profiled the brothers and their successful quest to resolve pi to a record number of decimal places: “The Mountains of Pi.”

More on the Chudnovskys here.

* Shakuntala Devi

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As we muse of the merger of art and science, we might recall that it was on this date in 1886 that Coca Cola was concocted in an Atlanta, Georgia backyard as a “brain tonic” that could cure hangovers, stomach aches and headaches.  The original formula included caffeine and five ounces of coca leaf (from which cocaine is derived) per gallon.  The creator, pharmacist John Pemberton, took his syrup a few doors down to Jacobs’ Pharmacy, where he mixed it with carbonated water and shared it with customers.  The pharmacy began marketing it on May 8 as a patent medicine for 5¢ a glass.  It spread first through the other Jacobs outlets in Atlanta, and then around the world.

“The valuable tonic and nerve stimulant properties of the coca plant and cola nuts …”

– John Pemberton

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Pemberton

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“All you really need to know for the moment is that the universe is a lot more complicated than you might think, even if you start from a position of thinking it’s pretty damn complicated in the first place”*…

 

UniverseShape_LedeFullWidth

 

When you gaze out at the night sky, space seems to extend forever in all directions. That’s our mental model for the universe, but it’s not necessarily correct. There was a time, after all, when everyone thought the Earth was flat, because our planet’s curvature was too subtle to detect and a spherical Earth was unfathomable.

Today, we know the Earth is shaped like a sphere. But most of us give little thought to the shape of the universe. Just as the sphere offered an alternative to a flat Earth, other three-dimensional shapes offer alternatives to “ordinary” infinite space.

We can ask two separate but interrelated questions about the shape of the universe. One is about its geometry: the fine-grained local measurements of things like angles and areas. The other is about its topology: how these local pieces are stitched together into an overarching shape.

Cosmological evidence suggests that the part of the universe we can see is smooth and homogeneous, at least approximately. The local fabric of space looks much the same at every point and in every direction. Only three geometries fit this description: flat, spherical and hyperbolic…

Alternatives to “ordinary” infinite space: “What Is the Geometry of the Universe?

* Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

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As we tinker with topology, we might recall that it was on this date in 1811 that Percy Bysshe Shelley was expelled from the University of Oxford for publishing the pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism.  Shelley, of course, went on to become a celebrated lyric poet and one of the leaders of the English Romantic movement… one who had a confident (if not to say exalted) sense of his role in society:

Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

220px-Percy_Bysshe_Shelley_by_Alfred_Clint source

 

“For she had eyes and chose me”*…

 

eye-colors_620

 

Psychologist David Perrett’s… Perception Lab recruited 300 men and 400 women, all of whom had heterosexual partners and had been raised by two parents. They learned that romantic partners tend to look alike — the participants and their partners tended to have similar hair color and similar eye color.

This might be explained by a self-similar preference or narcissism, but on looking deeper into the data Perrett’s team found that the single best predictor of one’s partner’s eye color was the eye color of one’s parent of the opposite sex. If a woman’s mother had blue eyes and her father had brown eyes, she would most likely be partnered with a brown-eyed man. If a man’s mother had blue eyes and his father had brown eyes, his partner most likely had blue eyes. Similarly, the hair color of a man’s mother was the single best predictor of his partner’s hair color. “These results indicate that individuals choose partners who resemble their opposite-sex parent both in eye and hair color.”…

The mysteries of human attraction: “Eye to Eye.”

Read the underlying paper: Anthony C. Little et al., “Investigating an Imprinting-Like Phenomenon in Humans: Partners and Opposite-Sex Parents Have Similar Hair and Eye Colour,” Evolution and Human Behavior 24:1 [2003], 43-51.

* William Shakespeare, Othello

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As we peer through the window to the soul, we might spare a thought for playwright, poet, artist, biologist, theoretical physicist, and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; he died on this date in 1832.  Probably best remembered these days for Faust, he was “the master spirit of the German people,” and, after Napoleon, the leading figure of his age.

In 1810, Goethe published his Theory of Colors (Zur Farbenlehre), which he considered his most important work.  In it, he contentiously (and incorrectly) characterized color as arising from “the dynamic interplay of light and darkness through the mediation of a turbid medium.”  Still, Goethe was the first systematically to study the physiological effects of color; his observations of the effect of opposed colors led him to a symmetric arrangement of his color wheel, “for the colors diametrically opposed to each other… are those which reciprocally evoke each other in the eye.”  Indeed, after being translated into English by Charles Eastlake in 1840, his theory became widely adopted by the art world, most notably by J. M. W. Turner.

source

 

Written by LW

March 22, 2020 at 1:01 am

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

 

795px-Emergency_hospital_during_Influenza_epidemic,_Camp_Funston,_Kansas_-_NCP_1603

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.”

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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.

170px-Hooke-microscope

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

 

Written by LW

March 3, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Peer review as practiced today is a form of hazing”*…

 

Digs-Iraq-Cuneiform-REVISED

Cuneiform Letter from the astrologer Marduk-šapik-zeri to the Neo-Assyrian king Esarhaddon

The advance of science depends on the communications of research and experimental findings so that they can be, first, replicated and verified or refuted; then broadly understood by the scientific community.  Historically, that communication has depended largely on scientific journals, the primary vehicles of that dissemination.  The integrity of the system has depended on the peer-review process:  the examination of scientific papers submitted for journal publication by a jury of “peers” (in practice, usually very senior practitioners of the discipline in question) who evaluate the methodology and findings being reported and pass on whether or not they are “publishable.”

With the advent of the web, this system is loosening.  Scientists are sharing “pre-prints” in sites like arXiv, reaching around the journals’ referees to reach their communities at large.  Still, the feedback that they get is a form of peer review…

While we tend to date the birth of the scientific method, and this approach, to the early 17th century and the thinking of Bacon and Descartes, archaeologists suggest that the approach might have have much deeper roots…

In some respects, the life of a Mesopotamian scholar in the seventh century B.C. was not so very different from that of a modern academic. While the former might be responsible for reporting on celestial phenomena and whether they augur well for the king’s reign, and the latter might be searching for evidence of a new subatomic particle to better understand the origins of the universe, in either case, one’s reputation among colleagues is paramount.

Let’s take, for example, the lot of an unnamed astrologer who was subjected to a vicious onslaught of peer review from some of the Neo-Assyrian Empire’s top minds after claiming to have sighted Venus around 669 B.C. In a letter to the king Esarhaddon (r. 680–669 B.C.), a fellow stargazer named Nabû-ahhe-eriba, who was part of the inner circle of royal scholars, inveighed, “(He who) wrote to the king, my lord, ‘The planet Venus is visible, it is visible (in the month Ad)ar,’ is a vile man, an ignoramus, a cheat!” Slightly more charitable, though still cutting, was a scholar named Balasî, who tutored the crown prince Ashurbanipal (r. 668–627 B.C.). “(T)he man who wrote (thus) to the king, (my lord), is in ignorance,” Balasî informed Esarhaddon. “The ig(noramus)—who is he?…I repeat: He does not understand (the difference) between Mercury and Venus.”

These quotations are excerpts from just two of around 1,000 letters and reports written by scholars to Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal in cuneiform on clay tablets that were discovered during nineteenth-century excavations of the archives of the Assyrian capital, Nineveh, near Mosul in Iraq, including Ashurbanipal’s library…

The perils of peer review– what was old is new again: “Ancient academia.”

* John Hawks

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As we contemplate constructive criticism, we might send repetitious birthday greetings to Émile Coué de la Châtaigneraie; he was born on this date in 1857.  A pharmacist who began practicing as a psychologist, Coué opened a clinic in Nancy, and introduced a method of psychotherapy characterized by frequent repetition of the formula, je vais de mieux en mieux, “Every day, and in every way, I am becoming better and better”; he counseled his patients to repeat this 15 to 20 times, morning and evening. This method of autosuggestion came to be called Couéism, and was very popular in the 1920s and 1930s. (Norman Vincent Peale’s brand of positive thinking was rooted in part in Coué’s work.)  The popular press raved about his approach, even as the medical and psychological establishment dismissed it.  And as the seemingly positive results he achieved with his patients faded– as they seemed for the most part to do– so did enthusiasm for the Coué method.  Still, one can hear its echo in approaches alive today, for instance neuro-linguistic programming.

A contemporary, Rev. Charles Inge, captured Coué’s simplistic method in a limerick (1928): “This very remarkable man / Commends a most practical plan: / You can do what you want / If you don’t think you can’t, / So don’t think you can’t think you can.”

220px-Émile_Coué_3 source

 

“Human DNA spreading out from gravity’s steep well like an oilslick”*…

 

200116-Earth

 

Could the Earth be a life-exporting planet? That’s the curious question examined in a recent paper written by Harvard University astronomers Amir Siraj and Abraham Loeb.

The researchers take a novel twist on the controversial notion of panspermia – the idea, propelled into the mainstream in the early 1970s by astronomers Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe, that life might have started on Earth through microbes arriving from space.

The theory is generally discounted, although eminent astrophysicists such as Stephen Hawking conceded it was at least possible, and a major paper published in 2018 revived the topic big-time.

In their [late December, 2019] paper, Siraj and Loeb reverse the standard assumption about the direction of the microbial journey and ask whether it is possible to that at some point Earth-evolved bacteria could have been propelled away from the planet, possibly to be deposited somewhere else in the Milky Way…

Astronomers suggest microbes might hitch lifts on interstellar asteroids.  More on the hypothesis and the evidence that supports it at “Earth bacteria may have colonised other solar systems.”  Read the underlying paper at arXiv.

* William Gibson, Neuromancer

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As we ponder the polarity of proliferation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1921 that Albert Einstein startled his audience at the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin by suggesting the possibility that the universe could be measured.  His talk, “Geometry and Experience” (text here), applied some results of the relativity theory to conclude that if the real velocities of the stars (as could be actually measured) were less than the calculated velocities, then it would prove that real gravitations’ great distances were smaller than the gravitational distances demanded by the law of Newton.  From that divergence, the finiteness of the universe could be proved indirectly, and could even permit the estimation of its size.

Later that year, Einstein was announced as the 1921 Nobel Laureate in Physics, an award he accepted the following year.

Bildnis Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

Einstein in 1921

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Happy Birthday, Dante, Mozart, and Lewis Carroll!

 

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