TED : http://on.ted.com/g0Ghi
There was apparently a time in our planet’s history when plants evolved into trees (in order to be able to grow taller while still supporting themselves structurally) but there was no type of fungi yet evolved that could break down the trees when they died. So for a long period trees just piled up. This interesting BBC documentary on decay explains the Carboniferous period. (via reddit)
Here’s a BBC documentary about the human cell and its relationship over billions of years with the virus cell.
It takes a nice, broad perspective and presents the story with impressive visuals. Quite impressed as I am, I didn’t like the incredibly tedious camera work for the in-between segments, and the drone of David Tennant’s narration throughout the entire film. You can’t have it all.
Update: Pity the video has been taken down. It was called Secret Universe: The Hidden Life of the Cell.
He understands, as Darwin would, that there is a war of nature. But, where in Darwinian wars some species flourish while others go extinct, in Aristotelian wars the combatants simply fight forever.
A documentary exploring Aristotle’s biological investigations and comparing his understanding to our current knowledge.
Nature doesn’t need an audience. These wonderful orchids come from the south-eastern Ecuadorian and Peruvian cloud forests from elevations of 1000 to 2000 meters and as such not many people throughout history got to see them. However, thanks to intrepid collectors we do get to see this wonderful Monkey Orchid. Someone didn’t need much imagination to name it though, let’s face it.
This is one of the most incredible adaptations I’ve seen.. More about the Monkey Orchid at kuriositas.
Yes, it’s true people do yawn more at bedtime or after they’ve woken up and they do yawn when they’re bored (people even yawn in their sleep).
But yawning isn’t that simple. If it was, how could you explain that some paratroopers yawn before their first jump, as do some violinists before they go on stage and Olympic athletes before their event (Provine, 2005). These are hardly situations in which people are likely to be bored.
Many people believe that yawning gets more oxygen into the body or expels more carbon dioxide. But this is not true. The theory is now thought to be seriously flawed, if not plain wrong.
I like this theory that yawning has the function of cooling the brain.
Very neat. Via kottke:
This is mesmerizing: using Google Image Search and starting with a transparent image, this video cycles through each subsequent related image, over 2900 in all.
It gets more interesting the longer it goes on. It’s like watching a visualisation of the neural connections of a cyborg. Or something.
Photo: David Paul/Mark Norman.
Neatorama has a round-up of the most bizarre mating mechanisms in the animal kingdom. That of the Anglerfish seems so impossibly beyond our reality that it’s spine-chilling and awe-inspiring at once…
Anglerfish, a deep sea fish named for the spiny appendage on its head that it uses as bait to “fish” its prey, has an unusual mating habit. As it spends its time in the bottom of the ocean, finding a mate is a problem – but the species solved this evolutionary challenge beautifully.
At first, scientists were perplexed because they’ve never caught a male anglerfish. Also, all female anglerfish have a lump on their body that looks like a parasite. Only later did scientists discover that the lump is the remain of the male fish.
The tiny male anglerfish are born without any digestive system, so once they hatch, they have to find a female quickly. When a male finds a female, he quickly bites her body and releases an enzyme that digests his skin and her body to fuse the two in an eternal embrace. The male then wastes away, becoming nothing but a lump on the female anglerfish’s body!
When the female is ready to spawn, her “male appendage” is there, ready to release sperms to fertilize her egg.
More at Neatorama
So far the Catalogue of Life has indexed over 1,368,009 species and the latest edition features a database from Jeya Kathirithamby of Oxford University’s Department of Zoology detailing Strepsiptera, a strange order of parasitic insect.
Strepsiptera are endoparasites – they live inside their host – with almost all females spending their entire lives inside the body of other insects and males emerging as free-living adults to mate before they die, just five or six hours later.
‘The females are totally endoparasitic for their entire life history (except in one family) and all that is visible of an adult female is an extruded cephalothorax,’ Jeya tells me. ‘The female is nothing more than a “bag of eggs”, having lost all structures such as eyes, antennae, mouthparts, legs, wings and external genitalia any other insect would possess.
‘This dramatic difference between male and female makes Strepsiptera interesting model organisms for studying such aspects as mating and reproduction.’
Jeya is a world authority on these parasites where males and females can have such different lives that they even choose entirely different hosts:
‘There is a family where the males parasitize ants and the females parasitize grasshoppers, crickets or mantids. Due to the extreme sexual dimorphism and dual hosts, the sexes could not be matched until recently. We have achieved this using molecular data.’
Surprisingly, although Strepsiptera can infect and live inside the host insect for almost its entire life, the host seems unaffected and can even have its lifespan extended.
More on Physorg: Parasite lives ‘double life’
“Ribonucleotides are simply an expression of the fundamental principles of organic chemistry … They’re doing it unwittingly. The instructions for them to do it are inherent in the structure of the precursor materials. And if they can self-assemble so easily, perhaps they shouldn’t be viewed as complicated.”
From an article in Wired from 2009 on experiments to emulate a ‘primordial soup’.
Brian Eno on “the composer as gardener”:
Of course, I was also familiar with Cage and his use of randomness, and new ways of making musical decisions. Or not making them. What fascinated me about these kinds of music was that they really completely moved away from that old idea of how a composer worked. It was quite clear with these pieces, for example “In C,” that the composer didn’t have a picture of the finished piece in his head when he started. What the composer had was a kind of menu, a packet of seeds, you might say. And those musical seeds, once planted, turned into the piece. And they turned into a different version of that piece every time.
So for me, this was really a new paradigm of composing. Changing the idea of the composer from somebody who stood at the top of a process and dictated precisely how it was carried out, to somebody who stood at the bottom of a process who carefully planted some rather well-selected seeds, hopefully, and watched them turn into something. What we did have, though, was cybernetics. And I became very interested in the work of a cybernetician called Stafford Beer. In fact, I became friends with him, ultimately. Stafford had written a book called The Brain Of The Firm, The Managerial Cybernetics Of Organization, which came out, I think, in ’72 or ’73. And it was a very exciting book because it was essentially about this idea, again, unspoken at the time, of bottom-up organization, of things growing from the bottom and turning into things of greater complexity.
Now, you must understand why this was surprising at the time. It’s surprising for the same reason that evolution theory is still surprising to most Americans. Which is that the concept of something intelligent coming from something simple is very hard to understand. It’s not intuitive at all. The whole shock about Darwinian evolution is that simplicity turns into complexity. It’s not obvious that that should happen.
What happened in Stafford’s work was that he was talking about organization and how things organize themselves in this new way. And there was one sentence in the book which I think I still remember, he said ‘instead of trying to organize it in full detail, you organize it only somewhat and you then rely on the dynamics of the system to take you in the direction you want to go.’ And this became my sort of motto for how I wanted composition to be.
Researcher Dr Daniel Nettle explained: “Creative types lead a bohemian lifestyle and tend to act on more sexual impulses and opportunities, often purely for experience’s sake, than the average person would.
“It’s common to find that this sexual behaviour is tolerated. Partners, even long-term ones, are less likely to expect loyalty and fidelity from them.”
But he said these “schizotypal” personality traits could manifest themselves in negative ways.
“A person with them is likely to be prone to the shadows of full-blown mental illness such as depression and suicidal thoughts.”
He said there could be an underlying evolutionary survival benefit that would explain why creative people continued to display schizotypal character traits.
“There are positive reasons, such as their role in mate attraction and species survival, for why these characteristics are still around.”
His work in Proceedings of the Royal Society B focused on 425 men and women, including a sample of visual artists and poets and schizophrenic patients, and their history of sexual encounters since the age of 18.
BBC Health (Nov 2005)
A 1998 article from the Cornell University Chronicle:
Fans of hot, spicy cuisine can thank nasty bacteria and other food-borne pathogens for the recipes that come — not so coincidentally — from countries with hot climates. Humans’ use of antimicrobial spices developed in parallel with food-spoilage microorganisms, Cornell biologists have demonstrated in a international survey of spice use in cooking.
The same chemical compounds that protect the spiciest spice plants from their natural enemies are at work today in foods from parts of the world where — before refrigeration — food-spoilage microbes were an even more serious threat to human health and survival than they are today, Jennifer Billing and Paul W. Sherman report in the March 1998 issue of the journal Quarterly Review of Biology.
“The proximate reason for spice use obviously is to enhance food palatability,” said Sherman, an evolutionary biologist and professor of neurobiology and behavior at Cornell. “But why do spices taste good? Traits that are beneficial are transmitted both culturally and genetically, and that includes taste receptors in our mouths and our taste for certain flavors. People who enjoyed food with antibacterial spices probably were healthier, especially in hot climates. They lived longer and left more offspring. And they taught their offspring and others: ‘This is how to cook a mastodon.’ We believe the ultimate reason for using spices is to kill food-borne bacteria and fungi.”
From Alan Watts, Out of Your Mind:
We define manliness in terms of aggression, you see, because we’re a little bit frightened as to whether or not we’re really men. And so we put on this great show of being a tough guy. It’s completely unnecessary. If you have what it takes, you don’t need to put on that show. And you don’t need to beat nature into submission. Why be hostile to nature? Because after all, you ARE a symptom of nature. You, as a human being, you grow out of this physical universe in exactly the same way an apple grows off an apple tree.
So let’s say the tree which grows apples is a tree which apples, using ‘apple’ as a verb. And a world in which human beings arrive is a world that peoples. And so the existence of people is symptomatic of the kind of universe we live in. Just as spots on somebody’s skin is symptomatic of chicken pox. Just as hair on a head is symptomatic of what’s going on in the organism. But we have been brought up by reason of our two great myths–the ceramic and the automatic–not to feel that we belong in the world. So our popular speech reflects it. You say ‘I came into this world.’ You didn’t. You came out of it. You say ‘Face facts.’ We talk about ‘encounters’ with reality, as if it was a head-on meeting of completely alien agencies.
people say there was a primordial explosion, an enormous bang billions of years ago which flung all the galaxies into space. Well let’s take that just for the sake of argument and say that was the way it happened.
It’s like you took a bottle of ink and you threw it at a wall. Smash! And all that ink spread. And in the middle, it’s dense, isn’t it? And as it gets out on the edge, the little droplets get finer and finer and make more complicated patterns, see? So in the same way, there was a big bang at the beginning of things and it spread. And you and I, sitting here in this room, as complicated human beings, are way, way out on the fringe of that bang. We are the complicated little patterns on the end of it. Very interesting. But so we define ourselves as being only that. If you think that you are only inside your skin, you define yourself as one very complicated little curlicue, way out on the edge of that explosion. Way out in space, and way out in time. Billions of years ago, you were a big bang, but now you’re a complicated human being. And then we cut ourselves off, and don’t feel that we’re still the big bang. But you are. Depends how you define yourself. You are actually–if this is the way things started, if there was a big bang in the beginning– you’re not something that’s a result of the big bang. You’re not something that is a sort of puppet on the end of the process. You are still the process. You are the big bang, the original force of the universe, coming on as whoever you are. When I meet you, I see not just what you define yourself as–Mr so-and- so, Ms so-and-so, Mrs so-and-so–I see every one of you as the primordial energy of the universe coming on at me in this particular way. I know I’m that, too. But we’ve learned to define ourselves as separate from it.
The BBC has a story on ‘transactive memory’:
Computers and the internet are changing the nature of our memory, research in the journal Science suggests.
Psychology experiments showed that people presented with difficult questions began to think of computers.
When participants knew that facts would be available on a computer later, they had poor recall of answers but enhanced recall of where they were stored.
The researchers say the internet acts as a “transactive memory” that we depend upon to remember for us.
Lead author Betsy Sparrow of Columbia University said that transactive memory “is an idea that there are external memory sources – really storage places that exist in other people”.
“There are people who are experts in certain things and we allow them to be, [to] make them responsible for certain kinds of information,” she explained to BBC News.
Co-author of the paper Daniel Wegner, now at Harvard University, first proposed the transactive memory concept in a book chapter titled Cognitive Interdependence in Close Relationships, finding that long-term couples relied on each other to act as one another’s memory banks.
This entire blog is a sort of transactive memorybank for me. I post things I find interesting here so that I can refer back to them later.
Read more @ BBC
The European Space Agency has some insights into the unglamorous practical details of daily life as an astronaut. Snip:
Once stirred, the astronauts tend to adopt a foetus-like posture as they move weightlessly about the station. Sometimes referred to unflatteringly as the “simian hunch”, it seems to be the natural human attitude in microgravity; perhaps it really is an echo of the weightless months that every growing embryo spends floating in its mother’s womb.
The crew dress as quickly as they can: no easy task when your limbs float out at odd angles. They wear disposable clothes, replacing them once every three days: there are no washing machines in space. But the ISS does have a shower. Water squirts out of the “top” to be sucked down by an air fan at the “bottom”. The shower has to be used sparingly to conserve water, but it is a luxury item that earlier space pioneers would have envied. and today’s astronauts cherish.
More on the ESA website (via reddit)
The Ascent of Man with Jacob Bronowsky, on youtube in six parts. A nicely philosophical and poetic approach to question “what makes us human?”. Thanks to Machteld
The Galaxy Song from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.