April 29th, 2009



The New York Times has a very interesting article about social insect behaviour, and a beauuuutiful photo gallery to accompany it.

To understand what is really going on in a colony of ants or bees, Dr. Dornhaus, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona, tracks the little creatures individually — hence the paint and the numbers. Individual ants, she said, have “their own brains and legs, as well as complex and flexible behaviors.” She continues, “Each ant’s behavior and the rules under which it operates generate a pattern for the colony, so it’s crucial to discover its individual cognitive skill.”

The social insects, she said, are “the most interesting creatures evolution has produced.”

Dr. Dornhaus is breaking new ground in her studies of whether the efficiency of ant society, based on a division of labor among ant specialists, is important to their success. To do that, she said, “I briefly anesthetized 1,200 ants, one by one, and painted them using a single wire-size brush, with model airplane paint — Rally Green, Racing Red, Daytona Yellow.”

After recording their behavior with two video cameras aiming down on an insect-size stage, she analyzed 300 hours of videotape of the ants in action. She discovered behavior more worthy of Aesop’s grasshopper than the proverbial industrious ants.

“The specialists aren’t necessarily good at their jobs,” she said. “And the other ants don’t seem to recognize their lack of ability.”

Dr. Dornhaus found that fast ants took one to five minutes to perform a task — collecting a piece of food, fetching a sand-grain stone to build a wall, transporting a brood item — while slow ants took more than an hour, and sometimes two. And she discovered that about 50 percent of the other ants do not do any work at all. In fact, small colonies may sometimes rely on a single hyperactive overachiever.

Why do some worker ants lean on their shovels and let the rest of the workers do all the work? “It’s like students living together — you’ll always find one will have a lower threshold for doing the washing up and will end up always doing it all,” she said.

Read more: NY Times.

April 27th, 2009


How superficial is it to judge a book by its cover anyway? NewScientist explores how we interpret people’s appearances and what that can mean for the person judged.

THE history of science could have been so different. When Charles Darwin applied to be the “energetic young man” that Robert Fitzroy, the Beagle’s captain, sought as his gentleman companion, he was almost let down by a woeful shortcoming that was as plain as the nose on his face. Fitzroy believed in physiognomy – the idea that you can tell a person’s character from their appearance. As Darwin’s daughter Henrietta later recalled, Fitzroy had “made up his mind that no man with such a nose could have energy”. Fortunately, the rest of Darwin’s visage compensated for his sluggardly proboscis: “His brow saved him.”

The idea that a person’s character can be glimpsed in their face dates back to the ancient Greeks. It was most famously popularised in the late 18th century by the Swiss poet Johann Lavater, whose ideas became a talking point in intellectual circles. In Darwin’s day, they were more or less taken as given. It was only after the subject became associated with phrenology, which fell into disrepute in the late 19th century, that physiognomy was written off as pseudoscience.

Now the field is undergoing something of a revival. Researchers around the world are re-evaluating what we see in a face, investigating whether it can give us a glimpse of someone’s personality or even help to shape their destiny. What is emerging is a “new physiognomy” which is more subtle but no less fascinating than its old incarnation.

Read further at NewScientist

April 27th, 2009

the molly miller blenny


This picture of a “Molly Miller Blenny” fish, taken by Judy Townsend, is one of many beautiful images from the University of Miami Rosenstiel School’s Underwater Photography Contest 2009. See more at NewScientist.

April 27th, 2009

physics fun

Eddy Current Tubes — Drop the Magnets down the tube. An eddy current is set up in a conductor in response to a changing magnetic field. Lenz’s law predicts that the current moves in such a way as to create a magnetic field opposing the change; to do this in a conductor, electrons swirl in a plane perpendicular to the changing magnetic field.

Because the magnetic fields of the eddy currents oppose the magnetic field of the falling magnet; there is attraction between the two fields. Energy is converted into heat. This principle is used in damping the oscillation of the lever arm of mechanical balances.

Cartleton University has a series of videos of physics demonstrations. Number twelve elucidates eddy currents (the phenomenon seen in the video above):

April 25th, 2009

Roger Ebert on God

Take infinity. We know there must be an infinite number of numbers, because how could there be a Last Number? The more interesting puzzle is, how did there come to be a First Number, and why do many mammals other than man know how to count, at least a little? I don’t believe the universe counts. Counting is a mental exercise, and mathematics is useful to the degree it helps us describe and understand the universe, and work within it in useful ways. A Last Number is not important; only the impossibility of one.

Quantum theory is now discussing instantaneous connections between two entangled quantum objects such an electrons. This phenomenon has been observed in laboratory experiments and scientists believe they have proven it takes place. They’re not talking about faster than the speed of light. Speed has nothing to do with it. The entangled objects somehow communicate instantaneously at a distance. If that is true, distance has no meaning. Light years have no meaning. Space has no meaning.

In a sense, the entangled objects are not even communicating. They are the same thing. At the “quantum level,” and I don’t know what that means and cannot visualize it, everything that there is may be actually or theoretically linked. All is one. Sun, moon, stars, rain, you, me, everything. All one. If this is so, then Buddhism must have been a quantum theory all along.

Roger Ebert: How I Believe in God

April 23rd, 2009

Nixon’s undelivered moon disaster speech

Nixon’s speech writer prepared a speech for the event that Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong wouldn’t be able to return to earth after landing on the Moon. The speech is rather positive despite the morbid circumstances it describes.

Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

From watergate.info via neatorama

April 22nd, 2009

tea for sleeping

While looking for suggested teas to help aid sleeping, I found a piece about a study that has found that green tea (or, more specifically, an agent found in green tea) improves the quality of sleep in young men (perhaps everyone else too, but that’s not what the study was focused on, as far as I know):

The small study used the pure, enzymatically produced L-theanine dietary supplement Suntheanine manufactured by functional ingredients company Taiyo Kagaku Japan.

“Our clinical study strongly suggests that Suntheanine supplementation of young men can improve both the quality of sleep and the mental state of being refreshed on waking up,” said the study’s author, Dr Shuichiro Shirakawa, a professor at The National Center of Neurology and Psychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in Tokyo.

Rich in cancer-fighting antioxidants, green tea extracts are steadily being introduced into food and beverage products. The tea’s active agent Epigallocatecin-3-gallate, is thought to aid a wide range of health conditions, notably lower cholesterol, prevent heart disease, fight bacteria and dental cavities, possibly aid weight loss and slow tumor growth in breast and liver cancers.

Only 22 people were tested though so it’s hardly conclusive. Read more.

Oh, and my original search found peppermint, chamomile and rosemary tea to be the most frequently recommended for helping one get to sleep. Although one website also listed peppermint as a refreshing tea for helping you wake up — so perhaps there is no inherent agent that aids sleep, rather it is the warming effect that is soothing when one is ready for bed (and softly invigorating upon waking).

Posted in Biology, Tea | No Comments »
April 20th, 2009

human/petunia genetic hybrid?


Eduardo Kac has apparently created a hybrid of himself and the petunia flower — the “Edunia”, he calls it. A gene isolated and sequenced from his blood produces a protein in the flower which is apparent in the red “veins” of the flower (see above).

I very much enjoy the sentiment behind this work of transgenic art:

This work seeks to instill in the public a sense of wonder about this most amazing of phenomena we call “life”. The general public may have no difficulty in considering how close we truly are to apes and other non-human animals, particularly those with which it is possible to communicate directly, such as cats and dogs. However, the thought that we are also close to other life forms, including flora, will strike most as surprising.

This is the central work of his Natural History of the Enigma.

Addendum: I didn’t realise it was the same artist, but I already posted about Kac’s work before. See another piece of his I admire: Genesis.

April 20th, 2009

photic sneezing

This morning my classmate and I were walking to college and both sneezed at the sight of the sun. There’s an article on NewScientist that explores the possible reasons for this apparently common reaction to the sun’s light.

Mahmood Bhutta offers the hypothesis that it is to do with crossed ‘wires’ in our nervous system. From the article:

All these nerve responses flow to and from regions of the medulla close to where the sneeze centre is located. This suggests that far from being a neat system of discrete responses to individual stimuli, our reflex systems at their base in the medulla are often a tangled web of cross-talking nerve wires. Sometimes when bright sunlight hits our eyes, the parasympathetic system responds appropriately and our pupils constrict. But for certain people whose medullas are wired differently, sunlight triggers a different reflex response, such as a sneeze.

Nervous overkill is no deal breaker in the survival stakes as long as the right reflexes are also stimulated at the right time, so aberrant genes that cause confused reflexes in some individuals would have been conserved by evolution. “It’s a mess,” says Bhutta, “because it’s never had to be anything else.”

Read more at NewScientist

April 20th, 2009

a blunder of man

This piece by Gabrielle Prendergast on the Science Creative Quarterly is very good. I shan’t say anything more than that!

April 19th, 2009

not everything is a poem

but these are two by Walt Whitman:

Are you the new person drawn toward me?
To begin with, take warning, I am surely far different from what you suppose;
Do you suppose you will find in me your ideal?
Do you think it so easy to have me become your lover?
Do you think the friendship of me would be unalloy’d satisfaction?
Do you think I am trusty and faithful?
Do you see no further than this façade, this smooth and tolerant manner of me?
Do you suppose yourself advancing on real ground toward a real heroic man?
Have you no thought, O dreamer, that it may be all maya, illusion?

Here are some excerpts from Whitman’s rather long “Song of Myself” (yes I am butchering it to extract my favourite parts, but it is 52 verses long; read the whole thing here if you’re interested):

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.

Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d the earth much?
Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon out of their mothers’ laps,
And here you are the mothers’ laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

I dote on myself, there is that lot of me and all so luscious,
Each moment and whatever happens thrills me with joy,
I cannot tell how my ankles bend, nor whence the cause of my faintest wish,
Nor the cause of the friendship I emit, nor the cause of the friendship I take again.

That I walk up my stoop, I pause to consider if it really be,
A morning-glory at my window satisfies me more than the metaphysics of books.

To behold the day-break!
The little light fades the immense and diaphanous shadows,
The air tastes good to my palate.

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef-d’œuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
And the cow crunching with depress’d head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.

I find I incorporate gneiss, coal, long-threaded moss, fruits, grains, esculent roots,
And am stucco’d with quadrupeds and birds all over,
And have distanced what is behind me for good reasons,
But call any thing back again when I desire it.

These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me,
If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next to nothing,
If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they are nothing,
If they are not just as close as they are distant they are nothing.

This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is,
This the common air that bathes the globe.

My lovers suffocate me,
Crowding my lips, thick in the pores of my skin,
Jostling me through streets and public halls, coming naked to me at night,
Crying by day Ahoy! from the rocks of the river, swinging and chirping over my head,
Calling my name from flower-beds, vines, tangled underbrush,
Lighting on every moment of my life,
Bussing my body with soft balsamic busses,
Noiselessly passing handfuls out of their hearts and giving them to be mine.

And I say to mankind, Be not curious about God,
For I who am curious about each am not curious about God,
(No array of terms can say how much I am at peace about God and about death.)

I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least,
Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself.

Why should I wish to see God better than this day?
I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then,
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass,
I find letters from God dropt in the street, and every one is sign’d by God’s name,
And I leave them where they are, for I know that wheresoe’er I go,
Others will punctually come for ever and ever.

And as to you Corpse I think you are good manure, but that does not offend me,
I smell the white roses sweet-scented and growing,
I reach to the leafy lips, I reach to the polish’d breasts of melons.

And as to you Life I reckon you are the leavings of many deaths,
(No doubt I have died myself ten thousand times before.)

I hear you whispering there O stars of heaven,
O suns—O grass of graves—O perpetual transfers and promotions,
If you do not say any thing how can I say any thing?

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

Read the whole poem here.

April 19th, 2009

flavour tripping

Bompas & Parr held the UK’s first public flavour tripping party on the 16 October at MAN-MADE, a pop-up store open for the duration of Frieze. Participants investigated the curious effects of miracle fruit (Synsepalum Dulcificum) which makes lemons taste like toffee and vinegar like sherry.

Miracle berries contain active ingredient miraculin which when eaten binds to the tongue’s taste buds and makes bitter and sour foods taste sweet. The berry, which is native to West Africa has an effect that lasts between twenty minutes and two hours. At the event, participants consumed freeze dried berries before being invited to pillage a table set for a feast. Similar flavour tripping evenings have stirred New York’s culinary and art scenes.

From Jellymongers

More about miracle fruit from wikipedia:

The berry, also known as miracle, magic, miraculous or flavor berry,[2][3] was first documented by explorer Chevalier des Marchais[4] who searched for many different fruits during a 1725 excursion to its native West Africa. Marchais noticed that local tribes picked the berry from shrubs and chewed it before meals.

About the freeze-dried miraclefruit tablets mentioned in the story:

The tablet is used by patients who are undergoing chemotherapy to help them alleviate the metallic taste from chemotherapy treatment. The tablets are also useful for diabetics and those who are trying to lose weight.[12]

The tablets were popularized in Asia, where they are widely used among diabetics and dieters.[5][6] They are now widely available on the Internet.

April 18th, 2009

low-tech solar panel


An inventive Chinese farmer has made a solar panel array from beer bottles… Well, sort of.

“I invented this for my mother. I wanted her to shower comfortably,” says Ma Yanjun, of Qiqiao village, Shaanxi province.

Ma’s invention features 66 beer bottles attached to a board. The bottles are connected to each other so that water flows through them.

Sunlight heats the water as is passes slowly through the bottles before flowing into the bathroom as hot water, reports China Economy Network.

Ma says it provides enough hot water for all three members of his family to have a shower every day.

And more than 10 families in the village have already followed suit and installed their own versions of Ma’s invention.

From weirdasianews.

April 18th, 2009



I think this is beautiful.

In these environmentally-conscious times the cast mineral marble washbasin Abisko brings us back to nature. Inspired by the unspoilt waterfalls of the Swedish National Park Abisko, the sink is unfettered by pipes. Nor does it allow water to accumulate in a big tub, something designers Johan Kauppi and Lars Sundström deem unnecessary. Rather, one should be aware of just how much water one is using, and catch it with careful consideration. An extraordinary, sculptural piece, the Abisko washbasin captures the freshness of mountain streams as water cascades down the length of the sink to slip away down a discreet floor-level grill. Living with an awareness of our limited resources, surrounded by cherished objects… these are the keys to happiness offered by the Abisko Washbasin from Eumar.

More images at Trendir.

via notcot

April 18th, 2009

proof of music as a universal language?

The isolated Mafa people of northern Cameroon were recently involved in putting to the test the idea of music as a universal language.

A team led by Thomas Fritz visited the Mafa people and played excerpts from Western music intended to evoke one of three emotions: happiness, sadness, or fear. The listeners were pre-screened to make sure they had never been exposed to Western music. The experimenters showed the listeners images of faces expressing each of these emotions, and asked the listeners to point to the face that best represented the emotion conveyed by each excerpt.

Read the full article for the results of the research, and for the accompanying music clips (which are a fascinating supplement to the article). via kottke

April 18th, 2009

Planet X and the “Wow!” signal

I wish that were the title of a film, but it’s merely a summation of my favourite stories from this NewScientist article: 13 things that do not make sense .

Also interesting was the question raised by homeopathy research (a field the concept of which I didn’t really understand before reading their summary here):

MADELEINE Ennis, a pharmacologist at Queen’s University, Belfast, was the scourge of homeopathy. She railed against its claims that a chemical remedy could be diluted to the point where a sample was unlikely to contain a single molecule of anything but water, and yet still have a healing effect. Until, that is, she set out to prove once and for all that homeopathy was bunkum.

In her most recent paper, Ennis describes how her team looked at the effects of ultra-dilute solutions of histamine on human white blood cells involved in inflammation. These “basophils” release histamine when the cells are under attack. Once released, the histamine stops them releasing any more. The study, replicated in four different labs, found that homeopathic solutions – so dilute that they probably didn’t contain a single histamine molecule – worked just like histamine. Ennis might not be happy with the homeopaths’ claims, but she admits that an effect cannot be ruled out.

So how could it happen? Homeopaths prepare their remedies by dissolving things like charcoal, deadly nightshade or spider venom in ethanol, and then diluting this “mother tincture” in water again and again. No matter what the level of dilution, homeopaths claim, the original remedy leaves some kind of imprint on the water molecules. Thus, however dilute the solution becomes, it is still imbued with the properties of the remedy.

You can understand why Ennis remains sceptical. And it remains true that no homeopathic remedy has ever been shown to work in a large randomised placebo-controlled clinical trial. But the Belfast study (Inflammation Research, vol 53, p 181) suggests that something is going on. “We are,” Ennis says in her paper, “unable to explain our findings and are reporting them to encourage others to investigate this phenomenon.” If the results turn out to be real, she says, the implications are profound: we may have to rewrite physics and chemistry.

April 17th, 2009

girl born from 22 year old sperm

A former leukaemia patient who had his sperm frozen as a teenager has fathered a baby after doctors successfully thawed his sample a record 22 years later.

Chris Biblis was 16 when doctors told him that he needed radiotherapy that would leave him sterile and recommended before going ahead with the life-saving treatment that they put a sample of his sperm into cryogenic storage for future use.

Now aged 38, he is celebrating the birth of a healthy baby daughter, Stella, who was conceived after scientists injected a defrosted sperm into an egg from his wife, Melodie, and implanted it in her uterus.

The 22-year lapse between storage in April 1986 and conception in June 2008 is a world record, according to specialists at the US fertility clinic who carried out the procedure.

Read more.

Posted in Biology | No Comments »
April 16th, 2009

stick a fork in me, i’m Larry

Conrad H. Roth of VUE has provided an interesting identification of that notoriously happy Larry. See here.

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