Great Science Writing

If you like science and want to read more about it, you should be reading Nautilus. And if you like Nautilus, you should subscribe to its quarterly for more unique writing.

I’m spending my Saturday morning flipping through it and there’s a beautiful essay by Caspar Henderson on the current frontiers of our knowledge.

Here are a few reminders of just how little we know:

Working memory and episodic memory are widespread among animals, as are social inclinations born of environmental pressures that favor their evolution. The distinction between cognition and emotion is also increasingly seen as a false one. Crows and other members of the corvid family have self-awareness and a theory of mind. Octopuses can solve some problems as well as 3-year-old children, not to mention perform feats of dexterity far beyond the scope of humans. Chimpanzees grieve for non-related individuals, and records of their reactions to stimuli such as a majestic waterfall and the birth of a baby chimp suggest that they may be capable of a sense of wonder.


The microbiologist Lynn Margulis was rejected by about 15 leading journals before her pathbreaking paper on symbiosis was published in 1967. She argued that the complex cells of protists, plants, and animals resulted from earlier and simpler organisms merging and cooperating. The ancestors of chloroplasts and mitochondria, the organelles in plants and animal cells that provide them energy, were once free-living bacteria that larger organisms then swallowed. But instead of becoming lunch, the bacteria took up residence, like Jonah in the belly of the whale. Unlike Jonah, however, they paid for their keep by performing a new role as ‘batteries.’

Today the evidence for Margulis’s theory of endo-symbiosis, as it has become known, is overwhelming. The physician and essayist Lewis Thomas captured the essential point in an essay published in the 1970s, proposing “some biomythology.” A bestiary for modern times, he argued, should be a micro-bestiary, since microbes teach us an essential lesson: “There is a tendency for living things to join up, establish linkages, live inside each other, return to earlier arrangements, get along whenever possible.”

And finally this intriguing thought:

If extraterrestrial life does exist, how “weird” might it be? The adjective can be used in a semi-precise way to mean any life form with which, unlike everything we know of on Earth, we do not share a common ancestor. On the principle that life can evolve or endure where there is a flow of energy to be harvested, one of the most statistically likely places is in the vicinity of white dwarf stars common enough objects in the universe—where collisions with dark matter will continue to provide a steady trickle of energy until the universe is 10^25 years old, or about 10,000 trillion times long as it took life to appear on Earth. Life on these stars, if it were to exist, would have a very slow metabolism and rate of consciousness, taking 1,000 years to complete a single thought.

Give it a read; you will definitely learn something new.

Best Metaphor Ever?

Wendy is currently reading Bill Bryson‘s A Short History of Nearly Everything . From it comes the following passage, with possibly the best metaphor ever for the slow pace of geological time:

…If you imagine the 4.5 billion odd years of Earth’s history compressed into a normal earthly day, then life begins very early, about 4 a.m., with the rise of the first simple, single-celled organisms, but then advances no further for the next sixteen hours. Not until almost 8:30 in the evening, with the day five-sixth over, has Earth anything to show the universe but a restless skin of microbes. Then, finally, the first sea plants appear, followed twenty minutes later by the first jellyfish and the enigmatic Ediacaran fauna first seen by Reginald Sprigg in Australia. At 9:04 p.m. trilobites swim onto the scene, followed more or less immediately by the shapely creatures of the Burgess Shale. Just before 10 p.m. plants begin to pop up on the land. Soon after, with less than two hours left in the day, the first land creatures follow.

Thanks to ten minutes or so of balmy weather, by 10:24 the Earth is covered in the great carboniferous forests whose residues give us all our coal, and the first winged insects are evident. Dinosaurs plod onto the scene just before 11 p.m. and hold sway for about three-quarters of an hour. At twenty-one minutes to midnight they vanish and the age of mammals begins. Humans emerge one minute and seventeen seconds before midnight. The whole of our recorded history, on this scale, would be no more than a few seconds, a single human lifetime barely an instant. Throughoutt this greatly speeded-up day continents slide about and bang together at a clip that seems positively reckless. Mountains rise and melt away, ocean basins come and go, ice sheets advance and withdraw. And throughout the whole, about three times every minutes, somewhere on the planet this a flashbulb pop of light marking the impact of a Manson-sized meteor or one even larger. It’s a wonder that anything at all can survive in such a pummelled and unsettled environment. In fact, not many things do for long.

Two Interesting Thoughts

I was reading the most recent issue of Technology Review and two things popped out at me. The first, was the difference in energy density (measured in MJ/kg) between gasoline, ethanol and batteries:

This, in a nutshell, highlights the reason why you don’t see very many electric cars on the road today. They either weigh the same as gasoline cars (and are therefore underpowered) or are full of batteries galore (and therefore cost a lot more). It’s going to be very interesting to watch this statistic change over time.

The other was about what Japanese researchers have been doing with Marmosets:

This spring, news of a biological breakthrough arrived in the form of baby marmosets whose feet glowed green under ultraviolet light.  Researchers at the Central Institute for Experimental Animals in Kawasaki, Japan, had genetically engineered the monkeys to incorporate a gene, derived from jellyfish, that produces green fluorescent protein.  It was the first time scientists had added a gene to a primate in such a way that a new trait could be passed to a second generation.

This is unreal news.  If this turns out to be scalable and applicable to humans (both very big ‘ifs’), we could be looking at a future where it will be possible to speed up evolution.  You could now pick and choose the best traits from anywhere and attempt to graft them into a human genome and see the results enter the global human gene pool immediately.  (I’m not recommending any of this, rather it’s important to realize how fast this technology is evolving and what it’s implications are)

Today’s Big Idea

There are big ideas and then there are big ideas.  Reading this blog entry on Ford’s electric vehicles is mind expanding.  Imagine an America with lots of electric cars.  Now imagine a smart electric grid with variable pricing.  Your car charges at night (when power cheap and interestingly most winds are strong enough).  During the day, if it’s plugged in, it’s putting energy back into the grid – and you’re pocketing the difference.  That’s a huge idea.

More Human Than Human

I love reading about behavioural economics and how human nature limits our ability to make rational decisions. I love it even more when I find myself behaving irrationally despite being aware of it (this is all very meta).

Here are two recent examples:

1) On Sunday I went for a run. In the crazy heat. With my iPhone in my pocket. After two and a half hours in my sweaty pocket, it wouldn’t work.

I had turned my $0 run into a $450 run and mentally readied myself to go buy a new phone on Monday.

But then something great happened-the damn thing came back to life (I’m writing this blog post on it right now). I started to feel elated about the $450 I had ‘saved’ when, in reality, absolutely nothing about my financial situation had changed.

2) I sold a bunch of stocks the other day at a modest return. However, I kept tracking this portfolio just to see how it does. Unfortunately for me, it’s been doing great-or at least one stock has. This pains me-even though it’s just a shadow portfolio.

Moreover, when the market fell on Monday, I going myself checking to see how much I would have lost, even though I would still theoretically be up. Needless to say, this was getting so unhealthy that I just deleted the portfolio.

I’m quickly realizing that though it’s easy to read about this stuff it’s going to take a lifetime to master.