Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Showing posts with label Charles Darwin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Charles Darwin. Show all posts

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Last of Their Kinds: On and Off the Red List

Image Source: Sebastian Kennerknecht/PantheraCats/Twitter.

This year, the blog keeps returning to the Himalayas, and there must be something to that: see my earlier posts on the Himalayas here, here, and a 2015 post, here.

Today's post concerns the BBC report from 14 September 2017 that the snow leopard (Panthera uncia), the great cat of the Himalayas, has been removed from the endangered list, and is now classified as vulnerable. Scientists argue that the reclassification could place these cats at greater risk, but it is still good news that their population has improved.

As the snow leopard departs the endangered list, more than 150 species have been added to it. The ash trees of North America, a population of 9 billion trees, have been classified on the brink of extinction, due to an invasive Asian insect, the emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis). In the past few years, all the beautiful ash trees around my home in eastern Canada have died or started dying.

The Christmas Island pipistrelle bat was declared extinct this month. Image Source: Lindy Lumsden/Mongabay.

The Christmas Island Pipistrelle vesper bat of Australia (Pipistrellus murrayi) was declared extinct in September 2017. I have previously written on extinctions as less-recognized moments in history and as turning points in time. I have also discussed efforts to use genetic manipulation and cloning to bring back extinct species, as scientists work against the course of time and evolution; this is most noticeable when they plan to revive prehistoric species.

Image Source: BBC.

Image Source: BBC.

Image Source: Scott Olson/Getty Images/NPR.

Snow Leopard: First Intimate Images In The Wild - Planet Earth - BBC Earth (12 March 2017). Video Source: Youtube.

See all my posts on Extinction.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Quote of the Day: Earthworm Tribute

Man is but a Worm from Punch's Almanack (1882). Image Source: Tulane University via Wired.

From this week's Free Will Astrology, for anyone who still inches forward:
Charles Darwin is best known for his book The Origin of Species, which contains his seminal ideas about evolutionary biology. But while he was still alive, his best-seller was The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms. The painstaking result of over forty years' worth of research, it is a tribute to the noble earthworm and that creature's crucial role in the health of soil and plants. It provides a different angle on one of Darwin's central concerns: how small, incremental transformations that take place over extended periods of time can have monumental effects.
You can read The Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the Action of Worms, with Observations on their Habits (1881) for free online here.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

No Dislike Button: Social Media's Utopian Judgements and Misjudgements

Image Source: RLBPhotoart via Ghost Hunting Theories.

The blog is back! You know that gradual sense of erosion, the haunting of a Millennial mind as it over-surfs through a day that starts with optimism and ends with futility? How do social media contribute to a day's drift toward despair? In a New Yorker article from October 2014, Joshua Rothman criticized Facebook's fake optimism, its missing 'dislike' button, its relentless insistence that we like everything and constantly cough up happy thoughts and accomplishments to build a smiley online community (Hat tip: Daniel Neville). Rothman sees Facebook as an arena, where participants compete as greatest contributors to collective happiness, equated with a complex of good attitudes and real outputs as proof that good attitudes work. Beneath that, there is a misjudgement of those who are not sharing enough good attitude tidbits, or enough evidence of personal success. Rothman thus concludes that Facebook is one of the Web's Kafkaesque lower courts of judgement:
Facebook, like much of the Web, is officially designed to encourage positivity; there is no “dislike” button, and the stated goal is to facilitate affiliation and belonging. But, over time, the site’s utopian social bureaucracy has been overwhelmed by the Kafkaesque churn of punishment. ... Facebook has become a dream space of judgment—a place where people you may know only in the most casual way suddenly reveal themselves to be players in a pervasive system of discipline. The site is an accusation aggregator, and the news feed is the docket—full of opportunities to publicly admire the good or publicly denigrate the bad, to judge others for their mistakes or to be judged for doing it wrong.

Not all of Facebook is devoted to overt judgment and punishment, of course; there are plenty of cute family photos and fun listicles floating around. But even superficially innocuous posts can have a hearing-like, evidentiary aspect. (Paranoia, unfortunately, is inevitable in a Kafkaesque world.) The omnipresent “challenge”—one recent version, the “gratitude challenge,” asks you to post three things you’re grateful for every day for five days—is typically Kafkaesque: it’s punishment beneath a veneer of positivity, an accusation of ingratitude against which you must prove your innocence. ... Occasionally, if you post a selfie after your 10K or announce a new job, you might be congratulated for “doing it right.” But what feels great in your feed takes on, in others’ feeds, the character of what evolutionary psychologists call “altruistic punishment”—that is, punishment meted out to those who aren’t contributing to the good of the community.
Social media's stick-wielding positivity is divorced from human experience, while constantly appealing to experience as proof of its viability. You had better build the happiness of your online community, little Boot-camper. Or else. Positive cultural motivation supposedly drives productivity; except it doesn't. In this fake positive culture, dominated by Facebook's small egotists, success becomes meta-performance, which does not mirror the protracted work and grit needed to accomplish anything substantial. Anyone remotely sensitive to actual positives and negatives is left enervated, isolated, alienated, depressed.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Evolutionary Babylon

"A rainbow-colored beast from the margins of a fifteenth-century text." Image Source: Public Domain Review via Paris Review.

The Justin Bieber mugshot is already an Internet meme (do not click here or here and don't don't don't click here (told you not to)). Fortunately, there are other things to think about, like the origins of life. Jeremy England, a 31-year-old physicist at MIT, thinks that he has identified the physics that underlies the difference between inanimate and animate matter. The thermodynamic theory, which complements Darwin's theory of evolution, is outlined in Quanta Magazine, and summarized below the jump.

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, with the Tower of Babel in the background ("probably 19th century after the first excavations in the Assyrian capitals"). Image Source: Wiki.

Already, critics are queueing to attack England's ideas. But is this simply because his concept has appeared in many guises, to researchers working in various fields, each of which has a field-specific language and set of research precedents? Is the theory of the origin of life a modern Tower of Babel?

Monday, September 2, 2013

Genetic Surveillance Art

Heather Dewey-Hagborg: artist's self-portrait, demonstrating the surveillance capacity of DNA trace information. "6/28/12. Self-portrait. Based on mtDNA, Ancestry Information Markers and 50 trait specific SNPs describing gender, eye color and detail, hair color/baldness, hair curliness, complexion, skin lightness/darkness, tendency to be overweight." Image Source: Stranger Visions Project.

BBC reported this summer on an artist who creates portraits from DNA traces found on found objects. Beyond a Millennial artistic statement that is a weird interface of the scientific and transcendent, Heather Dewey-Hagborg aims to make the public aware of how much information really is there:
Heather Dewey-Hagborg is an artist who creates portraits of strangers based on DNA extracted from random rubbish. The project is meant to raise awareness of genetic surveillance, Dewey-Hagborg says. "We should be concerned because we don't know, yet, how our DNA might be used against us in the future," she says. Genetic artefacts such as cigarette butts and chewing gum yield enough DNA to determine one's ancestry, eye colour, and whether or not the person has a tendency to be overweight.
Some participants in this project have waived all copyright to their DNA information, which raises the prospect of understanding how copyright law applies to one's DNA.

While Dewey-Hagborg argues that she is not invading people's privacy and there is 'no way you could recognize someone' from her DNA reconstructions, two possible outcomes from her work immediately spring to mind.

One is the potential for criminal police investigations. The other is that we can trace the actual impact of external life upon our genetic heritage by observing the gap between the DNA reconstruction and the appearance of the real person. The DNA reconstruction provides an image of each person's basic 'blueprint.' The real person presents the 'blueprint' plus the impact of real life. That gap, between 'nature and nurture,' is something that has been the core of (often disturbing) debates in Darwinism versus Social Darwinism, left-right politics, political philosophy, and anthropological analyses since the 19th century.

Dewey-Haborg also identifies a very important aspect of the current mentality that drives technological change; she examines how inductive reasoning, or 'bottom-up' logic, runs rampant through the turn of the Millennium:
the concept of inductive bias, an inextricable component in the framework of intelligent computer systems. ... [T]his bias represents an abstract danger which could have very real social and political consequences. ... [M]y recent art projects [also] experiment with taking the apparatus of surveillance technology and re-purposing its mechanisms for the intention of play rather than the reinforcement of power.
Heather Dewey-Hagborg: Her DNA-Reconstructed-Self-Portrait and the artist In Real Life. Image Source: Design Boom.

DNA hair sample collection at site. Image Source: Thomas Dexter via Design Boom.

Petri dish of DNA samples. Image Source: Heather Dewey-Hagborg via Design Boom.

Sample 10: (Left) Bushwick - Adonis Grocery, 209 Wilson Avenue; (Right) DNA sample from haplogroup: H1+16189 (Spanish, Berber, Lebanese). Image Source: Heather Dewey-Hagborg via Design Boom.

Left: Sample 10 and Right: Sample 12. Image Source: Heather Dewey-Hagborg via Design Boom.

Sample 12: (Left) Bushwick - laundromat, Himrod Street; (Right) DNA sample from haplogroup: H2a2a (Eastern Europe, Near East). Image Source: Heather Dewey-Hagborg via Design Boom.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Destiny in the Palm of Your Hand

Pontius Pilate washes his hands of guilt in the judgement of Christ. Image Source: Daily Bible Plan.

The hand is the most potent symbolic indicator of human ability, tool use and technology. Several cultures over thousands of years associate the hand with 'what you can control,' or 'what you can do' in a given set of circumstances. Hence, the hand is deeply associated with many concepts of fate and destiny.

Recent research from 2011 found that people unconsciously wash their hands when they believe they face bad luck. Similarly, they sense that washing their hands after a streak of good luck will make them lose their good luck. From Machines Like Us:
Do people believe good and bad luck can be washed away?

Yes, according to an advanced online publication in the Journal of Experimental Psychology that was co-authored by Rami Zwick, a University of California, Riverside marketing professor in the School of Business Administration.

Zwick, working with Alison Jing Xu of the University of Toronto, and Norbert Schwarz of the University of Michigan, designed two experiments that showed risk taking depends on whether participants recalled a past episode of good or bad luck and whether they washed their hands before engaging in a risky decision making task. ...

[P]articipants were given a managerial decision task. Taking the role of a chief executive officer, they had to adopt or reject a product improvement recommendation based on two consequences of action.

Under the first option, if they stayed with the existing product profits would remain at the current level, about $20 million per year.

Under the second option, the product was modified, but profits would depend on acceptance by consumers. Marketing research indicated there was a 75 percent chance of strong acceptance, which would result in an increase in profits to $24 million, but there was a 25 percent chance of weak acceptance, resulting in a drop in profits to $12 million.

The researchers found those who recalled an unlucky incident and cleaned their hands and those that recalled a lucky incident and didn't clean their hands were more likely to select the riskier option.

Of those who recalled an unlucky incident and cleaned their hands, 73 percent selected the riskier option, while only 36 percent who recalled an unlucky incident and didn't clean their hands picked the riskier option.

Of those who recalled a lucky incident, 77 percent who didn't clean their hands picked the riskier option, while only 35 percent who cleaned their hands selected the riskier option.

In the second experiment, students and staff from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, where Zwick formerly taught, were given HK $100 (US$1 = HK$7.8) to gamble with. They were told this was "for real" money that they would keep at the end. Indeed, they were paid based on their decisions and luck.

The experimenters showed participants a pink ball and a green ball and placed them in a bag. Participants selected one of the colors as their "winning" color and blindly picked a ball from the bag. If they picked the winning color they won HK$50. If not, they lost HK$50. They repeated the task until they lost their HK$100, won an additional HK$100 or completed four rounds.

Next, an ostensibly unrelated product evaluation study served as a cover story for the hand-washing manipulation. Participants evaluated organic soap. Half were told to wash their hands with the soap. The other half were told not to use the soap.

Finally, participants did a second round of gambling. They received HK$50 and were told they could bet any amount from nothing to HK$50.It was the same game as last time, but with only one round.

Researchers found participants who had good luck in the initial round bet more money in the second round than participants who had bad luck.

However, participants who had bad luck in the first round bet more money in the second round if they washed their hands. The difference was an average of HK$31.15 versus HK$17.47.

In contrast, those who had good luck in the first round bet less money in the second round if they had washed their hands. The difference was an average of HK$28.08 versus HK$37.75.
Then there is the superstitious art of palmistry, where your future fate is literally drawn in the lines in your hands. The practice arose from the arcane idea that the larger workings of the universe are literally imprinted into our bodies. Prevalent in ancient cultures from Tibet to the Mediterranean, palmistry is one of the oldest forms of attempting to see the future, or divination. Palmistry in China dates in the written record back to the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE), although it extends through oral tradition back at least one thousand years before that.

"From left, before and after photos of a patient who underwent palm surgery to engrave an 'emperor’s line,' heralding great success and good fortune." Image Source: Shonan Beauty Clinic via The Daily Beast.

The emperor's line (覇王線) is a three-pronged fork on the palm. Image Source: Creatorz.

Palmistry, also known as chiromancy, is alive and well today. Daily Kos compared the palmistry of Obama's and McCain's hands during the 2008 American election. There are plenty of palmistry analyses of Obama's hands online, one of which notes he has a double life line. Palmistry experts have analyzed celebrities' photos in cases where stars' palms are exposed. See: Albert Einstein; Marilyn Monroe; Osama bin Laden; Prince Charles; Vladimir Putin; Kim Jong Un; Pope Francis; and Angela Merkel.

Several MSM news outlets carried a story this week from Japan, where people are getting plastic surgery to change the fate lines on their hands. From The Daily Beast:
In Japan, where palm reading remains one of the most popular means of fortune-telling, some people have figured out a way to change their fate. It’s a simple idea: change your palm, change the reading, and change your future. ...

Need some good fortune? Add a money-luck line and you might win the lottery or be promoted to vice president in your firm. For the smart shopper—one willing to undergo palm plastic surgery—the future isn’t what it used to be.

“Doctor, I want you to change my fate. Please change my palm.

Even in Japan, where odd surgery requests are not unknown—like the man who had his penis removed and served it as a special dinner—Takaaki Matsuoka, a plastic surgeon at the Shonan Beauty Clinic’s Shinjuku branch, was taken aback. It was January 2011, and a female patient wanted her palm reformatted to bring her better luck. Matsuoka wasn’t sure he could do it.

He scoured medical journals until he found examples of such surgery being done in Korea, studied the methods, then confirmed with the patient what she wanted done, and performed the surgery for ¥100,00 ($1,000). It went well.

The surgery had to be performed with an electric scalpel—which burns the flesh, creating the scent of burnt hot dogs, and leaves a semipermanent scar.

“If you try to create a palm line with a laser, it heals, and it won’t leave a clear mark. You have to use the electric scalpel and make a shaky incision on purpose, because palm lines are never completely straight. If you don’t burn the skin and just use a plain scalpel, the lines don’t form. It’s not a difficult surgery, but it has to be done right.”

From January 2011 to May 2013, 37 palm plastic surgeries have been performed at the Shonan Beauty Clinic alone, 20 of them by Matsuoka. Several other clinics in Japan offer the surgery, but almost none of them advertise it. Word-of-mouth is more than enough. Shonan Beauty Clinic did advertise the service briefly, but couldn’t keep up with the demand.
Image Source: We Heart It.

Image Source: We Heart It.

Image Source: imgfave.

Image Source: We Heart It.

Image Source: We Heart It.

Image Source: We Heart It.

Image Source: We Heart It.

Nail Palmistry. Image Source: We Heart It.

Image Source: We Heart It.

Image Source: Life via We Heart It.

Image Source: We Heart It.

Image Source: We Heart It.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Powerful Promises of Synthetic Life

Synbiosafe DVD cover (2009) © Markus Schmidt and Camillo Meinhart. Image Source: Synbiosafe.

More breathless excitement: MSN reports that scientists are on track to build a synthetic yeast life form by 2017 (via Machines Like Us):
British scientists are taking part in a global effort to build the first synthetic life form whose cell structure resembles that of plants, animals and humans.

The researchers have been given almost STG1 million ($A1.67 million) in government funding to help them construct one of the organism's 16 chromosomes.

They are part of an international consortium committed to creating an artificial version of yeast by 2017.

It will be the first time scientists have built the whole genome, or genetic code blueprint, of a "eukaryotic" organism whose DNA is stored within a nucleus.

All animals and plants fall into this category. Bacteria and blue-green algae are examples of more primitive organisms that lack nuclei.

Three years ago a team led by American geneticist Craig Venter created a synthetic bacterium genome from scratch in what was described as a landmark achievement.

The new project takes the creation of artificial life to the next level by making the jump to a eukaryotic organism.

Professor Paul Freemont, a leading member of the team from the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation at Imperial College London, said: "It's a massive leap forward. Yeast is a eukaryote - it's a much more complicated cell. These are chromosomes that mimic the chromosomes in our own cells."

But he made it very clear this was not a first step towards attempting to build Frankenstein-like human life in a lab.
The Imperial College site for the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation notes:
Synthetic Biology is the engineering of biology. It is an exciting new area of research combining science and engineering to design and build new biological functions and systems, and to understand existing biological life through its rational re-design.
Is there any cause for larger moral concern, or concern about weaponized synthetic biology? Scientific American mulled these questions over vaguely in a 2010 article. While the writer,

Excerpt from Adventures in Synthetic Biology (2007). Image Source: MIT/Nature via h+ magazine.

In 2007, Wired reported on a bit of MIT publicity outreach, published through Nature, which was designed to make synthetic biology more friendly and accessible to the public, and especially to children interested in studying science: "MIT’s Synthetic Biology Working Group partnered with cartoonist Chuck Wadey, to create a comic book, Adventures in Synthetic Biology, to showcase the principles of the field." You can see the whole comic, starring Bacteria Buddy, Device Dude, and System Sally, here.

In 2007-2008, a project, Synbiosafe, won 236,000 euros to explore the ethical and safety issues associated with synthetic biology. The grant came from an EU program, New and Emerging Science and Technology (NEST). The Synbiosafe project was coordinated by Austrian scientist Dr. Markus Schmidt. Just his affiliation - with the Organisation for Internal Dialogue and Conflict Management (IDC) - should clarify where researchers think synthetic biology could go.

Schmidt's personal site notes that he works
in the area of technology assessment of novel bio-, nano- and  converging technologies (such as synthetic biology); [he] explores the interface between science, society and art; and [he] engages in documentary film production and art-science exhibitions. Schmidt is founder of Biofaction and co-founder of IDC.
IDC's project list shows the spheres which synthetic biology touches: environmental pollution; a sustainable energy policy for Africa; promoting biodiversity conservation in Cambodia; improved agricultural portfolios in Europe and Asia; biosafety and genetically modified crops in South Africa.

That's comforting: "Survival of the fittest – the constant battle for resources, the dynamic equilibrium between growth & decline, survival & adaption - is as valid at a human scale as at a microscopic scale." Yeast Pixels 1.0 art installation by pavillon 35/ Silvia Hüttner. Image Source: Pavillon 35.

Biofaction's work tends to concern the 'softer' impacts of synthetic biology, such as an exhibition this summer on how artists understand this technology, or this artistic collective, Pavillon 35 [sic: this is German for 'pavilion']. You can see Pavillon 35's bioart projects here. They have also launched a video game, Synmod, which teaches synthetic biology through science gamification. You can download the Synmod app here.

It looks like the limitations on the burgeoning merger of biology and engineering may not come from ethical considerations, but simply from patents. Like many aspects of today's exploding Tech Revolution, property rights exert a drag and pull effect. They slow things down. That might be a good thing, in some cases, because deeper thinking about what is going on during the tech boom can be thin on the ground in places.

Nevertheless, patents also worryingly corner the market for big players. The question that comes up behind all our new, shiny tech, again and again, is energy, and who controls it. In this case, biofuels are a central focus of this research. The promise of biofuels awakes competition and power grabs just as ruthless as any in the petroleum or nuclear industries. From The Council for Responsible Genetics:
[I]n 2007 the J. Craig Venter Institute applied for a frighteningly broad patent of its "minimal bacterial genome" called Mycoplasma laboratorium. This organism was an attempt to create life with the minimum number of genes by cutting out as many DNA sequences as possible without removing its ability to reproduce or survive. U.S. patent numbers US2007 0264688 and US2007 0269862 describes creation of the first-ever, entirely synthetic living organism-a novel bacterium whose entire genetic information is constructed from synthesized DNA (but whose genome is a near-replica of a naturally occurring genome).

This patent claims exclusive monopoly on the genes in the minimal bacterial genome, the entire organism made from these genes, a digital version of the organism's genome, any version of that organism that could make fuels such as ethanol or hydrogen, any method of producing those fuels that uses the organism, the process of testing a gene's function by inserting other genes into the synthetic organism, and a set of non-essential genes. These patents are not restricted to any specific cell type-it currently applies to prokaryotes and eukaryotes - or size of a synthetic genome.

While these patents have yet to be granted, the claim shows the extent to which some synthetic biologists are testing the limits in the battle to control the fundamental building blocks of life and actual living organisms. While it is likely this specific patent application's scope will be limited to cover only bacterial cells, such a patent would still grant Venter and company an exclusive license to create synthetic fuel-producing bacteria and the tools to create such organisms. Conveniently, Venter's company, Synthetic Genomics, has contracts with both Exxon Mobile and BP to produce "next-generation" biofuels from synthetic cells (or at least genetically engineered cells that contain synthetic DNA sequences).

Amyris Biotechnologies is a synthetic biology company that used genetically engineered yeasts that contain synthetic DNA to break down sugarcane to produce isoprenoids-which are then being converted to biofuels, industrial chemicals, among other products. Patent US 7,659,097, granted to Amyris in February 2010, covers the production of many different isoprenoids created though a number of different microbes. Amyris already has deals with major oil and chemical companies to turn Brazilian sugarcane into high-value commodities. Again, Amyris' "biosynthetic pathways" are near-copies of metabolic pathways found in nature with some "tweaking" of the DNA pathways to allow the yeast to do some things that traditional genetic engineering could not accomplish.

The novel challenge created by the emerging field of synthetic biology is that not only can natural or synthesized DNA be patented, but the processes used to synthesize DNA and create synthetic organisms can also be patented. Furthermore, the living organisms created with synthetic DNA are covered in these patents, as are the products they are engineered to produce. ...
What must be done
While it is clear to us that current court rulings would likely support the patenting of synthetic genomes as developed by Venter's lab and other researchers, Congress should prevent the patenting of DNA sequences that simply copy naturally occurring DNA. To do otherwise would in effect allow another way to patent natural occurring organisms and their DNA-just make synthetic copies of them. That is in no one's interest but the patent holders'.   
See the videos below the jump which promote and debate various synthetic biology concepts. There is also a Youtube playlist of 2011 talks delivered at the Royal Academy of Engineering here; the first video in that playlist is below the jump.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Darwin's Birthday

Charles Darwin in 1871 by O. G. Rejlander. Image Source: Darwin Online.

In honour of Charles Darwin's 203rd birthday today, have a look at Darwin Online, which posts almost all of his publications and private papers. The site includes translations of his works into different languages.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Higgs Boson's Age of New Gods

Image Source: Spaceports.

Freedom. Today, one of the world's most powerful nations celebrates freedom and independence. It is no coincidence that the scientists at CERN in Switzerland chose today to announce the discovery of the Higgs boson particle, the so-called 'God particle,' in the Large Hadron Collider. The press conference (here and here) started live at 2 a.m EST.

In the United States, Fermilab's Tevatron collider was closed on 30 September 2011, after scant funding from the Obama administration. This is ironic, since the Tevatron lies outside Chicago. Although the Tevatron's discoveries contributed greatly to the understanding of particle physics, credit for finding the final part of the Standard Model goes to Europe. In the strain of competition, Tevatron's scientists announced more of their final results on 2 July 2012 (see reports here and here). They did not find the Higgs boson particle, but they got closer to it. American physicists will rejoice at this discovery in the name of their science. But in the name of their country, this is a disappointment for big American physics. It is therefore all the more ironic that CERN is announcing findings on 4 July. You can see popularly-renowned American physicist Brian Greene discuss the importance of this discovery and the post-Higgs world here (Hat tip: Spaceports).

Image Source: Wired.

For years, the Higgs particle has been a maddening hypothesis essential to proving the Standard Model. Today's experimental results placed the Higgs boson right on the line between the theoretical and the real. You can see a video of a 2011 CERN ATLAS proton collision here; ATLAS is one of two teams at CERN which have searched for independent confirmation of the Higgs particle. The other is CMS.

In the past week, the elusive particle's experimental confirmation was surrounded by bloggingrumours and leaks. BBC comments on how huge this discovery is:
A confirmation would be one of the biggest scientific discoveries of the century; the hunt for the Higgs has been compared by some physicists to the Apollo programme that reached the Moon in the 1960s.
Perhaps today's announcement is bigger than the moon landing. The Higgs particle delves into the fascinating mystery of the Big Bang. The particle emerged out of the imagination and mathematics, has entered confirmed reality, and now invites more abstractions. The discovery paves the way for another hypothesis, in effect opens the Pandora's Box of Supersymmetry (see here).

The particle accelerator at CERN. Image Source: Daily Mail.

And if the wildest promises of that Pandora's Box are true, this particle will open doors to new human pathways to understanding - a freedom and independence, if you will, from ignorance about the universe. The Standard Model might be resolved using Supersymmetry to conclude a Theory of Everything, a theory which eluded Albert Einstein.

Supersymmetry gives every last element of reality - from the tiniest sub-particle to the universe itself - a shadowy twin, a Doppelgänger. If the Higgs particle's discovery one day confirms this incredible hypothesis, it will serve as history's greatest metaphorical mirror. Supersymmetry could initiate a new era in human history, in which we can contemplate other dimensions, multiverses, and time travel as realities, not as mere speculations in science fiction.

But it just so happens that Doppelgänger and twin aspects giving way to triple worlds are extremely popular at the turn of the Millennium. In other words, scientific discoveries shape culture as much as they grow out of culture.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Ending and Extinction. For Now? Forever?

Lonesome George. Image Source: Reuters via Guardian.

The giant Pinta (Abingdon) Island tortoise (Geochelone nigra abingdoni), Lonesome George, died at the Tortoise Centre on Santa Cruz island in the Galapagos on 24 June 2012 at over 100 years of age. He was the last known member of a subspecies of the Galapagos giant tortoise.

The subspecies are mainly named for the locations where they evolved, or the zoologists who identified them. The Galapagos islands gained fame for their unique wildlife when Charles Darwin (1809-1882) visited them in 1835. His observations there formed the bases for his 1859 work on evolutionary biology, On the Origin of Species, which you can read here or here. A glance at the Galapagos tortoise subspecies list tells how incredibly varied the creatures on these islands are. These are closely related animals, but they cannot necessarily interbreed successfully; several of the subspecies are extinct or endangered:
  1. the Pinta (Abingdon) island tortoise
  2. the Wolf volcano tortoise
  3. the Cristóbal (Chatham) island tortoise
  4. Charles Darwin's James island tortoise
  5. the Pinzón (Duncan) island tortoise
  6. Albert Günther's Sierra Negra volcano tortoise
  7. the Española (Hood) island tortoise
  8. the smaller Volcano Darwin tortoise
  9. the Charles island black tortoise
  10. the Santa Cruz (Indefatigable) island tortoise
  11. John Van Denburgh's Volcano Alcedo tortoise
  12. the Iguana Cove tortoise
  13. Fantastica Fernandina (Narborough) island tortoise (disputed)
  14. Santa Fe island tortoise (disputed)
  15. Rábida island tortoise (disputed)  
In 1971, Lonesome George was spotted on Pinta island by malacologist József Vágvölgyi; he was then tracked down and captured in 1972 and moved to the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz. His keeper, Fausto Llerena, was part of that 1972 expedition and cared for George until the reptile's death yesterday. Having spent so much time with Lonesome George, Llerena reflected on the animal's personality:
I like to take care of George because he is friendlier than the other tortoises. He is always attentive at my arrival and approaches me and lifts his head to greet me. We understand each other very well, although we do not use any words. ... [He is f]riendly and attentive with me, he is jealous of his space and food though, with the other tortoises that share the corral! Every time we carry out some work in the corral, he is always next to me.
Lonesome George was known as an 'ending' - the last of his kind. Once an ending dies, the species becomes extinct.