A Paleopuzzle: Chomping With No Chompers

John Noble Wilford in the New York Times:

06cndskullThe toothless skull of an early human ancestor discovered in the Caucasus may attest to evolution’s oldest known example of compassion for the elderly and handicapped, scientists report today.

Other experts agreed that the discovery was significant, but cautioned that it might be a stretch to interpret the fossil as evidence of compassion.

The well-preserved skull, found in Georgia, belonged to a male Homo erectus about 40 years old. All his teeth, except the left canine, were missing. Regrowth of bone indicated that the man had been toothless for at least two years before he died at what was then an old age.

More here.

The bizarre sexual antics of orchids

James Owen in National Geographic:

040308_cheatingorchidsUnlike most flowers, roughly a third of the approximately 30,000 orchid species in the world don’t rely on the lure of food to achieve pollination. Instead, the orchids trick insects into performing the task without reward.

Most of these orchids are “food deceptive.” Using bright colors and sweet perfumes, they falsely advertise a free meal of pollen and nectar to attract bees, beetles, butterflies, and other pollinators. (Other of these orchids are even more elaborate in their cunning, mimicking the appearance and sex pheromones of female insects to lure males looking for a mate.)

More here.  (Thanks  Margit.)

Fly brains manipulated by remote control: Laser-activated chemicals target specific neurons

Michael Schirber reports in MSNBC:

The remote control setup — developed by Miesenbock and Susana Lima, both from Yale University School of Medicine — can be broken down into three components: a lock, a key and a trigger.   Image: Fruit fly

The lock is an ion channel — a kind of protein that allows charged particles to pass through a cell membrane. The researchers genetically altered particular neurons to have an ion channel not normally found in fruit flies.

The key is a molecule called adenosine triphosphate, or ATP. By binding to the ion channel, ATP makes the neuron fire. Typically, ATP is a form of fuel, or “energy currency,” inside cells, “but there is very little of it flowing in between cells,” Miesenbock said. So the scientists had to inject ATP into the fly brains.

To regulate the firing of the altered neurons, the researchers isolated the injected ATP in a molecular cage that breaks open when struck with an ultraviolet laser beam. Lima and Miesenbock placed their ion channel lock in the giant fiber system, a small set of nerve cells that controls the fruit fly’s escape movements — like jumping and wing flapping.

When flashed with a 200-millisecond laser trigger, flies outfitted with locks and keys responded between 60 and 80 percent of the time with the expected escape behavior. And this was not because the laser scared the flies. In fact, blind flies reacted in the same way. The laser light penetrates the flies’ cuticle, or “skin,” to free the caged ATP.

The findings are published in Friday’s issue of the journal Cell.

Read more here.

Philosopher Pope?

You sometimes hear it mentioned that John Paul Pope II had a philosophical bent and was involved, in his earlier life, with Phenomenology. Well, it’s true. His book, written when he was still Karol Wojtyla, The Acting Person, is subtitled A Contribution to Phenomenological Anthropology. It is influenced by Max Scheler of all people. Anyway, this isn’t to apologize for the Pope. I’m rather more inclined toward the mood of one of my heroes, Czeslaw Milosz (my choice for coolest Polish Catholic), as it’s reflected in the title of his brilliant little essay; Essay in Which the Author Confesses That He Is on the Side of Man, for Lack of Anything Better.

But, whatever your view of the departed Pope, he was a complicated and interesting man. His writings are not the production of a person without thought. Some of them are surprisingly interesting and engaging. Maybe everybody already knows this. If not, his efforts can be read through this link. Here’s a smidgen from Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason).

1. In both East and West, we may trace a journey which has led humanity down the centuries to meet and engage truth more and more deeply. It is a journey which has unfolded—as it must—within the horizon of personal self-consciousness: the more human beings know reality and the world, the more they know themselves in their uniqueness, with the question of the meaning of things and of their very existence becoming ever more pressing. This is why all that is the object of our knowledge becomes a part of our life. The admonition Know yourself was carved on the temple portal at Delphi, as testimony to a basic truth to be adopted as a minimal norm by those who seek to set themselves apart from the rest of creation as “human beings”, that is as those who “know themselves”.

Moreover, a cursory glance at ancient history shows clearly how in different parts of the world, with their different cultures, there arise at the same time the fundamental questions which pervade human life: Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life? These are the questions which we find in the sacred writings of Israel, as also in the Veda and the Avesta; we find them in the writings of Confucius and Lao-Tze, and in the preaching of Tirthankara and Buddha; they appear in the poetry of Homer and in the tragedies of Euripides and Sophocles, as they do in the philosophical writings of Plato and Aristotle. They are questions which have their common source in the quest for meaning which has always compelled the human heart. In fact, the answer given to these questions decides the direction which people seek to give to their lives.

Are South Asians more susceptible to AIDS?

From the BBC:

“Indians infected with the Aids virus are more likely to contract the disease than people in the west, a new study has found.

Scientists say that Indians have lower immunity to the virus because they have genes that hasten the disease.

India says more than five million of its citizens are infected with the HIV virus, second only to South Africa.

Activists say the number of Indians affected by HIV/Aids is much higher than the government says.

Scientists at India’s premier medical school, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), studied 200 people with HIV infection and 2000 healthy people over two years for the study.

They found that the HLA-B*35-Px gene linked to rapid progression from HIV infection to Aids is ‘two-and-a-half times’ more common in Indians than a protective gene called HLA-B*35-Py.

They also found that that a ‘protective variant’ of chemokines – intracellular messenger molecules whose major function is to attract immune cells to sites of infection – was not present among Indians.”

Making sure you wake up in the morning

From Boston.com

“Like most other 25-year-old graduate students, Gauri Nanda sometimes Clocky_pic burns the midnight oil — and pays for it in the morning.

”I like my sleep,’ said Nanda, a research associate at the MIT Media Laboratory in Cambridge. ”I’ve been known to hit the snooze button for two hours, or even accidentally turn off the alarm.’

So when she was asked to create a useful product for an industrial design course last fall, Nanda came up with ”Clocky,’ a runaway alarm clock that goads its bleary-eyed owners into leaving their beds. To turn Clocky off, you have to find it.

After technology weblogs were linked to photos and a description of Clocky from the Media Lab website two weeks ago, the shag-faced, homely clock became an object of curiosity on the Internet.”

Read on here.  There’s additional information at the Clocky page of MIT’s Media Lab.

Oral Histories from Chernobyl

It’s been nearly 19 years to the day since the meltdown at Chernobyl.  The Paris Review has this, oral histories of the disaster and its aftermath.

“I went. I didn’t have to go. I volunteered. I was after a medal?

I wanted benefits? Bullshit! I didn’t need anything for myself. An apartment, a car—what else? Right, a dacha. I had all those things. But it exerted a sort of masculine charm. Manly men were going off to do this important thing. And everyone else? They can hide under women’s skirts, if they want. There were guys with pregnant wives, others had little babies, a third had burns. They all cursed to themselves and came anyway.

We came home. I took off all the clothes that I’d worn there and threw them down the trash chute. I gave my cap to my little son. He really wanted it. And he wore it all the time. Two years later they gave him a diagnosis: a tumor in his brain . . . You can write the rest of this yourself. I don’t want to talk anymore.”

Life’s top 10 greatest inventions

Rachel Nowak in the New Scientist:
The eye

THEY appeared in an evolutionary blink and changed the rules of life forever. Before eyes, life was gentler and tamer, dominated by sluggish soft-bodied worms lolling around in the sea. The invention of the eye ushered in a more brutal and competitive world. Vision made it possible for animals to become active hunters, and sparked an evolutionary arms race that transformed the planet. And what a difference it made. In the sightless world of the early Cambrian, vision was tantamount to a super-power. Trilobites’ eyes allowed them to become the first active predators, able to seek out and chase down food like no animal before them. And, unsurprisingly, their prey counter-evolved. Just a few million years later, eyes were commonplace and animals were more active, bristling with defensive armour. This burst of evolutionary innovation is what we now know as the Cambrian explosion.


BIRDS do it, bees do it – for the vast majority of species, sexual reproduction is the only option. And it is responsible for some of the most impressive biological spectacles on the planet, from mass spawnings of coral so vast that they are visible from space, to elaborate sexual displays such as the dance of the bower bird, the antlers of a stag and – according to some biologists – poetry, music and art. Sex may even be responsible for keeping life itself going: species that give it up almost always go extinct within a few hundred generations.

The enduring success of sex is usually put down to the fact that it shuffles the genetic pack, introducing variation and allowing harmful mutations to be purged (mutations are what eventually snuffs out most asexual species). Variation is important because it allows life to respond to changing environments, including interactions with predators, prey and – particularly – parasites. Reproducing asexually is sometimes compared to buying 100 tickets in a raffle, all with the same number. Far better to have only 50 tickets, each with a different number.

The brain

BRAINS are often seen as a crowning achievement of evolution – bestowing the ultimate human traits such as language, intelligence and consciousness. But before all that, the evolution of brains did something just as striking: it lifted life beyond vegetation. Brains provided, for the first time, a way for organisms to deal with environmental change on a timescale shorter than generations. A nervous system allows two extremely useful things to happen: movement and memory. If you’re a plant and your food source disappears, that’s just tough. But if you have a nervous system that can control muscles, then you can actually move around and seek out food, sex and shelter.


LARGE numbers of individuals living together in harmony, achieving a better life by dividing their workload and sharing the fruits of their labours. We call this blissful state utopia, and have been striving to achieve it for at least as long as recorded history. Alas, our efforts so far have been in vain. Evolution, however, has made a rather better job of it.

Read more here.

The World Trade Center would probably be standing today…

From the Discovery Channel:

Twintowers_zoomThe twin towers of the World Trade Center would probably be standing today if the impact of the planes used in the Sept. 11, 2001 attack had not destroyed fireproofing material, experts said Tuesday.

After what it described as the most detailed examination of a building failure ever conducted, the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) said it would be suggesting major changes to the way skyscrapers are built and managed…

If the fireproofing had remained in place, Sunder said, the fires would have burned out and moved on without weakening key elements to the point of structural collapse.

More here.

Christopher Hitchens remembers Saul Bellow

From Slate:

Bellow_1Bellow’s version of neoconservatism made him a few enemies. And there are hints, here and there, of anti-black paranoia in Mr. Sammler’s Planet and in some other characters and settings. His nonfiction book To Jerusalem and Back managed to visit the Holy Land and avoid meeting any non-Jews. But, despite the ethnic emphasis of much of his work, Bellow will always attract readers by the scope and universality and humor of his themes. He was not, in my opinion, what people glibly call “an elitist.” He was a deep humanist, with a proper contempt for—this is a great phrase from Humboldt’s Gift—”the mental rabble of the wised-up world.”

In a recent essay, one of our finer critics, Lee Siegel, asks what is it with Bellow and a number of non-American writers. Martin Amis had an almost father-son relationship with him (and it can’t be said that this was for lack of a literary parent). James Wood co-taught a class with him at Harvard. Ian McEwan’s most successful and daring novel, Saturday, pays homage to a Bellovian inspiration. (And the abrupt, nasty street confrontation in that book has a lot in common with the irruption of the oafish Cantabile in Humboldt’s Gift.) What other American novelist has had such a direct and startling influence on non-Americans who are young enough to be his children?

More here.

Moscow Gets a Biennial Too

John Kelsey at Artforum:Article00

Moscow mixes the surface energies of Las Vegas with pages from Kafka’s Castle. On the one hand, there is actual wildness and popular images of it: flashy casinos and raging discos, quasi-legal prostitution (the age of consent only sixteen), ever-flowing vodka, and the massive influx of luxury goods (Dior, Chanel, a block-long Rolex billboard across from Red Square), in addition to Russia’s mythic oligarchs and gangsters, who put our versions of these figures to shame as far as bling, badness, and influence go. On the other hand, there are unsmiling uniforms at the front desk, overly complex and time-consuming procedures in place of our cheery service economy’s efficiency, high prices and police hassles, all of which make the usual touristic aspect of a biennial so awkward and dysfunctional here. . . .

The banality of evil: Scientists in Nazi Germany

Editorial in Nature entitled “Uncomfortable Truths”:

For decades after the Second World War, the prevailing view of how scientists interacted with the Nazi regime was fixated on such cases of dramatic criminality. According to this view, science during the Nazi era was contaminated by a few, very rotten apples. This version of history also held that these rotten apples were engaged in ‘pseudoscience’ — low-quality research whose results were meaningless; that the Nazis held ‘real’ science in low esteem, so that the main body of scientists simply trod water for the duration; and that most of those who did work to further the aims of the regime did so under duress. This conventional wisdom was broadly framed at the Nuremberg trials, which condemned the heinous crimes of high-ranking Nazis, but did not enquire into the behaviour of less notorious individuals, including rank-and-file scientists. This account suited both the winners and losers of the war.

But it is the Max Planck Society (MPS), which administers 80 research institutes in Germany, that has taken the lead in exposing its own past to unflinching scrutiny. The MPS has found that a large part of the most criminal research conducted was not ‘pseudoscience’ — in fact, it followed conventional scientific methods and was at the cutting edge of research at the time. It has also demonstrated that the Nazis held basic research in high esteem, increasing funding for it during the war years without requiring scientists to join the Nazi Party. And it found that, far from being subjected to force, many scientists voluntarily oriented their work to fit the regime’s policies — as a way of getting money and of exploiting the new resources that Nazi policies made available through, for example, the invasion of other countries. Most researchers, it turns out, seem to have regarded the regime not as a threat, but as an opportunity for their research ambitions.

Read more here.


Our own J.M. Tyree is on a roll. I highly recommend his brilliant essay on Hunter S. Thompson in The Believer:

Article_tyreeThompson’s art comes from the basic insight that American political life has become so “peculiar and baroque,” and our media so inured to accepted rituals, that if an ordinary person were to set down in words what they saw politicians saying and doing offstage, it would appear hallucinatory, as if our leaders had just stepped off a spaceship. That’s the essence of his post-factual journalistic style, which has the crispness, wit, and visceral impact of eighteenth-century court satire. Between Thompson and Norman Mailer, an entirely novel method of covering Presidential conventions came into existence during the late 1960s and early 1970s, generating a great deal of extremely good nonfiction which was really a kind of subjective delving into the cultural psyche. The portraits of Richard Nixon’s strong and very real allure drawn by both writers endure as a way in to a distasteful but deeply rooted dimension of American life, an aggrieved paranoia and almost Spartan militarism that have now found their apotheosis in the George W. Bush version of the “war on terror.”

Read the rest here.

A fresh approach to viewing the complexity of the Universe

Philip Anderson reviews A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down by Robert Laughlin, in Nature:

I should make my interests clear right at the start. For many years I have thought that a book such as this should be written, and have been urged to write it myself. I didn’t do so, and couldn’t possibly have written one as suited as this is for its target audience. A Different Universe is a book about what physics really is; it is not only unique, it is an almost indispensable counterbalance to the recent proliferation of books by Brian Greene, Stephen Hawking and their fellows, who promulgate the idea that physics is a science predominantly of deep, quasi-theological speculations about the ultimate nature of things. The enterprise of writing this book has my strong endorsement, then, and any disagreements or criticisms should be read in that light.

The central theme of the book is the triumph of emergence over reductionism: that large objects such as ourselves are the product of principles of organization and of collective behaviour that cannot in any meaningful sense be reduced to the behaviour of our elementary constituents.

More here.

Chekhov & Tolstoy

Anthony Daniels in The New Criterion:

After he had written Anna Karenina, Tolstoy reacted against literature. He wanted henceforth to be a moral philosopher, a prophet, a sage, and a saint, rather than an artist. (How often we mistake the nature of our own gifts!) And many people subsequently fell under his didactic spell, even—for a time—Chekhov, a man one normally thinks of as being peculiarly unsusceptible to the siren-call of sages and saints. Chekhov the disciple—it sounds strange in the light of our image of him, but such, for a time, he was.

In 1886, Tolstoy published his first substantial work of fiction for nearly twenty years, the novella The Death of Ivan Illych. He started to write it after he received Turgenev’s famous deathbed letter: “My friend,” wrote Turgenev, who was then very weak, in great pain and only a short time from death, “return to literature! … My friend, great writer of the Russian land, heed my request!”

Three years after the publication of The Death of Ivan Illych, Chekhov, then twenty-nine, published a novella of very nearly the same length, on much the same theme, called A Dreary Story. The similarities between the two stories were marked and were noted at the time, but the differences were deep and ultimately very important.

More here.

More on Altruism

Following up on yesterday’s post on Sam Bowles’ work, the tsunami and the response to it give Mark Buchanan an opportunity to explore why humans cooperate with genetic strangers.

“Not that Homo sapiens is the only species in which individuals bestow kindness on others.  Many mammals, birds, insects and even bacteria do likewise. . . Humans are different, for we cooperate with complete genetic strangers – workmates, neighbours, anonymous people in far-off countries. Why on earth do we do that?
. . .
One possibility, [Robert] Trivers suggests, is that evolution actually is wiping these people out – it just hasn’t finished the job yet. He, along with many anthropologists, takes the view that humans evolved to cooperate when our ancestors lived in small, isolated groups of hunter-gatherers. . . If Trivers is right, then true altruism is what evolutionary biologists call a ‘maladaptation’. Evolved to respond in a certain way to a given situation, we find it hard to act differently in the changed circumstances of the modern world.
. . .

[But] support for the idea that strong reciprocity is an adaptation in its own right comes from the theoretical studies of economist Herbert Gintis of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, anthropologist Robert Boyd of the University of California at Los Angeles, and others. They set up a computer model in which groups of individuals interacted, and watched how their behaviour evolved. Individuals were set up in the model to behave initially either as cheats or as cooperators, and in personal interactions the former came off best. When groups competed with one another, however, cooperation came into its own: groups with more cooperators were likely to flourish.

But that was only the start.”

Does Peer Review Work?

Daniel Engber at Slate.com considers the issue in light of the Journal of Reproductive Medicine study on the relationship between prayer and fertility. 

“Peer review is the gold standard of modern science. For medical researchers and other scientists, it’s the gateway to funding, publication, and career advancement. When they apply for government grants from the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation, their proposals are reviewed by a panel of their colleagues. When they submit their completed work for publication, journals and university presses ask for the opinions of others in the field. And when they apply for jobs or tenure, scientists are judged largely on the basis of their peer-reviewed publications.

Scientists give peer review so much authority because they view it as a part of the grand tradition of scientific inquiry—an extension, even, of the formal experimental method. Peer evaluation is the endpoint of a cautious progression from theories and predictions to experiments and results. . . [S]cientists have claimed that peer review filters out lousy papers, faulty experiments, and irrelevant findings. They say it improves the quality of an accepted paper by providing helpful comments for revision. And they can’t imagine a better way to accomplish these goals.

So, what explains the Columbia prayer study? Journal editors will tell you that peer review is not designed to detect fraud—clever misinformation will sail right through no matter how scrupulous the reviews. But the prayer study wasn’t a clever fraud.”

Inside the Lighthouse family

Virginia Woolf: An inner life is reviewed in The Guardian.

Virginia Woolf by Julia Briggs

Woolf’s continuing status as a novelist is part of the reason why biographers find it hard to let her alone, but it is also true that hers is an iconic life. Good cheekbones, bisexuality, genius and suicide are all claims to posthumous celebrity, but it is as if Woolf’s particular combination of talent, beauty and vulnerability has acquired a significance beyond that of an individual story.

Her important contributions to feminist writing in England are an aspect of this, since the process of her thinking about women in the world is carried forward in her novels, her essays and even her suicide. Having invented the myth of Judith Shakespeare (in A Room of One’s Own), she brutally illustrated the point that the world was not yet ready for a woman of genius by choosing her heroine’s fate of death by drowning. Her tragedy, like that of Sylvia Plath, has therefore been treated as a paradigm for creative women’s experience in the 20th century.

Read more here.

Hirst is just another symptom of the hype, the hubris, and the money…

Jerry Saltz in The Village Voice:

SaltzThe 31 paintings in Damien Hirst’s sad new show at Gagosian are not paintings at all; or rather, they’re generic-to-bad photo-realist efforts. Any semi-adept student or average commercial artist could have made them. Many do. But this isn’t what makes Hirst’s paintings sad; it only makes them ordinary and academic.

A team of assistants executed these works, although the gallery is quick to point out that “Damien worked on every one.” Whatever. The paintings are proficient but inane. What’s sad about Hirst’s new show is that this rebel of 1988 (when he curated the legendary “Freeze” exhibition in London), this grandfather of old-school British shock tactics and entrepreneurial razzmatazz, this mini-mogul who has the means to make images of anything he wants in any style at all—and who not long ago made the extraordinary Armageddon, a monochrome painting composed entirely of dead flies—this artist chose to render such run-of-the-mill sensationalist subjects in such run-of-the-mill ways. This truculent pumpkin, once so adept at failing in flamboyant ways, has gone from beery bluster to blowsy bathos.

More here.

Saul Bellow has died at 89

Mel Gussow and Charles McGrath in the New York Times:

BellowSaul Bellow, the Nobel laureate and self-proclaimed historian of society whose fictional heroes – and whose scathing, unrelenting and darkly comic examination of their struggle for meaning – gave new immediacy to the American novel in the second half of the 20th century, died yesterday at his home in Brookline, Mass. He was 89.

Bellow’s death saddens me.  More from the NYT obit here.  I remember reading about an evening at Bellow’s house (in Martin Amis’s memoir Experience), where Amis repeatedly kicks Christopher Hitchens on the shins under the table to make him stop defending Edward Said to an increasingly displeased Mr. & Mrs. Bellow. There’s a bit of that here, and I expect that both Amis and the Hitch will be writing their public goodbyes to Bellow soon, which I shall link to when it happens.

Also, just as a quick start on what I hope will be more comprehensive coverage of Bellow at 3 Quarks, Hitchens reviewed Ravelstein in the London Review of Books here.