Archive for December, 2009


December 25, 2009

  Appropriate time of year to think about sharks, right?  What, you don’t think so?  You will – at the end of our review of what makes them Terminators of the deep.  First, their skeletons are cartilaginous instead of bone, yielding flexibility and energy efficiency.  Jaws aren’t attached in back allowing for horrifyingly huge portions to be torn apart by an endless supply of sharp teeth. 

  Sharkskin is basically a corset of dermal teeth which not only is protective, but also has hydrodynamic properties.  Sharks have an acute sense of smell.  Most see well.  They can hear us splashing on the beach from far away.  Their Ampullae of Lorenzini detect the electromagnetic fields all living things produce helping to locate you  even if you’re floating quietly in the dark.

  Jeesh.  Think that’s not enough?  Consider aspects of their reproduction.  First, males have two penises.  Hmm, get me some of that shark fin soup.  And, hallelujah, if there are no males around, the females can produce pups on their own!

  It’s called parthenogenesis. Virgin birthed shark offspring are all females, but they can, and will, mate with males as a future opportunity might present itself. Switching back and forth is called heterogamy. Dang if sharks don’t have quite the bag of tricks.

  Make you feel superfluous guys?  Well, before going for the saltpeter, note that (some will disagree) it is not known to have occurred naturally in a mammal although it has been in many other animal groups.

  Some species of bees and wasps have exhibited parthenogenesis.  Some crustaceans, snails, flatworms, and wild turkeys too.  Several species of reptiles can reproduce parthenogenetically including whiptails, geckos, rock lizards, and Komodo dragons.  Interestingly, in order for the process to commence in some lizards, one female must sort of go through the motions with another to stimulate egg production.

  At the cellular level the process varies considerably from one species to another and can involve either meiosis or mitosis.  (The diagram above relates only to sharks)  Some of the progeny thus produced will result in genetic identity with the mother and others will be unique.  Like I’ve said, truth is stranger than fiction.

Big Wow

December 18, 2009


   Ok kids, if you’ve been paying attention, you realize that I (and others) think that there’s more going on in one’s mind than can be described by any process identified thus far.  That I (and others) disagree with many scientists and probably most neurobiologists who believe that consciousness will one day be understood as a biological process albeit one quite complex.

  I once read a complicated book, The Emperor’s New Mind by British polymath Roger Penrose.  He’s a respected scientist who thinks like I do.  I guess I should say thinks like I would if I had an IQ of 220 or so and didn’t have to use a calculator to do simple math.  Simply put, he believes that consciousness is the result of quantum processes that occur in structures far smaller than atoms (Planck scale) called microtubules in the brain.

  Furthermore he says, “It doesn’t even act according to conventional quantum mechanics.  It acts according to a theory we don’t yet have.”  He then goes on again to draw an analogy with the research of William Harvey who was the first (westerner anyway) to describe the circulation of blood in the body circa 1616.  Prior to this it was thought that darker blood originated in the liver and lighter in the heart; that the two types had different purposes; and were consumed throughout the body.     

  Harvey figured out that arteries carried blood away from the heart and veins back to it and was certain that the two types of vessels had to connect, but couldn’t prove it without a microscope powerful enough to see things the size of capillaries. 

  Penrose is a widely respected physicist and has won many awards and though some might disagree, most take him seriously.  He theorizes that at that very small scale there is an abstract realm of Platonic ideals/mathematical reality that influences the quantum processes and thus the biochemistry, and thus the drama of our lives. 

  A rich connection with this dimension allows gifted mathematicians, musicians, artists, etc to make discoveries.  Given the spectacular ability of mathematics to describe our universe, this sort of makes sense even if it is difficult to fathom – if you know what I mean. 

  Where did this all come from?  Penrose says that consciousness, all consciousness arose with the big bang.  An Italian astrophysicist calls it the “Big Wow”.  Where will this take us as understanding grows?  Hold on to your chairs, truth is always stranger than fiction.  Suffice it to say that, though they have evolved at different speeds, religion and science will converge.

  “Half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions, for example, are facts.  And the other half contends that they are not fact at all.  As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies”.  Joseph Campbell.

  Nothing like a closed mind to screw stuff up.  Here is an exchange between two open ones:* Penrose’s partner in the development of their theory (Orch OR – Orchestrated Objective Reduction) Stuart Hameroff and Sam Hamil neurobiologist and author of The End of Faith;

Hamil: I do not rule out the possibility of our finding some sound, scientific reasons to believe in things that appear very spooky to most scientists at present – from telepathy to mathematical idealism.  And the fact that I do not rule such things out has made many atheists uncomfortable.  I do not foresee however, our finding good reasons to believe that the Bible was dictated by an omniscient being who disapproves of sodomy, but occasionally fancies human sacrifice.  These claims really do strike me as being “without intellectual merit.”

Hameroff: I agree with you.  My take is that there exists a fundamental Platonic wisdom embedded in the Planck scale (along with qualia, spin, charge, etc) which has inspired mankind to write the great books and act “in the name of God”… but man being man, many such efforts are misdirected, co-opted and perverted.


** Image at top is an oil painting by Urs Schmid of a Penrose tiling.  Look it up…

***Interesting to note that “anesthetic gases selectively erase consciousness soley through very weak quantum forces.”


December 11, 2009


  I remember hearing years ago in school something to the effect that Eskimos have more than a hundred different names for snow.  Recent investigation of that thought took me to a ponderous discussion of linguistic relativism.  Whatever the number, it seems obvious to me that a people living in an environment so dominated by a substance would develop a very nuanced relationship with it.

  Consider recreational users of backcountry in winter.  Skiers, hikers, climbers etc.  With experience, they’ll develop acute sensitivity to the nature of the snow through which they tramp, slide, andor ascend and not only because it governs the nature of their progress.  The evolution of a particular season’s snowpack determines its proclivity to avalanche.

Neve is granular snow on the upper part of a glacier
Sastrugi is snow sculpted and packed by wind erosion
Graupel is that type of snow that looks like little Styrofoam balls
Hoar is frozen dew
Depth Hoar is made of cup shaped large grained faceted crystals near to the ground in a larger snowpack formed by temperature gradients.
Surface Hoar is a dangerously slippery layer of frost formed upon an existing snowpack.  Little to impede succeeding layers from sliding off…

  Those are just a few.**  None would enter the consciousness of one bereft of experience.  Couch potato or equatorial vision of snow would suffer from what New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl calls the “pandering ghosts” of a reproduction.  An image of snow on a mountain would reflect their preconceived notions – would show them what they wanted to see.  Like an un-defrosted freezer in the case of the former and an air conditioned heaven maybe in the latter.

  Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley was a New England farmer who found endless joy in, you guessed it, snowflakes.  He was born in 1865 and never lost the magic that all but the grim and grisly find in a season’s first snow.  “When a snowflake melted that design was forever lost.  Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind” he wrote.

  He spent a lifetime photographing snow crystals.  Some 5,000 separate images he recorded.  Imagine how difficult it must have been!  Cold obviously, but how to get individual crystals onto a slide without breathing on them or causing them to fracture.  In an accompanying narrative, he’d then wax exuberantly about their beauty. 

  In a paper written in 1902 he used the words beauty or beautiful nearly fifty times.  Snow crystals Nos 716 and 718 were “very choice and beautiful”.  Nos 722 and 723 were “charming patterns in snow architecture.”  They were “gems from God’s own laboratory”.  No 781 is “wonderfully beautiful…”.

  What a great way to go through life, eh?  

  Finally, here’s a somewhat less tranquil manner by which to get up close and personal with a whole lot of snowflakes:

*cf photo with that of post 11-7-08


***I learned of Bentley in a wonderful book: Exuberance – The Passion for Life by Kay Redfield Jamison.

****While reading about snowflakes, I also learned that it is an incredible experience to listen to them hitting the surface of a body of water from a position beneath it.  Have to remember to check that out.

Hippocrates Says I’m Old

December 4, 2009

  While back I mentioned that my knee hurt.  Now knees.  Have previously had pain when I ran in the same pair of shoes for too long or wore arch supportless deck shoes too often.  Brother MD prescribed Advil and new shoes.  Always worked until about this past July. 

  Of a sudden the pain in left knee was too great to run. First time in thirty years. Laid off a few days and then hit road again.  Right thigh began to hurt because of significantly altered gait.  Now sometimes kneebones hurt just lying in bed.

  Switched to biking till pushed my luck in early darkness once too often.  Now stare at the bottom of a pool for what seems an eternity.  This morning the Stones’ song Time Is On My Side came to mind. “You’ll come running back…” go the lyrics. Hope!  Then dawned on me that it ain’t in this case and I might not.  Besides, the song basically betrays the singer’s misogyny and has nothing to do with exercise.

  Time does fly though.  And ever faster.  A given slice obviously forms a smaller percentage of the total with each passing moment.  A year in the life of a twelve year-old is a whole lot different than one in, say, someone in their fifties.  Stephen Hawking posits that there might be a related specific ratio. 

  Whatever.  For me, once the rhythms of a school calendar became a thing of the past my perception of time began to blur.  It sped up after I finished school, slowed down with kids, and then really accelerated as the last graduated from college.

  It’s interesting that motion through space and time are intertwined.  Sitting here at my desk, virtually all of my motion is through time.  Out for a run (I wish), a larger portion of my motion would be through space.  Einstein’s special theory of relativity holds that the combined speed of an object’s motion through time and space is exactly equal to the speed of light.

  What’s really amazing has to do with the fact that motion through time slows as motion through space picks up.  Relatively.  Experiments have proven that time passes more slowly for one running along the river (dang!) than for the lazy dopes home asleep in bed.  The difference though would only be noticeable when the moving object was considerably closer to 300,000,000 meters/second.  Time would stop for an object as it hit the speed of light.

  Have to find a way to warp speed.  Is it too late for astronaut school?  I don’t get scared easy; I love good views; and the weightless environment would be perfect.

  Oh oh. Better hurry.  Here is how Hippocrates counted life’s stages:

Infant (paidon)   0-7
Child (pais)     8-14
Boy (meirakion)   15-21
Youth(neaniskos)  22-28
Man (aner)        29-49
Old (geron)       57+