Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Know how stupid the average guy is?

January 15, 2010


  In the highly esteemed journal Nature this week was a report of recent research indicating that men have evolved more rapidly than women*.  The study compared the Y chromosomes (the bit that makes a man male, (you know XY instead of XX) of chimps and humans. 

  Chimps are our nearest living relatives and over the last six million years our genetic codes have only diverged about two percent.  Except the Y chromosome which is some thirty percent different.  That’s a big change in a relatively short period of time.

  There are several possible explanations for the Y being “such an evolutionary powerhouse”.  One is that since the Y is a loner and not part of a pair like all of the rest and thus can mutate more easily.  Another has to do with the randy attitude of female chimps in heat.  Since they seek out many partners, there is huge evolutionary pressure on the males to produce the most and best sperm…

  I probably should support my own team and heckle the laggard other, but while reading the piece a George Carlin routine came to mind.  “Know how stupid the average guy is?  Just think – half of them are stupider!”  For proof, just check out the Darwin awards which are given annually to the nuttiest manner by which people have removed themselves from the gene pool during the previous twelve months.

  A woman has only won first prize once.  A random perusal of the site** turned up the story of a drunk twenty year old Californian dude who caught a rattlesnake.  Snake slithered its tongue to whiff the environment and get its bearings. (Snakes’ tongues are involved in their olfactory process)  Genius stuck out his tongue in response into which snake sunk its fangs.  Tongue swelled up choking the poor dumb guy to death***.

  Or take the first words the masterpiece of the great French poet Charles Baudelaire: Les Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil):

Stupidity, delusion, selfishness, and lust
torment our bodies and possess our minds,
and we sustain our affable remorse
the way a beggar nourishes his lice

  Now, I certainly don’t feel that way all of the time and am dang glad I don’t have to go to hen parties, but will admit that I am an easy and logical target for regular self deprecation.  Wife agrees.



***If this reminds you of anything you’ve previously read in this space, please don’t tell anyone.  (7/7/09)

****cf post of October 9, 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+

Hearts and Hope

November 6, 2009

  This week, courtesy of NPR, I had occasion to listen to a fascinating program about stem cells on Speaking of Faith.  Host Krista Tippett visited the regeneration lab of Fr. Doris Tayor at the University of Minnesota.

  Problem with organ transplants is rejection.  Patient has to take powerful drugs for life to avoid a new heart from making an Alien-like exit.  Ms Taylor is working on a method to build a new heart out of one’s own cells. 

  Not yet in human trials, she starts with a heart from a rat cadaver and washes out all cells leaving an interstitial “scaffold”.  Then she uses stem cells to build a new heart upon that structure.  Below you can watch a video showing steps in the process culminating in a new beating heart!*

   Speaking of Alien: the video reminded me of the horrible part of Alien Resurrection where Ripley stumbles upon a lab filled with disturbing experiments with/on humanoids eerily similar in presentation to Dr. Taylor’s rat hearts in beakers.

  For her part, Taylor says she wouldn’t undertake anything she wouldn’t do on her mother.  People tell her that “she isn’t building hearts, she’s building hope”.  “The universe has given me tools: I’m going to use those tools.”  Progress is a series of discoveries.  When ill, our ancestors chewed on willow bark which we now use in the form of aspirin.

  Marveling over the beauty of the natural architecture of a heart with Dr Taylor, moderator Tippett said that “One of the things that I’ve been fascinated in… with scientists in general is how scientists have such a regard for beauty”.  Reminded me of a post far above in which I discuss nuclear weapon development by scientists eager to push forward savoring the “sweet technological problems…” 

  I’m all for progress and favor stem cell research, but I’m beginning to disagree with Keats’ famous lines from Ode to a Grecian Urn

Beauty is truth, truth beauty.  That is all
Ye know on earth and all ye need to know 

  This here universe is a whole lot more complicated than that.   Billowing cumulus might be beautiful, but so is a mushroom cloud.  Taylor indeed does give us hope.  We can make ourselves sick (physically or metaphorically), but we can also make ourselves well.

  All parts of our bodies are continually regenerating and the stem cells do the work.  Taylor calls it “endogenous repair, internal repair”.  Ageing of tissues and bodies is the failure of stem cells.  Stress ages stem cells by a known process. Decrease stress increase the life of a cell and a body.

  “… there’s a spiritual component to all of this” Taylor says.  “What we think impacts who we are.  She recruited well known Tibetan Buddhist monk Mathieu Ricard and measured stem cells in his blood before and after a meditation session.  “What we found was a huge increase in the number of positive stem cells in blood.”

  In an unrelated study of the neurological correlates of happiness at the University of Wisconsin – Madison Ricard was subjected to an extensive  examination with hundreds of sensors affixed to his noggin for a three hour ride in an MRI.  He was so far outside normal parameters that he was dubbed the “happiest man on earth”.  Wonder what he knows.

*Interestingly (but I guess not surprisingly), process sounds very much like morphogenetic architecture in which a pattern or process is observed in nature, algorithms developed, computer let loose, and voila: an, uh, as yet unbuilt research lab for the Santa Fe Institute designed by son and friends.

Andrew Surface 1


** For the complete interview and more video go to:


October 2, 2009

  Ever I hear folks arguing vociferously about the ascent of man I think about fathers coming out of the bleachers at little league games.  Ridiculous irrationality.  Give me a break.

  On the one hand you have folks who believe that an old dude of their own race awaits them in the hereafter.  A scary throwback to Old Testament literalism.  On the other, well, scientist Stephen Jay Gould once wrote: “Most important scientific revolutions involve the dethronement of human arrogance”.  How many times have thinkers of one stripe or another claimed to have reached the end?

  Myself?  I think that the middle ground, if you want to call it that, will be found in relation to consciousness.  Significantly, it’s origin and nature have not yet been discovered.  Sure, correlates of mental phenomena have been observed through brain imaging, but there is no consensus about how thoughts actually arise or what constitutes mind (as opposed to a brain).

  Some respected thinkers believe that consciousness might be another force – like gravity say – and similarly permeate all existence.  As I’ve mentioned before, approximately 75% of the universe, that has been calculated to exist, has not yet been found.  I think it works out something like this: Consciousness x Bell’s Theorem* = that 75%.

  Dial in the richness of Jung’s observations and there you have it.  In the September 20, 2009 New York Times Magazine there was an article about his long hidden “Red Book” titled The Holy Grail Of The Unconscious.  The book is said to stem from his mid-career “confrontation with his unconscious” during which lucid and florid dreams and visions came in “incessant streams”.  It is spectacularly illustrated by his own hand.

Jung Red Book

  He believed that we are all linked by a collective unconscious holding the whole of our history pretty much all the way back to stardust.  It manifests in each of us through the myths and archetypes that are made to constellate differently in an individual life by the forces borne upon them. 

  “Together, the patient and I address ourselves to the 2,000,000 year old man that is in all of us.  In the last analysis most of our difficulties come from losing contact with our instincts, with the age-old unforgotten wisdom stored up in us.  And where do we make contact with this old man?  In our dreams.”***

  There are many today skeptical, to say the least, of the utility of dream interpretation or any aspect of the “talking cure” for that matter.  I’d first refer them to the Gould’s words above and then simply say that once aware of Jung’s perspective it is incredible to follow him through a particular set of memories, dreams, and reflections – especially his own. 

  Herefrom echos my approach (only offered nearly seventy-five years ago). “I have been convinced that at least a part of our psychic existence is characterized by a relativity of space and time.  This relativity seems to increase, in proportion to the distance from consciousness, to an absolute condition of timelessness and spacelessness”.***

  Read some of his stuff, I’ll bet you’ll find resonance.

* Bell’s Theorem proves the non-local nature of reality.  cf July 18, 2008 below.

** From his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections.

***NYT October 4, 1936

Carpe Diem? Huh? And Then What?

May 22, 2009

Andrew grad Franklin field 09 

  Carpe Diem seems like the most natural and obvious of exhortations to shout at a graduation.  Seize the day.  Certainly, commencement exercises must constitute a major point of transition (fulcrum hopefully) for most participants.  But “hurry up and get on with your life” is probably not the best advice for a young broadly educated mind.

  Graduation ceremonies should always be powerful experiences for all attendees and the aforementioned such was no exception.  As the students and faculty began to file in the orchestra began to play and the trickle soon became a swarm.  I first thought back to graduations past until I noticed that tears had welled up in the eyes of both sisters as brother came into view.  Wife choked a bit, and well, me to.

   Made me think of brain science and what it can and cannot explain.  We have what have been called mirror neurons.  A set of neurons fires when you do something.  Mirror neurons fire when you observe somebody do that thing.  Researcher V.S. Ramachandran calls them “Ghandi” neurons because “they’re dissolving the barriers between you and me”.*

  That’s neat and interesting, but incomplete.  Other researchers have shown that phenomena related to consciousness can be observed, measured etc, but not consciousness itself.  Some think it a matter of time till it is seen how thoughts emerge from the brain, but none do now.

    As I’ve said above, while it may well be understood one day, I do not believe it will be found to be a sum of the parts sort of thing.  Stuart Kauffman again: “Whatever its source, consciousness in emergent and a real feature of the universe…. These phenomena, then, appear to be partially beyond natural law itself.”

  It is much easier for me to consider tenderness amongst siblings with that observation in mind than, say, mirror neurons.  We are more than the sum of the parts.

  While in Philadelphia I saw one of the two of Galileo’s telescopes known to be still in existence.  Fascinating to look at and think about.  They got him into trouble.  Not so much for debunking heliocentrism as for challenging the then prevalent western world view that spirituality was the only source of knowledge.    

  In her remarks the wonderfully enthusiastic Penn President Amy Gutman told those in cap and gown that their toughest challenge would be to find: “What matters most to me?”.  Not an easy question for most to answer, but indeed perhaps the most important.  I’d add that it is probably be just as important to learn to live in that question.  If you carpe diem with questions answers will follow.

Andrew grad Myerson 09

   That’s what Galileo did.  “It [the earth, not the sun] moves” he told the Pope and was placed under house arrest for blasphemy. He continued wide ranging research for the next ten years until his death investigating the speed of light and the nature of tides among other things.  Very significantly,  he developed the basic principle of relativity.

   Einstein wrote: “Pure logical thinking cannot yield us any knowledge of the empirical world; all knowledge of reality starts from experience and ends in it.  Propositions arrived at by purely logical means are completely empty as regards reality.  Because Galileo saw this, and particularly because he drummed it into the scientific world, he is the father of modern physics – indeed of modern science altogether”.

  Or as Uncle Ed helped translate from another tradition: “Whatever you see is a reflection of your own mind.  The essence of mind has, from the very beginning, has been free of conceptual limitations.  Having recognized this truth, free your mind from grasping at phenomena and clinging to thought…”**

Andrew Board spring 09

*New Yorker May 11, 2009: Profiles

**Path of the Bodhisattva, Vimala Publishing

***Hint: Above image is not through a telescope, has not really yet been seen in 3D, but is indeed way out there and has not been seen before.

Here’s Hopin’ for a Draw

January 2, 2009

  Talk about a battle for resources.  A new theory asserts that mental disorders such as schizophrenia and autism result from competition between genes from the sperm and egg.  They vie in utero over management of available nutrients.  The mother fights for moderation so she might live to bear another day while, given the opportunity, the father would empty the refrigerator to enhance the chance that each seed grows to maturity.

  A gene called IGF2 is inherited from both parents and promotes growth.  Usually the mother chemically muffles it so that demands for sustenance do not become voracious.  If the gene is fully active growth can becomes excessive.  As much as 50% above normal.

  The implications for brain development arise in the same region on chromosome 15.  There dominance can lead to conditions associated with autism on the father’s end of the spectrum and mood problems and psychosis on the mother’s.

  “Emotional problems like depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder, seen through this lens, appear on Mom’s side of the teeter-totter, with schizophrenia, while Asperger’s syndrome and other social deficits are on Dad’s. 

  One of the researchers, Christopher Badcock of the London School of Economics noticed that: “some problems associated with autism…are direct contrasts to those found in people with schizophrenia.  Where children with autism appear blind to other’ thinking and intentions, people with schizophrenia see intention and meaning everywhere.”

  My roommate tells me that I am rude, crude, unattractive, and am extremely symptomatic of all sorts of social deficit disorders.   I love it.  I is fine.  Thanks Dad!


* I learned about all of this in an article in the 11/11/08 NYT by Benedict Carey.

Er, hadn’t thought about the milkman…

December 19, 2008


  Yet again, the Economist comes through. A bit in the December 4, 2008 edition basically sets forth how healthy, intelligent, and sexy I am. 

  I’ve long known that all the hot chicks can’t take their eyes off of me, but my wife and kids never believe it. I’m certain they won’t now disagree.  The thought of their chagrin is delicious beyond words.

  In a piece titled: “Balls and brains” we learn of recent research testing a thesis attempting to explain a newly discovered interrelationship between intelligence and health.  (As you will see, the thesis also tests political correctness).

  One view would hold that smart people, on average, make smart choices about such things as tobacco and exercise.  In other words, their intelligence would translate into good health. 

  In stark contrast however, some evolutionary biologists think that intelligence signals underlying genetic fitness and has thus forever been a source of attraction for potential mates.  (No bright woman would choose a dumb husband, right honey?*)

  Rosalind Arden of King’s College, London sought to test this idea through the analysis of semen.  Using samples from and interviews with 425 men she found that there is indeed a direct relationship between its quality**  and a standard measure of general intelligence called Spearman’s g.

  So sports fans, “The quality of a man’s sperm depends on how intelligent he is, and vice versa”. 

*This is the truth: Once asked why she agreed to marry me, my wife responded that she needed an encyclopedia.

**Comparative measures of concentration, count, and motility