Archive for the ‘Exploration’ category

Pantry Sniffing

July 4, 2014

With a h/t to a valuable science-Twitterer and all-round good guy/researcher, Jonathan Eisen, here’s something for the curious among us to aspire to when next you contemplate cleaning out your larder:

Kew mycologists Bryn Dentinger and Laura Martinez-Suz have discovered three species of mushrooms that are new to science in a commercial packet of dried Chinese porcini purchased from a shop in London.


Who knows what species lurks in the bowels of cupboards?

The mushroom-hunters know!

With that, I’ll announce my very scattered return from my  off-grid mountain fastness. Here’s a taste of what I’ve been looking at to the exclusion of paying attention to anything any right wing asshole has to say:

Shasta from Inspiration Point June 29 2014 edited, small

That’s Mt. Shasta from Inspiration Point in Lassen Volcanic National Park.

You won’t, alas, see much difference from my total absence to my likely near-complete silence going forward:  I’m desperate to get a big project done before the next equinox and I find if I try to organize my thoughts around the midden that is our politics right now, I lose whole days to rage.  But I’ll try to show up, and even more, to offer the occasional chewy post.  For now, though — random bits of the delightful weirdness of the world are all my style.

Happy Fourth, all.

Image: Jan Flyt, Mushrooms, first half of the 17th century.


For A Good Time On The Intertubes Today (And Forever): Annalee Newitz Takes Survival To Extremes

April 23, 2014

Very short notice this time, folks, but once again, I’m doing the funny intertube-radio thingee.  Today’s broad/podcast brings io9 founding editor Annalee Newitz in to talk about her book Scatter, Adapt, And Remember.*

We’ll be talking at 5ET, 2PT (about an hour and half from now).  Listen live or later on Virtually Speaking Science, or join us in the virtually live studio audience at the Exploratorium’s joint in Second Life, where an implausibly tall and fit Levenson avatar will interrogate Annalee’s robot self.

The focus of our chat — death, destruction, and the possibility of slipping the noose.  Annalee’s book looks at what it will take for the human species to survive another million years — avoiding the threat of mass extinction along the way.  Her book really does two things.  For one, it provides a very good short introduction to the science of mass extinction, what we know and how we’ve figured out about the five times in Earth’s history that ~75% or more of all species on the planet went caput.  Then in the second half, Annalee examines the threats humankind have already confronted, looks at what that history tells us about current dangers, and writes about the ways we can now think about near and long term escapes from the worst outcomes.  It’s a combination (as you’d expect from the mind behind the “We Come From The Future” brigade over at io9) of bravura science writing — imaginative and rigorously grounded accounts of current inquiry — and plausible, exciting speculation.


To emphasize:  this isn’t a work of speculative writing, fiction or non-fiction.  It’s an argument that includes speculation, given its weight through the third element of  Annalee’s title:  “Remember.”   There’s a beautiful section in the middle of the book in which Annalee discusses the science fiction of Octavia Butler.  There, she grapples with the nub of the book.  Whatever actual path(s) we take, should descendents of 21st century humans persist for geologically noticeable swathes of time, they will do so as one or many species increasingly divergent from our own.  What will be human about them, Annalee argues, will turn on the power and persistence of memory.  That sounds exactly right to me.

Come join us for the chat.  Should be fun…and more than that too, I hope.

*You can take up that title’s Oxford comma-hood in the comments, if you’re that kind of person.  Me, I’m an agnostic.

Image:  David Teniers the Younger, Apes in the Kitchen, c. 1645.

A Linnaeus sighting in London

April 14, 2009

I’m in London for a few days shooting a short promotional video for this book. (Or, if you are in the UK, this one.) My ritual for this kind of travel is pretty constant:  I take the day flight over from Boston and devote the first day in my (literally) mother country to jet-lag recovery.  This time that meant an afternoon visit to the British Museum.

It seemed a good idea, until I walked into the main courtyard and realized that if I wanted some peaceful contemplation to rejoin body and brain, the British Museum on the Saturday of Easter weekend was not exactly a sensible choice.  Think the concession concourse of Fenway Park at the 7th inning stretch of a Yankee game.

So I wandered a bit, looking for some odd corner that wouldn’t drown me in families trying to wrangle flocks of small children (i.e. don’t even think about the Elgin Marbles, etc.), when I took a turn to the right off the main hall that I had not noticed in earlier visits.  All of a sudden I was in one of the “dull” bits — Room 1, “The Enlightenment,” untroubled by the massive renovations that have overtaken other bits of the museum since I first was taken there as a child.  The largest part of Room 1’s exhibit is a very old-fashioned kind of display:  a series of cabinets containing representatives of the first collections with which the museum was founded in 1753.

Many of the objects there come from the collection of Dr. Hans Sloane, an avid acquirer of curiousities (and other collectors’ findings) who willed his trove of 70,000 items (47,000 of them books and manuscripts) to the nation.  In conception, the new home of this extremely wide-ranging gathering of stuff was seen as a universal museum, aiming to collect everything, a repository of the sum of human knowledge and experience.

The exhibition of the founding collection is thus a physical narrative of the Enlightenment in action in Britain; it presents a way of seeing how that  society sought to subject to subject its material existence to reason.

All this by way of saying that the exhibition is delightful,  antiquarian.  Modern museums do not emphasize the display of the odd and wonderful in neat arrays beneath glass. There is nothing interactive here, no games nor screens to play with.

And at the same time it is enormously, subtly modern.  It takes the viewer in sequence through (among some other interests) the natural history and scientific interest of the gentleman-intellectuals of eighteenth century England, the new discipline of systematic classification, archaeology, trade and exploration (and hence a bit of what was not yet called anthropology, as the classifiers attempted to make sense of the cultural objects explorers would bring home).  Ideas, things and the flow of history, all in an array of a couple of dozen glass covered tables.

And what of Linnaeus?  He makes his appearance very early in the sequence.  The first cabinets hold natural history specimens — plants, minerals, fossils and the like.  Hans Sloane had a particular interest in the plants, unsurprising given his medical interest in the pharmacopaeia, and the display includes a number of what he considered useful samples.  He found one of them through love (or at least from this distance we may gloss marriage as love):  He married Elisabeth Langley, who had recently been widowed out of a marriage within a Jamaican colonial family.

On his visit to Jamaica, Sloane encountered cacao beans for the first time, in the form drunk by the locals:  boiled in water.  It was bitter and he was said to have found it nauseating.

But in time he figured out that cacao beans steeped in milk with sugar might actually produce something a bit nicer. An inventive man, he went the next step and started selling Sloane’s drinking chocolate.  (Sloane made enough of a fortune, mostly through real-estate investment, to leave his mark on London to this day — think Sloane Square and Hans Crescent, among other street names.)  His drink became popular, to the point that the Cadbury brothers began to sell it in the nineteenth century as one of the leading lines for what became one of the world’s great sweets companies.

So I ask again, what of Linnaeus?  He liked Dr. Sloane’s drink.  So much  that he did what Carl Linnaeus would:  he named it, in precisely the form that he organized the living world into its component parts. What was cocoa to the great naturalist?  This:

Genus Theobromata; species cacao.

Theobromata cacao — the drink of the gods: cocoa.

This is why I love the power of a smartly conceived museum.  Here you have the imposing edifice of Enlightenment systematization …. made friendly with a touch of humor.

Image:  Giovanni Bellini and disciples. The Feast of the Gods, 1515

Program Notes: A Heads Up for Some 02138-ish Darwin Events

February 9, 2009

Greater Cambridge (MA) folks:  much for-the-public Darwin wonderfulness on tap at the Harvard, its environs, and in particular ar the Natural History Museum up Oxford Street.*

You can see the whole run of stuff between now and March here.

The big day, of course, is this coming Thursday, February 12, when Charles will be 200 years young.  You can Darwinize at Harvard from ten a.m. on with what promises to be one of the more challenging performances to capture in its entirety:  a live reading of the entire Origin at locations around the Harvard campus.

I have to say, that while I take second place to no one in my regard for that book (you’ll see evidence of that over the next year at this site, which will go live on Wed. or Th.) this one seems a little daunting; I’m not sure I can take in one dose  that much grandeur in this view of life.

But there will be more, culminating in Janet Browne’s lecture,”Darwin at 200:  Rethinking the Revolution” at the Geological Lecture Hall at 24 Oxford Street, Cambridge, (“our fair city”) MA, starting at 6 p.m.  Browne is, of course, the eminent Darwin biographer, and, incidentally, will be contributing to the blogging Darwin/Origin commentary project referenced above.

What’s more, if you’ve a mind, Olivia Judson will be lecturing at Wellesley College on Tuesday, February 17.  Given the pleasures of her writing, this should  be good.

*It’s one of the ironies of local history that the Natural History Museum in which much of Harvard’s celebration of Darwin will take place is the successor/umbrella organization that houses the Museum of Comparative Zoology, founded by Louis Agassiz.

Agassiz was a Swiss geologist and naturalist whose ideas about glaciation (a) formed one of the major breakthroughs of mid-nineteenth century geologist, and (b) confounded the young(ish) Charles Darwin’s theory about the formation of the “roads” of Glen Roy in Scotland.  Agassiz was also, after he emigrated to Boston and embedded himself at Harvard, became one of the most prominent critics of Darwin’s ideas about evolution, which embroiled him in regular battles with MIT’s founder, William Barton Rogers.  (See  Selby Cull’s account of that war  here — Selby is my former student — in her thesis, online at MIT’s archive. (Link leads to a PDF).

Agassiz was on the losing side of those debates, and has taken a fair amount of his lumps over time.  (See Guy Davenport’s heartfelt, but oddly off target essay in this collection to see one attempt to ressurrect the old Harvard man.)

But for all that his faith bound him to reject an idea for which his own work helped lay the foundation, Agassiz was a great teacher and an original thinker, and it still seems to me worth remembering the man with the imagination to recognize the possibility of sheets of ice covering continents (pretty powerful selective pressure, there, don’t you think?), as we honor the greater thinker in the House that Louis  Built.
Image:  Conrad Martens, “HMS Beagle at Tierra del Fuego” from The Illustrated Voyage of the Beagle.

And Spare A Thought For…

December 25, 2008

The Beagle 2 Lander — lost. presumed wrecked on this day 2003.

Not only is it appropriate to remember this one-among-many-failed space missions on the eve of the Darwin year, but it serves as a more general reminder of how hard it is to do science.

If the stuff we wanted to know (is there/was there life on Mars?; what underlies the remarkable order we observe in the universe?; what explains the odd fact that the object typing these letters is aware of itself typing these letters?; and so on) was easy, then everyone would do it and/or we would know all there is to be known.

Ain’t happened yet; doesn’t seem likely that it will.  The little Beagle, silent this last half a decade gives one minor insight into why.  So raise a glass to it, and to those who thought the gamble worth the risk of sending it off in the first place.

Happy Newton day all, again.

Image: Chasma Boreale, a feature of Mars’ north polar ice cap.  NASA Mars as Art gallery.

Hillary dies (not that one — first to reach Everest’s summit)

January 10, 2008

This will be/is all over the news, so not much more to add but that a really great man is gone.

He’s known for leading the first expedition being the first to summit Everest and return safely — he and Tensing Norgay were the summit pair.

He always had a particular celebrity in my family as his Everest feat was one of the selling points of the obscure hiking snack Kendal Mint Cake, a sugar and frighteningly powerful mint bar that was the unfailing lure with which my parents got my siblings and me to struggle up each slope as we hiked through the northern California mountains. Trust me, anything that keeps a seven year old on the trail for seven miles is a miracle food.

He was more than just an Everest man, of course. He was a notable Antarctic traveller, participating in the first mechanized expedition to the South Pole and helping to establish Scott Base, New Zealand’s staging point for Antarctic Exploration

But what I didn’t know until fairly recently, and what seems to me to be one of the measures of the man, is the deep commitment he made to the Sherpa people who made his — and almost every other — Everest climb possible. This foundation is the institutional center of that effort an example of his work in this area.

In other words, he did well, and he did good. Not a bad way to live a life.

Sir Edmund Hillary: RIP, and thanks.

Update:  Error corrected above.  Also — Hillary’s work for Nepal and the Sherpa community involved a much wider range of commitments and personal interaction than the single foundation mentioned above.  Lastly, it gives me a pleasure I can’t rationally explain to think of the young Edmund Hillary making his living as a beekeeper.

Image: Everest from Rongbuk Valley, released into the public domain. Source: Wikipedia Commons.