Posted tagged ‘biology’

For a Good Time In Cambridge: E. O. Wilson edition

April 7, 2010

The man himself will be giving the third of the John M. Prather Lectures in Biology this afternoon.  The title:  “Consilience.”  The description:

The boundary between science on one side and the humanities and humanistic social sciences on the other is not an intrinsic epistemological divide but a broad borderland of previously poorly understood causal relationships. The borderland is now being explored, and offers increasing opportunities for collaboration across three great branches of learning. A definition of human nature will be offered and examples from the borderland will be used to illustrate it.

No one ever said Professor Wilson lacked ambition.

Time and place:  4 p.m., in the Harvard Science Center.  Map here, and more details on the lecture series here.

And a confession:  I’ll miss this one, as I missed the prior two, Monday and yesterday.  My teaching blocked Monday’s and today’s, while student work ate up yesterday, to my deep annoyance (having to, you know, actually do the job they pay you for can really suck sometimes).  But I can say that Edward O. Wilson is both one of the most important biological thinkers of the last half century and is a damn good speaker.  So if you have the chance, go and listen.

Image:  “Foraging ants (Eciton erratica) constructing a covered road—Soldiers sallying out on being disturbed.” from The Naturalist on the River Amazons by Henry Walter Bates, 1863.

On Being The Right Size (Hollywood edition).

January 25, 2008

I can’t believe it, but I am going to link to Gregg Easterbrook twice in one day without (too much) snark.

So, while his TMQ column for Monday (sic) did contain an elementary error (the planets move against a background of the “fixed” stars, not the other way round — which Easterbrook honorably corrected at the top of his next column) he gets something else quite right.

In a ramble through absurdities in the movie Cloverfield, he and his correspondents pause for moment on the issue of the monster’s size:

TMQ’s estimate of 100,000 tons for the Cloverfield monster was based on the Empire State Building weighing 340,000 tons; TMQ assumed a biological object the size of that building might weigh less, containing no steel. Kendal Stitzel of Fort Collins, Colo.,, countered, “Therein lies the rub, for there is no known bony material that could support the weight of something that large without collapsing under the creature’s own mass. This is the famous square-cube problem: when a creature gets larger, its weight (which increases in proportion to volume) increases as the cube of the increased dimensions. The animal’s strength, however, can only increase in proportion to the square of the increase in dimension. Just as the Empire State is not supported by its masonry but by the steel and concrete structures inside, you would need some kind of similarly strong biological material to support any giant monster, be [it] Godzilla, Mothra or Cloverfield. There have been giant critters in the past, but no land mammal larger than the woolly mammoth. Whales are big, but their bodies are supported by water. Dinosaurs grew to be perfectly enormous; some were an order of magnitude larger than any other land creature since. Skeletal adaptations let them do this — but they were near the limit of what is possible for critters on our planet, and the largest dinosaurs reached only a fraction of the size of many movie monsters.”

Readers with a taste for both great science writing and the history of modern biology probably know the ur-form of this idea as expressed by the great British biologist J. B. S. Haldane, in his classic essay, “On Being the Right Size.

Read the whole thing. It’s smart, witty, elegantly written, and it contains one of the earliest popular accounts of perhaps the most important single change in the practice of biology in the last century. Haldane himself was one of the pioneers in the mathematical treatment of natural selection and evolutionary theory, and he introduced the general public to the virtues of applying even the simplest quantitative ideas in “On Being the Right Size,” a simple, virtuouso tour through the implications of scale for everything an organism might want to do.

And in making the point that Easterbrook’s correspondent, Kendal Stitzel picks up, Haldane produced one of the truly great passages in all of science writing — the quotation of which is the reason for this entire post:

You can drop a mouse down a thousand-yard mine shaft; and, on arriving at the bottom, it gets a slight shock and walks away, provided that the ground is fairly soft. A rat is killed, a man is broken, a horse splashes.


That’s real writing. Once read, it is impossible to forget the idea within the image.

Image: The Darley Arabian (one of the three founding horses of English thoroughbred brood stock. After 1704. Source: Wikipedia Commons.