corollary: Science

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation

Listening to:

transitions by Chris Jarrett, from the album Fire.

Just read:

Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation, by Olivia Judson.

This is an entertaining book, full of little essays about the sex lives of various species. The basic conceit is that every essay begins with an “agony aunt” style question. For example:

Dear Dr. Tatiana,

I’m a true armyworm moth, and I’ve gone deaf in one ear. I’ve read this is from having too much sex. Trouble is, I’m (sob) still a virgin. So what’s happening to me?—Piqued in Darien

This particular question leads into a very nice discussion of why most species maintain a 50-50 male-female sex ratio, but why in certain (often parasitical) circumstances the ratio may dramatically favour females, at least initially. Even cooler, certain parasites can control the sexes of their offspring to suit the specific circumstances they’re in (whether or not they’re competing with other individuals, basically).

Given introductions such as the above, there’s naturally a fair bit of humour in the presentation of this material, but it’s also done very carefully. Olivia Judson is a scientist (multiple Nature papers according to the page about her on Wikipedia; cor!) as well as a science writer, and she clearly wants to makes sure that what she writes is properly supported by the evidence.

Definitely a recommended read. The bitty structure means there’s no grand thesis, but it still conveys a lot of absolutely fascinating material.

Saturday, 16 October 2004

The voyage of the Beagle

Listening to:

Schubert, symphony no. 8 in B minor, “Unfinished”, D.759. Played by the Dresden Staatskapelle, conducted by Otmar Suitner.

Just read:

Charles Darwin, The voyage of the Beagle.

This is a famous scientific classic. It describes Darwin’s journey on HMS Beagle in the mid 1830s. The journey was a circumnavigation of the world, but most of the time was spent to-ing and fro-ing around South America. Darwin famously made it to the Galapagos Islands, but also visited the Cape Verde islands, the Falklands, New Zealand, and Australia. To use the Kiwi jargon, it was the OE to end all OEs.

Darwin’s job on the journey was to be a geologist who knew something about biology. His book is something akin to his official report, so there’s lots of geology and biology in there. For example, one not insubstantial chapter is an extended discussion of how coral atolls came to be formed. (His theory is that the coral originally ringed an island, and that as the island subsided, the coral naturally grew upwards within the increased height of water above it. If the subsidence went on for too long, the coral would die because the lower parts of the organism couldn’t survive at that depth of water. I don’t know if this theory is now considered correct, but it seems pretty convincing.)

Darwin’s biology is also interesting. He was apparently one of the first zoologists to make a point of describing animal behaviour in addition to animal bodies and structures. At this point in his life, he hadn’t realised that all of the variety and similarities he observed could be explained by evolution and natural selection, but there are occasional hints that he is on this path. I find it quite fascinating to see what is to come foreshadowed in his comments. It’s also worth pointing out that he revised the book a few times in the years between returning from the journey and publishing The origin of species, so some of the musing is not necessarily true to what he felt while actually abroad.

A book full of just this material would probably make fairly dry reading. It must be said that Darwin is so enthusiastic about his material that I could even cope with the geology, about which I know very little. But in addition to the science, Darwin also describes the people he meets, from South American generals, to gauchos that acted as his guides in modern-day Argentina, to the miserable people from Tierra del Fuego, to New Zealanders (pakeha and Maori) and Australians (aborigines, convicts and other colonists). It sounds as if he was happy to talk to any and everyone, and he is almost always sympathetic. On a couple of occasions, he vividly describes his encounters with slavery and its hideousness.

If you’re going to follow someone ’round the world, it helps if they’re not only intellectually stimulating, but friendly and engaging as well. Even if you occasionally find Darwin’s 19th century English a little hard-going, this is just what The voyage of the Beagle provides: a fascinating journey with a great guide and companion.

To review next:

Patrick O’Brian, The wine-dark sea.

Tuesday, 1 July 2003

The third chimpanzee

Listening to:

Simon and Garfunkel, The sound of silence.

Just read:

Jared Diamond, The rise and fall of the third chimpanzee: the evolution and future of the human animal.

This interesting book is all about humanity’s prehistory, its origins as a primate species, some of humanity’s unique behaviours, and what these behaviours might mean for our future. The title stems from genetic analysis revealing that humans have a more recent common ancestor with chimpanzees than chimpanzees or humans do with gorillas. Given that humans share such a high proportion of their DNA with chimpanzees (98.4%), they might reasonably be seen as a third chimpanzee species, in addition to the two other species (“normal” and pygmy chimpanzees).

The first sections of the book are about human biology, and how various aspects of our biology resemble and differ from that of the other primates. Diamond is amusing on sexual behaviour, and sexual characteristics, speculating on why it is that humans are principally monogamous while still living in groups (unlike the other chimpanzees and unlike gorillas), why they have sex in private, why their genitals are different from the other species, and how mate selection happens.

These early sections of the book also explain why evolution might have produced effects that might not seem to make evolutionary sense when first looked at, including aging and menopause. Diamond also discusses some unique (and mainly positive) human traits (language, farming, art) that arguably have animal precursors, or at least explanations based on animal behaviours. This material is fascinating.

Diamond then moves on to three ‘unique’ behaviours in humans that are clearly bad: destruction of the environment, destruction of each other (genocide), and drug (ab)use. He discusses each of these three in turn. I found the section on drug use easily the least convincing. Diamond claims that it might be some sort of mating display akin to look, I’m so tough I can handle this awful drug, and still stand up straight; come and have sex with me this very instant! (by analogy with peacock tails, which are a ridiculous handicap, but which still serve to attract mates). I wouldn’t deny that this might explain some aspects of alcohol use in the modern world, but it is not very convincing.

Diamond doesn’t back up his claim that this is uniquely human. (What of catnip and cats? Have there not been experiments trying to feed chimpanzees alcohol, or other drugs?) Diamond also doesn’t give any time to the obvious argument that drugs get used simply because brain chemistry happens to produce pleasant effects when certain substances are ingested. I do remember reading about an experiment that demonstrated that some species of animal would repeatedly press the button that stimulated their brains’ pleasure reaction (they’d been wired up somehow) rather than the food button. The animals starved to death. This seems to me to be pretty analogous to drug use, suggesting that addictive behaviours are not really unique to humans at all, and that it has nothing to do with sexual selection displays.

Talking about destruction of the environment, Diamond discusses the New Zealand Maori (extinction of the moa and a variety of other bird species, including an awesome-sounding eagle species), the North American Indians, the Easter Islanders, a central American civilisation that turned its environment into a desert, the Middle East in general, and all of the modern world, with its rapacious, and probably unsustainable, appetite for resources, regardless of the long-term cost. There’s a certain overlap here with the material in Flannery’s The eternal frontier, and also with material I believe Diamond is about to turn into another book (about human-induced environmental catastrophes), but it’s all good.

On genocide, Diamond covers things in a rather bitty way. He discusses how it is that the farmer humans did so much better than the hunter-gather humans, which stuff he later expanded on in Guns, germs and steel (which I highly recommend). He talks about the humanity’s usual xenophobia, and also mentions that chimpanzee troupes fight wars too (they’re just much less efficient at it, not having weapons). He also has a cute chapter about the likelihood of being contacted by aliens: one, intelligence is not necessarily as inevitable as you might think (cue cool example about, yes, woodpeckers); two, if humanity’s anything to go by, maybe intelligent species all end up wiping themselves out in short order; so, three, don’t hold your breath waiting for the aliens to arrive. He talks about various genocides in recent history (depressing reading, and the book isn’t even recent enough to include Rwanda’s most recent genocide, nor what happened in Yugoslavia).

Diamond concludes that at least some of us realise that much of what we’re doing is horribly unsustainable, so that maybe this is grounds for some optimism. A very good read.

Now reading:

Patrick O’Brian, The letter of marque.

Thursday, 27 February 2003

A miscellany

Listening to:

Haydn, symphony no. 51 in B flat major, Hob. I:51.

There are two big sporting events on at the moment featuring NZ national teams. One is the cricket world cup. NZ are doing reasonably at this. They lost to Sri Lanka and conceded a game to Kenya by refusing to play them in Nairobi, but have beaten South Africa, the West Indies and Bangladesh. The other event is the Americas Cup. Here a NZ boat is defending the cup against a Swiss boat, but has gone down 0-3 in the nine race series. Definitely a very bad start, but this article convinced me that I didn’t particularly care if NZ won or lost.

I found this piece from Salon quite interesting (you may need to click through an ad to get to read it). It’s a report by a US reporter about the anti-war protest marches in London on 16 February. For all that Salon is a left-wing publication, its journalist doesn’t seem quite in tune with what he’s told by the sample of protestors he interviewed. Still on the war, this “rant” by Mark Rosenfelder seems a reasonable summary of arguments in both directions. Mind your head doesn’t explode.

Another optical illusion. Your head might not explode, but it seemed to be quickly inducing a headache in me.

Finally, a neat piece of counter-propaganda from the US’s National Center for Science Education, Project Steve. I particularly liked its tongue-in-cheek endorsements.

Friday, 15 November 2002

Science in the dock

Listening to:

Haydn, symphony no. 86 in D major.

Stories about science controversies (physics specifically in these cases):

  • About a researcher at Bell Labs who was faking his results. This story is not so bad because the scientific method caught up with him in the end.

  • Physics papers that people think might be hoaxes, but where the community can’t seem to decide on the issue. The Register describes it, and links to this page by Arkadiusz Jadczyk. The Register reckons that the latter provides useful debunking of the article, but it also contains a lot of rather bizarre conspiracy theory rantings. Another summary is at John Baez’s page.

I’m off to see the new Harry Potter film tonight.

Thursday, 18 July 2002

Wolfram and others

Listening to:

Haydn, piano sonata no 43 in E flat major, Hob. XVI: 28. (Now that's a complicated cataloguing scheme: Roman numerals, a colon and then arabic numerals.)

In January last year, I complained about an article about Stephen Wolfram and his then forthcoming new book. Now the book is out, and it's called A new kind of science. It's not getting particularly good reviews: it’s arrogant and immodest (self-published), and some of the science is wrong. (A summary page of links to lots of reviews.)

This page (go to "advanced search") allows you to find out how many people born on the same day as you have died. Morbid, huh?

Mathematical Lego Sculptures. ’Nuff said.

Finally, interesting linguistics: why, how and when people learn languages. Answers to questions like where do kids get their accents from? and others.

The last straw was when the developers’ kit for Windows 95 came out on 12 CDs, Kent remarks. The entire human genome fits on one CD. You can't tell me [software] needs to be that complicated. - SD Magazine

Monday, 10 June 2002

Excuses and links

Listening to:

Handel, The Alchymist. My CD liner notes (by Anthony Hicks) say that this was the first orchestral music by Handel to be heard in England. It was originally an overture for his opera Rodrigo, but it gets its name because the suite's various movements

...were used as ‘act tunes’ (i.e., music played between acts) during a revival of Ben Jonson's play The Alchymist at the Queen's Theatre, Haymarket, in January 1710.

Still reading:

Vikram Seth, A suitable boy. I'm up to page 905 of this edition's 1474 pages. It continues to enthrall.

My complete failure to write web-log entries last week stems from the fact that Monday and Tuesday were public holidays, and while at work on the remaining three days of the week, I was very busy with the administrivia required in releasing HOL. Though it has yet to be announced, you can download exciting theorem-proving files now from SourceForge. I offer a similar excuse for my failure to write on the previous Friday.

But in all this time, I have accumulated a few good links that I feel compelled to share.

This, for example, is a pretty cool research project from MIT that aims to find out what's hot on the web by doing frequent scans of sites that identify themselves as web-logs, and seeing what they link to. To wax poetic, it's a window on the communal web-logger's soul. More usefully, you can see what the web's current best jokes are, and what its current neuroses are as well. (Good jokes aren't necessarily guffaw-inducing either. I particularly liked the gentle humour and style of this extract from a new book by Paul Robinson.)

There's also this neat Java demonstration of the scale of the universe through over 30 orders of magnitude. Of these, I'd estimate that the human mind can easily cope with about 10 of them.

Of course, the incomprehensible is easy to find on the Internet itself. In this case, the more you look at, the wackier it seems.

Wednesday, 2 August 2000

Links on Freud

Listening to:

Couperin, Nouveaux concerts.

Freud the pseudo-scientist

Some interesting articles about Freud. I didn’t need very much convincing to decide that the whole area is pseudo-science. Colin McGinn in the NYRB leads off, with a discussion of Freud's theories. This is followed by some responses to his article, and a response of his own. (This is a good feature of the NYRB, controversial articles are usually followed by an Exchange wherein critics get to write extended pieces in reply, but where the original author gets to reply to the reply.)

Then there’s a review of a German book describing how Freud cooked his evidence in the London Review of Books. There were (short) responses to this article and a long reply to these by the original reviewer.

Friday, 7 April 2000


Listening to:

The white album by the Beatles.

I was wondering about the physics of bomb blasts the other day, perhaps prompted by the news of an explosion in an army barracks in Londonderry. If you’re not close enough to an explosion to be affected by the heat released, nor any flying bits of shrapnel from the bomb and its casing, how does the shock wave affect you? (Not well, I'm ready to believe, but I’m looking for a bit more detail than that).

What’s a “shock wave” anyway? It’s just air, innit? Does it do its damage by lifting you off the ground and slamming you into nearby buildings, or does the impact of the wave do damage in itself? I guess the latter must be the case. A famous IRA bomb in London caused plate glass windows on buildings within a large area to shatter, but you could explain this with the first hypothesis by noting that the windows were fixed into position and couldn’t react to the force of the explosion by flying away.

And if I’m behind a sturdy post-box (they’re big steel things in Britain), does that shelter me from the effects? At all?

Or am I underestimating the area of effect of the heat and shrapnel? Is this how a bomb does most of its damage? All these questions, and no real answers.

On a cheerier note, I was a happy customer of the Parkside pool this morning. I had a good swim, and emerged feeling simultaneously refreshed and pleasantly exercise-tired.

I was going to have a rant about anti-intellectualism and anti-education attitudes today (predictable stuff coming from an academic I suppose), but I think I've probably wittered on for long enough already, and I have two bug reports to deal with.