Sunday, September 30, 2007

Ban on Warming

"The time for doubt has passed. What we do about it will define us, our era, and ultimately the global legacy we leave for future generations."
Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General

"Given the nature and magnitude of the challenge, national action alone is insufficient. That is why we need to confront climate change within a global framework, one that guarantees the highest level of international co-operation."

Ban's is not a household name yet, but he's shown some vision. Unfortunately he has inherited an organisation that is only as effective as the member countries want it to be. Even in an apparently unipolar world, that polarity is like a minority government, that rules while the other parties remain ununified.

It _is_ hard. The issue - the profile of our energy use - cuts to the core of industrial production, and directly impinges on the wealth of nations. In the short term. Yes, it calls for a type of deliberate industrial revolution, and it's a daunting challenge at this early stage of our political evolution.

Individuals alone won't tip the balance (or preserve the balance, putting it another way). Governments have to direct - through legislation or a strongly tilted incentive regime.
In turn, poorer nations won't act unless they're compelled to. They have too many challenges to face in the short term to think seriously about the medium term. And the only rational mechanism of compulsion for them would be, again, a strongly tilted incentive regime. Fostered and financed by the developed world. Simply a national approach writ large.

So simple the solution, so much harder the political will. And the only real power most people have in the developed world is their vote.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Why do dinosaurs have feathers?

Not having paid too much attention to dinosaurs, I was caught on the hop by the velociraptors in the Jurassic Park films. Never heard of them before.

Turns out that was cinematic largesse (so to speak). The real velociraptors were apparently only a metre high.

And now we find that they had feathers. Published a few days ago in the journal Science, Mark Norell of the American Museum of Natural History details "quill knobs" in the bones of velociraptors found in Mongolia.

Norell details a surprising number of features and habits shared between birds and velociraptors, including nests and hollow bones. (I mentioned recently that those hollows were characterised by Peter Ward as air sacs to aid respiration - breathing.)

From the tenor of the piece, it's still unclear whether the velociraptor's feathers were handed down by flying ancestors, but other functions were proposed, such as temperature control or in aiding stability while in fast motion.

Which brings me on to a significant and exciting point in evolutionary history that has been remarked on by Charles Darwin and Stephen Jay Gould in turn (and doubtless many in between):

Redundancy. The mechanism that facilitates evolutionary change: two-for-one - an organ or feature that can fulfil two functions; and one-for-two - two different organs that fulfil effectively equivalent roles.

These mechanisms permit stability and viability at a time of change: favourable mutations find favourable uses for such redundancies. More to come on this.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

More random evolution

Evolution does not necessarily equate to progress. It's simply about randomly adapting. If we were able to make a properly mechanistic assessment, we'd have an equation to balance out the amount of change necessary in a species, versus the pace at which an environment is changing.

Speckled about some of the Stephen Jay Gould essays I'm reading are some good examples of randomness at work. I've already mentioned snails on Moorea Island, where several isolated niche environments resulted in several (randomly) different populations of snails. Here's a few more illustrations.

Niche environments can change
Essay 3 in Eight Little Piggies (1993) details a species of limpit, Lottia alveus. They fed exclusively on a single species of sea grass, Zostera marina. Moreover, the limpet could only survive in a certain narrow range of salinity. The Atlantic Ocean variety of Lottia was abundant in the 1920s, but was gone by about 1933. Environmental change or disease had killed off most of that sea grass. Some remained, but only outside the limpet's salinity range. So went the special environment niche, and the limpet was gone.

Change doesn't mean improvement
Gould also detailed a species of coral which oscillated between two substantially different sizes several times over the course of its evolutionary history. Undoubtedly responding to environmental pressures, it demonstrates that change isn't a one-way process that forms a steady upward vector of progress. Evolutionary change simply represented serial adaptions to environment.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Inquisition's here to stay.

We've been having a phoney election campaign all year, and it's been excruciating. Yet it's a pale shadow of the pain we have yet to face. By comparison, the Spanish Inquisition is but a blink of the eye.

It might sound like I'm enjoying the election campaign. But I'm not. I have absolutely no desire to see any politician, nor hear anything they have to say. And the goat entrails tend to suggest that most people made up their minds at least six months ago, and that the millions of dollars of raw tedium still to be inflicted on us will not be enough to sway a single whoop whoop marginal. Pollsters keep varying their questions in the hope of deeper insights, but there's really nothing to add to the story. People have simply stopped listening to the Liberals, and are going to vote for the ALP without turning the hearing aid a single notch.

The latest whisper is that the election will be announced on the 14th of October, for the 27th of November. That makes nearly three more weeks of pretend campaigning before we even begin.

Still, I don't mind some of the mumbo jumbo on the periphery. It's what the commentators have to say that stirs the pot. Such as "Malcolm Turnbull refuses to rule out challenging for the leadership". Good on him. If ever there was a single person to take responsibility for an extra three years in the political wilderness... more, if the Liberals don't wise up to him quickly enough.

All the columnists whose blatherings couldn't hold attention for more than a sentence: they're suddenly making stern points about the world post election, and the sins to be visited on us all because we will insist on voting ALP.

Well, some of us. So to speak. For me, it's the closest call yet: I'd dearly love to vote for Peter Garrett. But there's principle involved - even higher than him.

And then we get Miranda Devine's excoriation of Malcolm Turnbull. She's seen the future of the Liberal Party, and she's getting bitter and nasty in advance. Let her. Nobody's listening.

Come next year, we'll all wonder why we put up with it in the first place. we'd vote to eliminate the campaign period altogether - have a few weeks of meditative calm before we do the inevitable. But that won't happen: policy is decided by politicians, and we're just along for the ride.

The Inquisition, what a show
The Inquistion, here we go
We know you're
wishin' that we'd go away.
But the Inquisition's here and it's here to stay!

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Taking a much, much longer look.

Popular understanding of evolution is deeply flawed for a couple of reasons. First, the concepts are often subtle, and open to antithetical interpretations when reduced to one-liners. Second, we're understandably anthropocentric, and it's hard to think fully outside our own context.

I was once just as guilty as anyone of misconstruing why giraffes have long necks (due to the best mutations surviving in an environmental niche, not a lifetime of stretching!)

If I take a much longer view of time and the Earth, my conclusions are mixed, but on the whole positive.

In terms of Earth's history, we are in the Holocene epoch (for the past 11,500 years) of the Neogene period (the past 23 million years), within the Cenezoic era. That era is only 65 million years old, yet the Earth's geological history lasts 4,500 million years. The start of the Cenezoic era is marked by the meteor that caused the last main extinction event (K-T), which eliminated non-avian dinosaurs and gave mammals the opportunity to fill in the environmental niches left void.

And, of course, we're now in the middle of another major extinction event. And we are the cause of it.

The event will be marked by fossils in the geological record when this epoch and period is gone. As well as fossils the rock record will also show human artifacts.

By that time, we will have gone through some trauma. We will have changed the global environment; the only question is how far we have to go before we can band together sufficiently to stop the slide. We will need a new word for suffering, because the current global refugee situation is nothing compared with what we will face.

On the plus side, we will probably have forced our way out of the cycle of ice ages and interglacial periods that has characterised the planet for most of the Cenezoic era.

I also expect we'll have genetic technology largely under wraps. This means the ability to revive extinct species, but a species is just one aspect of an integrated environmental niche, and recovering them would be much more complex.

And, to paraphrase an old Church song (Fog), in a thousand years, we will all be digitised computer memory. That is the sole fate for most of us, although it's a more visible fate than most of those who died a thousand years ago.

I'd expect that ultimate survival will be due to our ability to conquer the tyrannical distances of space. If, for example, those who embark on the journey are those best suited for that vastly different evironment (whether involving cryogenics or not), there will be some genetic selection. That will be our only form of future evolution: that which we mark on ourselves.

[Or, in isolated environments, those left behind will change the natural way. However, evolution is a simple equation of the speed of adaptable mutations versus the speed of environment change. Evolving naturally would be, as it always has been anyway, a gamble.]

And now that we have digitised the past for the future's benefit, I have confidence there will always be music to lift the spirit.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Science: mechanistic or narrative?

“Everyone needs a good mechanic” - Stephen Jay Gould

I'm going to take a break from the series on evolutionary misconceptions to comment on an epistemological dichotomy in science that never struck me before reading Gould.

It's taken me a long time to realise properly where my strengths lie. The clues have been there: predilections for pure mathematics, physics, puzzle solving, collecting and ordering. But long ago I was caught in a zeitgeist that said “anyone can do anything” if they set their mind and effort to it. My feeling is that it cropped up in particular in certain strands of feminist and Marxist analysis, specifically as a reaction to social determinism. There is some merit either way, but that's not where I'm headed here.

Yet I feel that it's possible to be happier and more successful in life if you can properly identify where your sympathies lie, and go with the grain rather than against it. [That is, if you have the time and luxury to properly follow that process to conclusion.]

I've been knocking around a lot (doesn't sound like Harvard material, does it?), but I've found that I'm more content and productive with the mental gymnastics of analytical work. Specifically, solving the puzzles in mechanics and number theory are more satisfying to me than constructing or deconstructing narrative.

The full quote above – from Gould's book Dinosaur In A Haystack – is:
“Everyone needs a good mechanic, including the heavens, but give me an earthly naturalist any day, for humans are storytellers.”

This is not to say that biology is not analytical or logic-based – far from it. But when Gould emphasises narrative over the “stasis” of the models made for mechanistic worlds, I have to put up my hand for a different kind of analysis. Not a more sophisticated form, but different. When Gould discusses mathematics and physics, he does so with an obviously cool appreciation, and acknowledges his distance from those disciplines.

A friend of mine, who is also very analytical,is not scientifically trained, but he is a very creditable amateur anthropologist and a particularly keen devourer of history. Needless to say, he likes narrative. But he can also discuss physics.

So is that a genuine dichotomy? Is physics hard and model-based, and biology infusive and narrational? In reality, they may be more like points on a spectrum. Across which, if we have the temperament, we can aim to stretch our capabilities.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Evolution: misconceiving change

Your average Harry Potter book is full of mystery, myriad unusual details, and engaging narrative. And it gets better with each book. There's the recent finale, then the series ends.
And while there's a steady flow of ideas, there are few strong insights – except towards the end, and even those are already out there, in the “published literature”, so to speak.

Stephen Jay Gould's volumes of essays are similarly laden with mystery, a welter of odd details, and reader-friendly narratives. But in contrast to Rowling, each essay yields new insights that can, sooner or later, be applied in a much wider context. And although death brought closure to Gould as to all, the extant series provides years of thought-provoking enjoyment, and doesn't close off the story of evolution, science and knowledge.

Punctuated equilibrium writes nature's primary signature” - SJG

The following example is yet another illustration of a popular misconception of evolution.
I started his essay 'Cordelia's dilemma' in Dinosaur In A Haystack (1996, Jonathan Cape). It was a tale of nothing, as was Cordelia's response to Lear... but there are lessons in nothing.

Gould begins with the publication bias of scientific research: that journals tend to publish papers with positive results, i.e. those with a story to tell. Studies yielding negative results (eg “we've found no correlation between these factors”) far more often suffer from a) languishing unpublished; b) languishing unsubmitted for publication.

After a few illustrations, Could moves to the concept that originally made his name: Punctuated Equilibrium, that is, most species exhibit little change over the course of their existence, and actual change is relatively rapid in geological time scales.

Most of the time: no change. This narrative had been largely overlooked by paleontologists as either not carrying any narrrative, or not exactly fitting in with evolutionary thought. Gould's own thesis supervisor spent a good deal of effort on statistical analysis of brachiopod evolution to no apparent avail, before switching disciplines.

The wider misconception is, again, anthropocentric. On a human scale, we see constant change throughout history – change is the constant, the mantra runs. When it's not revolutionary, it's said to be “evolutionary” - that is, gradual. But that's the mistake: evolution is not, on the wider scale, gradual and steady. It's rather closer to our concept of “revolution”. That is not to say instantaneous and all-encompassing at all – at least in our measure. Thousands of generations is not instantaneous to us, and yet again it is, to Earth's time scale. Apart from those flashes, the narrative flatlines for much, much longer.

In capitalist economics, fluctuation is the norm, and equilbrium a mere blink. In evolutionary history, it's the other way around.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Drawing accurate conclusions from polls

The latest NewsPoll puts the government at 45% vs 55% for the ALP. This gives comfort to the Liberals on three counts:
  • It’s 5% up on the last few polls;

  • The result is equivalent to the figure Keating clawed back to win the “unwinnable” election of 1993;

  • The commentators on the Murdoch Australian are all back to cheering the Liberals

Yet it should be making them nervous for five more salient reasons:
  • It’s anomalous compared to other poll results;

  • It comes after a damaging week of internal sparring among the Liberals;

  • Keating had a punching dummy: the Liberals’ GST policy;

  • It gives the Liberals grounds to remain indecisive on a leadership spill.

Reason number five is the fact that the same opinion poll asked how people how wedded they were to their voting intentions. Adding together the “absolutely” and the “only slight chance of change” gives the Liberals 39% and the ALP 49%. Not an election-winner, this close to.

The same day that brought ostensibly good news brought a couple more clangers. First, a large employer, Spotlight, is rolling back its industrial relations policy from the Liberals' model to a collective system, as being less distracting and more efficient for the business.

Then the Murdoch press reports the Reserve Bank's flagging of an impending interest rate rise. Not what anyone wanted to hear, but not unexpected.

Next day was no better. The headline issue, that under the Liberals, university funding had slipped to the lower rungs of the OECD, is traditionally not a vote-changer. The second item was hidden in a poll on the website for Murdoch's the Australian: 24% gave all or most credit for Australia's economic strength to the Liberals (specifically, Costello as treasurer), while 59% gave little or no credit. The bias in this poll: overall, respondents would be tech-savvy educated conservatives. Which is not where the election will be won and lost, but it gives some insight into the lack of traction the Liberals are getting on that issue.

Oxygen: Evolution's powerbooster

An April article on oxygen from New Scientist has been niggling me for months. The story given is a neat account of the development of life on earth being directly connected to the concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere.

Written by Peter Ward, extracted from his book Out of Thin Air (Joseph Henry Press), it attributes the emergence and subsequent re-emergence of animals directly to the rise of atmospheric oxygen to today’s levels and above. Modelling of oxygen levels is extracted from a system called Geocarbsulf (Yale University) – see here.

This picture presents somewhat of a refinement of traditional views of oxygen levels over time, as depicted in the Wikipedia article on oxygen amongst others. The narrative and evidence is convincing – if that modelling wasn't specifically tied to the known dates for animals inhabiting the terrestrial environment (ie a causality issue) - but the context of story, publication and author are persuasive.

The narrative further attributes the rise of large land animals - dinosaurs in particular – specifically to increased oxygen and more complex respiration mechanisms. More sophisticated than mammals, in fact. Birds and, he demonstrates, dinosaurs have air sacs that permit continuous respiration as opposed to the old in-out. Ward’s keynote example is geese migrating over the Himalayas at altitudes that would kill humans. He depicts the air sacs as located specifically in birds’ hollow bones, a mechanism subsequently identified in their ancestors the dinosaurs.

The article - and book - go into much more detail on the circumstances that lead to these changes in oxygen levels, and the outcomes. There may be some useful lessons from this for today's situation, although it's always hard to integrate the narratives of such different scales of time: the ponderous geological changes versus the the anthropogenic changes being wrought at a breakneck human pace.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Howard brought to book

Funny old world, innit?

After a phony election campaign all year, the wave of opinion polls has been rolling consistently all year, to dump the Liberals bruised and humiliated on the shores of September with nothing between them and oblivion bar the few short weeks of delay that they can claw out of what remains of the year.

John Howard is a venal, heartless, grubby little man with a small soul, whom history will remember most unkindly whenever it's sadly obliged to recall him at all.

Disappointingly, the year and the time and tide have been carrying us to this point for all the wrong reasons. Debate focused on materialism rather than the size of the soul. In a less metaphysical sense, retiring MP Carmen Lawrence gave a particularly lucid explanation for the things that do matter – the real agenda. Well worth a read of her summation.

The actual reasons for the switch are much more mundane. The Australian electorate, at the outcome-deciding margins, has little political consciousness beyond the man at the top, and finds the issues too confusing to be able to add together the apples and oranges of policy to understand what ideology means, and what impact it has on their very lives.

John Howard is a petty man whose biggest single ambition is to be Prime Minister, and to stay Prime Minister. It's been shown that even in the face of political suicide, he can't let go, and he'll undermine his own ostensible commitment to helping the Liberals assess their situation with honesty, openness and fortitude. Those traits are not so much anathema to him, but a foreign country.

Fortunately. Because what sliver of a chance the Liberals do have lies in getting rid of Howard – and he won't let it happen and they won't do it. If Costello was not just given the reins, but seized them, he would instantly improve his stocks with the electorate. And although his popularity is not high, his ability is sufficient to be able to use those last few weeks to instil himself on the public consciousness – positively. Fortunately, that cossetted claque of Liberal MPs is oscillating wildly between acting the headless chooks and staring like rabbits at headlights.

In such a maelstrom, anything can happen. And once the battle is over and the wounded set about deepening each others' wounds, that Anything will be the Liberals' ultimate poison: choosing Malcolm Turnbull to be their leader. He's a nightmare of a politician: ostensibly smart and capable, but a man of such blithe arrogance that his presence alone will add another term to the Liberals' electoral wilderness hell.

And, for what they've done to Australia, it's what John Howard and the Liberals deserve.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Stephen Jay Gould, and random mutation

"Conceptual locks are far more powerful than factual lacks as barriers to scientific understanding" - S.J.G.

Stephen Jay Gould was a prominent evolutionary biologist, whose significant achievements included the concept of punctuated equilibrium (previously discussed here), and a welter of lucid writing that seeped into popular consciousness more than any other writer in his discipline since Darwin.

He died in 2002, but not before publishing a series of books based on over 25 years worth of essays for the magazine Natural History.

I'm currently journeying through his collection Eight Little Piggies (Jonathan Cape, 1993). His writing style is clear but erudite. The essays are interesting and easy to follow. But there is a trap that I believe is common to most discourse on evolution, both at a lay and a professional level: it is so very easy to misconstrue concepts. They are often subtle, writ on different scales to our own (in terms of both time and species). On the one hand, there are many fallacies built around the key phrases that sum up the popular conceptualisation of evolution, such as "survival of the fittest" and "natural selection". On the other hand, there are so many disputes between the professionals that consensus-building seems to take substantially longer than in harder physics disciplines such as cosmology or subatomic theory. This is because theory is necessarily built on small populations of fossils that each new discovery has potential to cause paradigm shift.

And interlaced throughout is the burden of anthropocentricism, the framework that lures people into thinking too much in the context of the here and now species.

And so Gould's essays are sometimes straightforward in their ramifications, but often require a re-read to catch the "correct" nuance and avoid the hidden missteps and solipsisms.

So I go carefully. And start with some clear concepts picked up from this book.

The first essay, Unenchanted Evening, follows the course of a species of snail (Gould's original academic focus) on the French Polynesian island Moorea. He traced the meticulous work of Henry Crampton last century, who made incredibly detailed studies of the Partula.

Gould illustrated how the body of measurement, description, and sampling was valuable not just as a comprehensive snapshot, but an excellent baseline for future study of changes in that species.
Unfortunately, it was driven to extinction. First, another species of snail was accidentally introduced that drove Partula to the brink, then a third species was intentionally introduced to control the second - but which instead clinched the fate of the Partula.

Biological control is fraught, absolutely. As any Queenslander ever plagued by cane toads will tell you. Introduced to control a sugar cane pest (which they never did), they are toxic and gradually spreading their way across the whole of Australia.

Yet there was a meaningful conceptual outcome of Compton's work. The island of Moorea is based on a volcano, and its topography is such that there are ridges and valleys all around the island. The Partula snail was partial to the valleys but not the ridges, so the population consisted of a series of sub-populations that were to a great extent isolated from each other. And each of those populations was physically different in form and colour. The question was whether those differences were due to unidentified differences in those niche environments, or random differences.

Crampton interpreted the differences as being due to three major causes: isolation, mutation, and natural selection. Isolation simply created the conditions for independent populations. Crampton saw natural selection as mainly negative, simply in terms of unhelpful mutations not surviving. And so the differences were due to random mutation.

"the role of the environment is to set the limits to the habitable areas or to bring about the elimination of individuals whose qualities are otherwise determined, that is, by congenital factors".

This has parallels with Darwin's Galapagos finches, with the difference here that there is no firm necessity for the sub-population differentiations.

Gould rated Crampton's labours and conclusions very highly.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Synaesthesia unmasked

There's a science fiction story I remember (H L Gold's The Man With English) with a particularly memorable last line.
A man ended up in hospital as a result of an accident. He started complaining that the bed was too hard, but when they made it softer, it felt harder to him. Hotter felt colder, and so on. The doctors felt they had to operate on him to fix this peculiar condition where his senses were topsy turvy. This they duly did; when the man awoke afterwards, he sniffed around and demanded: “what smells purple?”

A May edition of New Scientist revealed the mechanics behind the very peculiar condition synaesthesia, whereby a small number of people experience senses spilling over into other realms. Some very common examples are people for whom words all have particular colours; or maybe each day of the week comes with a consistent colour, or particular words evoke particular tastes when seen.

Daniel Tammet, mentioned here a few times in the past, presents a particularly interesting case. He has Asperger's, aka high functioning autism. His memory is incredible, and he also experiences words as specific colours. Much more meaningful, however, is his relationship with numbers, which he loves. For him, each digit has a specific shape and evokes a particular feeling – indeed, he experiences a unique shape for every number up to 10,000. This greatly helps his ability with numbers: he has recited from memory pi to over 20,000 digit, by following the shaped landscape in his mind. He also sees the multiplication product of two numbers simply by the shape of the space between the two.

The New Scientist article says synaesthesia is involuntary, runs in families, and is thought to be due to incomplete pruning of neural pathways during the brain's development so that connections remain that are not there for most of us. For example, in a colour synaesthete's brain, the area processing colour does actually show activity when stimulated by the linked concept.

Why would one letter or word evoke a specific colour? The answer appears to be sometimes individualistic (based on the person's early experiences that forge consistent responses), but there are certainly some common crosswirings that have very simple explanations.
First words tend to evoke colour responses on the basis of the first letter – Tammet has himself commented on this. Also, the more common letters are typically associated with common colours, and less frequent letters with rarer colours. Next, colours are often associated with the first letter of the word – for example, B is frequently seen as blue or brown. Y is often yellow for English-speaking synaesthetes, but for Germans, it's G they often associate with yellow - which is gelb in German.

There is a lot more to it, but the above substantially demystifies a very odd condition. It doesn't speak directly to Tammet's memory ability, for example, but it does give a hint that links these related phenomena to brain abnormalities.

In the majority of people, congenital brain abnormalities can be overwhelmingly burdensome but for some, they open up new pathways.

13-Sept update:What does this mean in the context of the broad span of evolution? Possibly not much, because
a) The indications so far are that these neurological wirings happen at the level of the b0dy's physiology, not the gene, and so don’t inherit;
b) Evolutionary supremacy is the story of small genetic mutations dominating in the general population, on the basis of superior survival in a given environment. And the greatest implications of rewiring – superior numerical or memory ability – may not confer special advantage in a technological environment.

But the latter is open for debate.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Evolution oversimplified

Sometimes it feels like the more I read about evolution, the less I understand. It’s probably like that for most disciplines, especially if study is not sufficiently systematic.

Certainly, the popular understanding of evolution is rudimentary, and often rather off the mark.

The bloke who writes the Dilbert cartoons, Scott Adams, is certainly no fool. However, intelligence is no substitute for knowledge or understanding, and it certainly doesn’t guarantee humility. A recent blog entry of his complains quite loudly that the “average non-scientist has been fed a diet of suspicious evidence for evolution for decades”.

I don’t have a strong argument with that. He complains that the average punter is fed too many simplifications that don’t always stack up. True. Especially via the media and popular culture. It applies to most science, but few others have such profound nuance for people’s psyche. Witness the number of evolution blogs out there – that are mostly focused on defending it against creationism or other anti-science. Sciences inherently involve deep understanding and knowledge – and disagreements among experts. It is impossible to convey all this to the untrained mind without simplifying both the explanations and the debates.

And revisions in evolutionary biology are particularly common compared with other sciences. We’re talking major revisions. Simply, the number of fossils used to draw conclusions about human evolution is surprisingly small, and any new specimen can require textbook revisions. Not to mention the perpetual debates between experts, who can’t agree on taxonomies or narratives.

Let’s start from the beginning.

Evolution is about random changes in DNA, the blueprints for species, between generations. The outcome of those changes depends on the environment. Either the change is better suited to the environment, so the changed genes dominate over time, or the change does not confer advantages over the existing population, in which case they don’t thrive. The changes can result in populations spreading over different environmental niches. Who survives?
a) the best-suited populations in each niche;
b) whoever survives environmental changes (either gradual or cataclysmic)

I think that covers the simplest introduction. This does not necessarily speak to increasing complexity at all. There have been plenty of dead ends in history – due to environment rather than inferior makeup. Neandertals, for example, had larger brain capacities than us (which is not to say more complex), but that gives no indication of superior survival capacity over our ancestors – larger brains need more nutrition, for example, and so may be less suited to resource-poor environments.

More complexity to come.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

The APEC Climate Change Con

It was pointed out that the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, held in Sydney over the past week, brought together leaders of 60% of the world's economy - ie China and the US in particular.

And their announcement on Climate Change talked of "aspirational" goals and "clean coal technology" - the very language favoured by George Bush's pet crony, Australia's soon-to-be-ex-Prime-Minister John Howard.

As weasely as Howard has ever been, the declaration doesn't commit anyone to anything. It hopes people will treat climate change a little bit seriously. They're aiming for a stabilisation that means, as new research has indicated, that Greenland's ice reservoir will melt in 300 years odd.

That's a rise in sea level of seven metres, folks.

We can only hope that the political demises of Howard and Bush will see more realistic action. This can only be achieved by firm national and international action, and those men are not the right leaders.


I mentioned just a few days ago two Pavarotti pieces in an arbitrary list of beautiful music.

They are:

Miss Sarajevo: In the middle of a U2 song, Pavarotti turns up to send the song soaring. Pavarotti boosts a minor wistful mood into the stratosphere.

No, Pagliacci non son: Leoncavallo's opera Pagliacci sees Pavarotti's titular character in a climax of anguish over betrayal. The passage from 2:21 to 2:31 always gives me shivers as he renounces his love in agony.
The recording is London 414 590-2, with Patane and the National Philharmonic Orchestra.

From time to time I've searched for more of these peaks from Pavarotti, but haven't hit it lucky. The recording I have of Nessun Dorma ends on a weak note. I also asked at a music shop for a recommended recording, and ended up with his CD "King of the High Cs", which doesn't have any strong moments for me. Other recommendations most welcome.

Good music is pure passion; it's not the province only of operatic moments, but there are certainly masses of examples in this milieu. Pavarotti had a particular style, as had his colleague tenors Domingo and Carerras in different ways. Domingo had a marvellous clarity and strength; Carreras didn't - but he had character, and so could do a Zarzuela tune like No Puedo Ser with a flair unmatched.

Although past his peak by a decade or two, Pavarotti showed flair throughout his career, and left a legacy to be cherished.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Relativity and our planetary neighbours

I just had to show this picture. It clarifies beautifully the relative dimensions of Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. Bet you didn't realise Mars was so much smaller than Venus.

Mercury is about 0.055 times the Earth's mass. The moon is about 0.01 times. That much smaller.

While we're here: today's paper reported the conclusion of some scientists on the meteor that caused the mass extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago. They reckon it was the result of a collision between two very large asteroids in the Asteroid Belt, and that the same collision spewed debris across the moon and Mars at around the same time.

More plausible than a random event originating outside the solar system. We are, after all, on an outer arm of our galaxy, not terribly close to much else.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Breezy US "quality journalism"

George Bush was in Sydney today, in talks with PM John Howard, amongst other things.

Our national Newsradio station carries a feed from its rough equivalent, the US National Public Radio's current events programme, All Things Considered.

So. The journalist reports on Bush's arrival in Sydney, direct from Iraq. When asked by the anchor what would be discussed, the reporter unsurprisingly proffered Iraq first off. He noted that there was an election in the wind here, and that Iraq was quite a big issue. He also mentioned that Howard was staring into the jaws of a crushing defeat at the election. Then he touched on the other issues he expected Howard and Bush would be discussing: Iran and Korea.

You have to give that journalist some credit. It looks like he did pick up a paper his way through the airport. He got it right about the impending election.

But Iraq has not been a major issue in the election. To a major extent, the argy bargy that has been going on all year is domestic in nature.

As for Iran and Korea... what?

For his information, trade issues loom large in the immediate relationship between Australia and the US. And the press in the last few days has devoted a fair bit of space to a plan to drastically strengthen defence ties with the US, particularly on hardware.

Still, the US is rather an insular country - and can afford to be, since it is so dominant economically and militarily. It's understandable that the journalist would toss off the specific US foreign policy concerns. And since they are the US's concerns, I expect Iran and Korea will get a mention. But I'd be quite surprised if there was much milage in those discussions.

I wouldn't go putting the boot into NPR - it's one of the better US news sources, and it's going to do no worse than others in reflecting US insularity.

Update 6-Sept-07: Interesting to hear a BBC report on substantially the same issue: Howard, Bush, Rudd, Iraq, and the impending election. It was so much closer to the mark than (the best of) the American reporting.
Again, though, the results do have to reflect - to some extent at least - the differential power relationships of the respective countries. The more dominant the nation, the more insular and blind. And vice versa. Undoubtedly, when England had its day in the sun it was equally blithe in its understanding of the rest of the world.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Evolution, prehistory, and Bill Bryson

Had the opportunity to read through Bill Bryson's A Short History Of Everything. A book that attempts to be pretty much what it says, focused on natural history as opposed to human events.

I have to say, there's a lot of good stuff in it. Having said that, it's obviously written for the lay reader. Although loaded with facts, it's written in far too avuncular a style. Anecdotes can certainly be worthwhile, but often enough the writing is just one big ramble. The narrative is not particularly chronological, well-ordered, or of uniform significance.

Yet there's a lot to learn from it. I got flavours that I wouldn't have found elsewhere (especially not in reference works) in subjects such as biology taxonomy, human evolution, and climate change through time.

One strand running through the narratives is that biology and prehistory are not the clearcut, proven sciences that are presented in textbooks and references. I can see some justification for those publications sticking to a relatively unitary consensus position of scientists, rather than muddying the narrative with the labyrinthine internecine disagreements within a given discipline. It is to Bryson's credit that he's not afraid of muddy waters.

A few gleanings.

Taxonomy. There are seven major levels in biology: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. Humans, for example, are respectively animalia, chordata (vertebrates), mammalia, primate, hominid, homo, homo sapiens. Most animals are in a small number of the phyla; most phyla are completely obscure for the lay reader. But how many phyla to divide things into is a matter of dispute: from the twenties to the eighties, with most people settling on a number in the thirties. And as Bryson indicates, the divisions are made more rational every so often, with much grumbling and revision of textbooks. Books from the 1970s, for example, are most definitely out of date.

Climate change. There has been a lot of change through the course of this planet. (None before was anthropogenic, of course.) Bryson reckons there are reasons to argue both ways on whether the global climate could get hotter or cooler: the creation of the Himalayas and the central american isthmus had major impacts simply through changes in air and water flows. Consensus goes for the warming, but tinkering with the climate globally (as some have suggested) can have thoroughly wild results.

Human evolution. Theory is based on so few solid fossil records that the whole discipline could arguably be construed as risible. Even New Scientist frequently reports new developments with a straight face, while acknowledging each time that there are major disagreements on interpretation. NS's latest argument was on whether Homo Habilis and Homo Erectus overlapped - not at all? or for a few million years? The available examples are just so rare.
My take is that human evolution has been gradual, and the reason for the different species characterisations is simply because so few fossils have been found that they can easily be separated into different species. Heaven help us when we dig up much more, and find the changes too gradual for such distinction.

And finally, Bryson demonstrates that there is still so much to be discovered, named and catalogued, in both fossil and living species. If you're keen enough, you can almost certainly find (or at least differentiate enough) a new species that you can name after yourself. Better do so before extinction: humans are estimated to cause thousands of extinctions each year, many of them species still unnamed.

We are certainly not at the end of the history of science.

Monday, September 03, 2007

A new scam? (Hi "Emma")

I got a comment to the previous post. Inter alia, it went something like this:

"In this respect there seems a surprising [...web link deletion...] compensation in human life.. That source [further deletion] is the unconscious.. Lampton's poem on the [deletion] subject, with its refrain, Never again, said Colonel George..."

...and so it goes for miles.

What's it all about? It's a little off-topic, to say the least.

I moderate comments, which means I view them before allowing them to be published.

First, I did a google search for some of the text. I found it was in quite a lot of blogs, as well as identifying that some of the phrases were from a Freud text; others were from other public domain works that were available on a few web sites.

I then searched for the web sites in the sporadically appearing links. In Google, I looked at cached versions. They seemed to be nothing but advertising; some at least were Polish in origin. Plenty of people got caught publishing the comments, and I'm sure plenty of people were inveigled into clicking on the links out of curiosity. I did have a look at one site, but my browser warned me to shut the window, as it was an unsafe site. So I did.

I searched for the author of the comment - they have to be registered to Blogspot to leave a non-anonymous comment. That author had two blogs; both entirely consisted of more of the same.

The words appeared in numerous blogs specifically as comments to posts. I gather those sites didn't moderate their comments. On at least one blog, the Google cache had the comment, but it had already been deleted from the live page. Unmoderated.

I still don't know if the linked sites are properly dangerous, or just sucking in web traffic. Either way it's nefarious. Either way, some amoral person is spending time trawling the net for innocuous text to intersperse with links to catch the unsuspecting. Search for yourself if you feel motivated, but it's not my intention to blatantly trap the unwary by publishing the links directly.

It's a bit like those spam emails that start off with screeds of odd text, then suddenly presents an image file advertising pharmaceuticals or pump-and-dump stocks. Somebody has obviously been spending a fair bit of time setting all this up, so they must figure the returns are worth it.

(I'd dearly love to know how spams polluted my personal email address. I thought I was being careful to give it out only to reputable people.)

At least I'm moderating comments.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Timescape (SF2)

Timescapes is a 1980 novel by Gregory Benford, which won the Nebula Award, the major science fiction award voted by writers.

Very interesting in that it presages a number of major zeitgeists of the time it was set - 1998. There's a version of the internet, and major global environmental catastrophe - albeit more serious and immediate than global warming.

Amidst what I would say is a major undercurrent of irritability, it still manages to be rather insightful and intelligent. Much of the setting is based around a university physics department, and is very true and detailed in its portrayal of academic research, politics, politics of research, career and hierarchy. The richness and complexity here is hardly surprising, since Benford was a university professor at the time of writing.

The perspective on mathematical and scientific discovery and philosophy is one that only someone very much steeped in the milieu could muster. He captures the excitement and motivation of a scientist. "People became scientists [or mathematicians] because they liked solving riddles, not because they would win prizes." It brought back a lot of nostalgic feeling for me.

Although the denouement is somewhat abrupt, the richness is in the journey. And the resolution of time travel paradoxes is certainly a less common one, and one that is satisfyingly neat for a scientist.

The book is also particularly prescient in its depiction of global environmental disaster, one that is more abrupt, albeit no less inexorable, than our current situation.

Again, I would like to point out that the accolade of the top science fiction award is not an automatic path to fame and riches. This is yet another novel (along with Philip K Dick's The Man In The High Castle) that doesn't exactly lie in abundance on the shelves of libraries and bookshops. But the award in itself bestows the simple imprimatur that it is worth seeking out, since it was favoured by a jury of peers.