The Border Between Life & Non Life

“According to two papers published in Cell on January 11, 2018, the making of memories and the processes of learning resemble, of all things, a viral infection. It works like this: The shells that transport information between neurons are assembled by a gene called Arc. Experiments conducted by two research teams revealed that the Arc protein that forms a shell, functions much like a Gag, a gene that transports a virus’s genetic material between cells during an infection. For example, the retrovirus HIV uses a Gag in exactly this manner.

“We already know, thanks to the work of Lynn Margulis, that a number of organelles that power the cells of plants and animals descended from bacteria. This is called the endosymbiotic hypothesis. It’s now widely accepted as a fact of life. Margulis, who passed away in the winter of 2011, also believed that spiral bacteria evolved into the cilia and flagella that animal cells, such as sperm, use for mobility. (She went as far to suggest that the processes of animal thought or cognition were connected with cilia.) The spiral theory is still controversial. But now that scientists have basically concluded that the processes of memory and learning are closely related to innovations independently developed by viruses and adopted by animals deep in time (“Arc works in a similar fashion right across the tree of life, from flies to humans”), it seems foolish to not seriously re-envision animal and plant biology along Margulian lines.

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“There is more to think about. Most scientists consider viruses to be non-living. In fact, popular science writer Ed Yong recently made a statement in his piece, “The Viruses That Eavesdrop on Their Hosts,” that concerned a new discovery made by another brilliant scientist, Bonnie Bassler, and her student, Justin Silpe (that viruses can listen to the language bacteria uses for what’s called quorum sensing): “Viruses are not even technically alive! They’re entirely different entities from bacteria, yet they are intercepting and interpreting the same molecular messages. It’s like a rock eavesdropping on a bird.”

“If we can compare a rock to a virus—which appears to come alive when infecting a cell, and appears to be dead when doing nothing—then we must begin to suspect that there’s something life-like in non-biological things like clouds and hills. Are viruses really the border between life and non-life? Is there a border? A break? The 20th century Russian biochemist, Alexander Oparin, maintained there was a continuum from the inorganic to the organic. This is clearly the case from the stand point of the chemical elements. There is nothing in life that cannot be found in non-living things. We have known this since the 19th century, which experienced the demise of vitalism. But life appears to be not like a rock. And a virus appears to be more like life than a rock. Also life is weird. Viruses are weird. A rock is not. Lastly, it seems that animals and trees are wholly Margulisian—meaning, they are chimerical, or monsters that emerged from and are not separate from the ambiance of microganisms…”

Text: Charles Mudede, By Far the Strangest Scientific Discovery of 2018: Your Memories Are a Viral Infection, thestranger.com

Image: Rene Magritte, A Sense of Reality. 1963.

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A Longstanding Relationship with Death

“Dr. Hank Hine, the executive director of the Dalí Museum, says the project was inspired by the artist’s unique sensibility. “I think that the seeds of this project were sown by the artist himself,” he tells artnet News. “Dalí was famous for his sense of his own eternal significance. It’s almost like, if had left instructions for us, this project would have been among them.”

“The museum tapped Goodby Silverstein & Partners, a creative ad agency based in San Francisco, for the project. Over the past six months, the two organizations assembled footage, photographs, interviews, and hundreds of other archival materials featuring the late Surrealist. They used the materials to train an AI algorithm to “learn” elements of Dalí’s facial movements and filmed new footage from a lookalike actor. The AI can now generate a version of Dalí’s likeness that matches the actor’s expressions.

“Most of the language used by the AI is sourced from quotes by the man himself. But the character will also comment on things that the real Dalí could never have said—musings on current events, for example, or references to local sports teams—drawn from the actor.

“This isn’t the first time the museum has collaborated with Goodby Silverstein & Partners. In a 2014 exhibition called “Gala Contemplating You,” the agency created a kiosk that turned visitors’ selfies into replicas of a 1976 painting of the artist’s wife. In 2016, the two organizations developed “Dreams of Dalí,” a virtual reality experience that allowed viewers to walk inside Dalí’s painting, Archaeological Reminiscence of Millet’s “Angelus” (1934).

“These experiments were big hits with the community, Hine explains. In a recent poll conducted by the museum, 97 percent of guests expressed a desire for “more digital interactive experiences.”

Text: Taylor Dafoe, This Unsettling AI Version of Salvator Dalí That Greets You at His Florida Museum May Be the Most Surreal Thing Ever art.net.

 

Layers of Heaven

“What is it about punk?

“Back in the ‘60s—now safe and cozy under a twenty-year blanket of consensus history—the basic social division was straight vs. hip, right vs. left, pigs ‘n’ freaks, feds ‘n’ heads. Spiro Agnew vs. Timothy Leary. It was a clear, simple gap that sparked and sputtered like a high-voltage carbon arc. The country was as close to civil war as it’s been in modern times. News commentators sometimes speak of this as a negative thing—burning cities, correct revolutionary actions, police riots—but there was a lot of energy there. ‘60s people think of the old tension as “good” in somewhat the same way that ‘40s people look back on the energy of WWII as “good.”

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“A simple dichotomy. But during the ‘70s times got tough, and all the ‘60s people got older. Madison Avenue turned hip into product. Businessmen got hot-tubs; and they weren’t necessarily faking—I know a number of present-day businessmen who are regular old-time acidheads, but…you’ve got to get the bread to send your kids to college, right? The gap between hip and straight is still there, but it’s faded, the jags have rubbed off.

“If you’re young, you want to come up with something new—that’s how the race grows. Some ‘80s youngsters may want to be straights—our country will always need sports fans and prison guards—but the smart ones, the ones who ask hard questions, the same kids who would have been hippies in the ‘60s—these people needed some kind of stance that would bug all old people. Thus punk.

“I used to live in the boonies, and LP records were my contact to what was happening. The only good music in the ‘70s was Zappa, and even he was getting old. I’ll never forget the excitement of the first punk records—the New York Dolls, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Elvis Costello, and then…the Clash. Of course that was all eight years ago (which, these exponential days, is a long time). It keeps mutating. Now I listen to the Ramones, Detox, and the Butthole Surfers. “Yes, the Butthole Surfers.” Doesn’t that tell you more than, “Yes, the New Yorker?”

“The real charm of punk is that stupid hippies dislike it as much as do stupid rednecks. “What’s the matter with them? What do they want?” Anyone who was ever a hippie for the right reasons—a hatred of conformity and a desire to break through to higher realities—is likely to appreciate and enjoy the punks. But a lot of basically conventional people slid through the ‘70s thinking of themselves as avant-garde, when in fact they were brain-dead. What’s good about punk is that it makes all of us question our comfortable assumptions and attitudes. Wait…look at that last sentence, and you can see I’m forty. How complacently I slip the “us” in there—trying to co-opt the revolution. How Life magazine of me, how plastic, how bullshit. What’s good about punk is that it’s fast and dense. It has a lot of information. Which brings us to “cyber.”

What is Cybernetics?

“It’s the title of an incomprehensible book by Norbert Weiner, mainly. Claude Shannon, the Bell Labs inventor of information theory, encouraged Weiner to use the word “cybernetics” because “No one knows what it means, Norbert, which will always put you at an advantage in an argument.” More seriously, if I talk about “cyber,” I really want to talk about the modern concept of information.

“Mathematics can be thought of as based on five concepts: Number, Space, Logic, Infinity, and Information. The age of Number was the Middle Ages, with their nitpicking lists of sins and layers of heaven. Space was the Renaissance, with perspective and the printing press spreading copies out. Logic was the Industrial Revolution, with great steam engines chugging away like syllogistic inferences. Infinity was Modern Times, with quantum mechanics and LSD. Now we’re starting on Information. The computers are here, the cybernetic revolution is over.

Text: Rudy Rucker, from What Is Cyberpunk?

Image: Peter Daverington, The New Colony-From Bierstadt to Neuromancer, 2008-2009

Troxler Effect

“This is called the Troxler effect, after the man who discovered it: Ignaz Paul Vital Troxler, in 1804.

“What happens here is that your visual system constantly adapts to all the external stimuli. This is why after spending a few moments in the dark, you start to see a little better. This capability allows you to be in different lighting conditions, while still maintaining a pretty accurate estimate of the lightness and colour of objects.

“So if you fixate on a certain point, after approximately 20 seconds, stimuli which fit in your peripheral vision will fade away and disappear. The effect is most powerful for some colours and patterns, and is more powerful the farther the object is from your center of fixation…”

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Text & Pic: Stare at this picture. It will disappear. ZMEScience.

Signs of Life

“If alien astronomers are out there searching for signs of life on Earth, they might just find it in the telltale pattern of light reflected by our plants, from redwood forests to desert cacti to grass-covered plains. That reflected fingerprint has been visible since vegetation first began carpeting our rocky terrestrial landscape about half a billion years ago. And as Earth aged and evolution marched onward, the reflected signal strengthened.

“Now, two astronomers are suggesting that plants could leave similar fingerprint-like patterns on distant exoplanets, and perhaps the first signs of life beyond our solar system could come from light reflected by forests covering an alien moon like Endor or cacti living in Tatooine’s deserts.

 
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“We’re trying to figure out—with all the planets we’re finding—what are the signatures that could indicate habitability?” says Cornell University’s Lisa Kaltenegger, who recently described Earth’s leafy signature in a study published in the journal Astrobiology.

“We really want to identify the handful, or two or three, that give us the best chance to pick up signs of life.”

“While this isn’t the first time scientists have suggested looking for life in a far-off planet’s light, Kaltenegger’s team adds a twist: Such reflections can also offer a good estimate for an alien planet’s evolutionary advancement, based on our knowledge of how things work on Earth.

“This idea that you could find vegetation on another planet has been around. But nobody ever used Earth’s own geological history as an archive,” Kaltenegger says. “We don’t have a second planet with habitability, but we do have our Earth through time, and it would be really smart to study it.”

“Several decades ago, the Galileo spacecraft, which was headed for Jupiter, swiveled to stare at Earth’s reflected light. It spied the signs of biology at work in the presence of atmospheric gases such as ozone and methane. More recently, astronomers have teased apart Earthshine, or the bit of Earth-light that sometimes dimly illuminates the darker part of a crescent moon’s face. They found life’s fingerprints there, too.

“Now, scientists searching for life beyond Earth are debating how biology might leave molecular marks in alien atmospheres, either by producing particular compounds or by shifting the mix of gases swaddling a planet.”

Text: “Want to Find Alien Life? Look at Older, Hotter Earths”, National Geographic.
Image: L’occhio di Shui (The Eye of Shui) by Shui Mao.

The Local Standard of Rest

“Whereas all the planets, asteroids and meteors that originate within the solar system more or less circle what is called the Ecliptic plane, that of our sun, since they were formed from the same disc of gas and dust that rotated around itself, Oumuamua entered the solar system north of the plane, in an extreme hyperbolic orbit and at a speed of 26.3 kilometers per second faster relative to the motion of the sun.

“A reconstruction of its trajectory shows that Oumuamua traversed the ecliptic plane on September 6, 2017, when the sun’s gravity accelerated the object to a velocity of 87.8 kilometers per second. On September 9, the object passed closer to the sun than the orbit of Mercury. And on October 14, five days before it was discovered in Hawaii, the object passed 24.18 million kilometers away from Earth, or 62 times the distance from here to the moon.

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“I wrote above that Oumuamua originated at Vega, but that’s not completely accurate: The universe is a vast place, and even at Oumuamua’s velocity – a velocity that no human spaceship has achieved – a voyage from Vega to the solar system would take 600,000 years. But in the meantime, Vega is orbiting the center of the Milky Way, like the sun and all the other stars, and it wasn’t in that region of the heavens 600,000 years ago.

“If you average the velocities of all the stars in the region, you get a system that’s called the ‘local standard of rest.’ Oumuamua was at rest relative to that system. It didn’t come to us. It waited in place, like a buoy on the surface of the ocean, until the ‘ship’ of the solar system ran into it. To make things clear, only one of 500 stars in the system is as much at rest as Oumuamua. The probability of that is very low. After all, if it were a stone that was simply hurled from a different solar system, we would expect it to have the velocity of its star system, not the average velocity of all the thousands of stars in the vicinity.”

Text: “If True, This Could Be One of the Greatest Discoveries in Human History”, Haaretz.

Image: Augsburger Wunderzeichenbuch, Comet mit einem grosen Schwantz, 1401

Life Support

“We knew that something was amiss in the first couple days,” said Brad Lister. “We were driving into the forest and at the same time both Andres and I said: ‘Where are all the birds?’ There was nothing.”

His return to the Luquillo rainforest in Puerto Rico after 35 years was to reveal an appalling discovery. The insect population that once provided plentiful food for birds throughout the mountainous national park had collapsed. On the ground, 98% had gone. Up in the leafy canopy, 80% had vanished. The most likely culprit by far is global warming.

“It was just astonishing,” Lister said. “Before, both the sticky ground plates and canopy plates would be covered with insects. You’d be there for hours picking them off the plates at night. But now the plates would come down after 12 hours in the tropical forest with a couple of lonely insects trapped or none at all.”

“It was a true collapse of the insect populations in that rainforest,” he said. “We began to realise this is terrible – a very, very disturbing result.”

“It was not insects that drew Lister to the Luquillo rainforest for the first time in the mid-1970s. “I was interested in competition among the anoles lizards,” he said. “They’re the most diverse group of vertebrates in the world and even by that time had become a paradigm for ecology and evolutionary studies.”

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“The forest immediately captivated Lister, a lecturer at Rensselaer Polytechnic University in the US. “It was and still is the most beautiful forest I have ever been in. It’s almost enchanted. There’s the lush verdant forest and cascading waterfalls, and along the roadsides there are carpets of multicoloured flowers. It’s a phantasmagoric landscape.”

“It was important to measure insect numbers, as these are the lizards’ main food, but at the time he thought nothing more of it. Returning to the national park decades later, however, the difference was startling.

“One of the things I noticed in the forest was a lack of butterflies,” he said. “They used to be all along the roadside, especially after the rain stopped, hundreds upon hundreds of them. But we couldn’t see one butterfly.”

“Since Lister’s first visits to Luquillo, other scientists had predicted that tropical insects, having evolved in a very stable climate, would be much more sensitive to climate warming. “If you go a little bit past the thermal optimum for tropical insects, their fitness just plummets,” he said.

“As the data came in, the predictions were confirmed in startling fashion. “The number of hot spells, temperatures above 29C, have increased tremendously,” he said. “It went from zero in the 1970s up to something like 44% of the days.” Factors important elsewhere in the world, such as destruction of habitat and pesticide use, could not explain the plummeting insect populations in Luquillo, which has long been a protected area.”

Text: Insect collapse: ‘We are destroying our life support systems’, The Guardian.