The Largest Collective Organism Ever to Live

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“It is hard to overestimate how unusual the situation of bananas in the middle of the last century was—unusual not just in the history of humanity but also in the history of life. There is a patch of aspen trees in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah that many argue is the largest living organism on earth. It comprises some thirty-seven thousand trees, each of which is genetically the same as the other, and the argument goes that the trees, collectively, represent a single organism because they are identical and connected by their roots. But requiring pieces of an organism to be connected in order to be considered part of a collective is arbitrary. The ants in an ant colony, for example, are clearly part of the colony, even when they’re not physically in the nest. All this is to say that an argument can be made that large groups of genetically identical plants, even if not connected, may reasonably be considered a single organism. If one makes such an argument, the banana plantations of Central America in the 1950s were not only the largest collective organism alive at that point, they also may well have been the largest collective organism ever to live.”

Text: Rob Dunn, Humans Made the Banana Perfect—But Soon, It’ll Be Gone, Wired.

Pic: Banana X-Ray

New Safe Confinement

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“World leaders jostle with global executives and anonymous men dressed in full camouflage as platters of shrimp, foie gras and cheesecake are passed around by white-gloved staff. It would all seem quite normal were it not for the fact that we’re just 100m (330ft) away from the site of the worst nuclear disaster in history.

“A hospitality tent has been erected just inside the gates of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant near Pripyat in Ukraine. The tent has many windows, to ensure everyone gets a good view of what’s about to happen.

“These guests are here to witness the final stage of a 30-year clean-up job that has been underway, on and off, since one of the plant’s reactors exploded in 1986. The Chernobyl disaster still casts a pall over nuclear power. And other serious accidents, such as that at Fukushima in Japan in 2011 – the only other incident to be classified a maximum Level 7 in the seven-point International Nuclear Event Scale – are weighed against it.

“It also set in train a series of measures to ensure nuclear safety around the world. Now the whole site is about to be encased inside a vast structure known as the sarcophagus, sealing in some of the most dangerous waste material in the world for at least 100 years.

“The behemoth 35,000 tonne structure beside us has spent the past few days inching along a set of purpose built tracks towards its final destination. This sarcophagus – or New Safe Confinement (NSC) – is taller than the Statue of Liberty and larger than Wembley stadium. But what it resembles most is a very large metal shed.

“Its appearance belies its historic importance, however. The NSC is not only the largest object people have ever moved, it’s also a symbol of what we can achieve when the stakes are highest.”

Text: A Vast New Tomb for the Most Dangerous Waste In The World, BBC.com

Pic: Field of Thorns, “But what if the day in question is not today, not tomorrow, but 24,000 years from now, when no known languages are spoken? What if the enemy is not some foreign power, but an ancient civilization? And what if the great threat to human life is no longer a bomb dropping down from above but waste creeping up from below? Will art come to our rescue then?” -WILL ART SAVE OUR DESCENDANTS FROM RADIOACTIVE WASTE?, JSTOR Daily

To Remember, We Must Forget

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“In order to remember, we must forget. Recent research shows that when your brain retrieves newly encoded information, it suppresses older related information so that it does not interfere with the process of recall. Now a team of European researchers has identified a neural pathway that induces forgetting by actively erasing memories. The findings could eventually lead to novel treatments for conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“We’ve known since the early 1950s that a brain structure called the hippocampus is critical for memory formation and retrieval, and subsequent work using modern techniques has revealed a great deal of information about the underlying cellular mechanisms. The hippocampus contains neural circuits that loop through three of its sub-regions – the dentate gyrus and the CA3 and CA1 areas – and it’s widely believed that memories form by the strengthening and weakening of synaptic connections within these circuits.

[…]

“This is the first time that a pathway in the brain has been linked to forgetting, to actively erasing memories,” said Gross, a co-senior author of the study. “One explanation for [our findings] is that there is limited space in the brain, so when you’re learning, you have to weaken some connections to make room for others. To learn new things, you have to forget things you’ve learned before.”

“The finding that memory loss can be induced by Npy1 receptor activation alone could one day help researchers to treat conditions involving intrusive traumatic memories. “A patient suffering from intrusive traumatic memories would take a pill containing a drug that would enter the brain and activate Npy1 receptors and then be exposed to a virtual experience of the trauma,” says Gross, “and we predict that the combination of receptor activation and trauma exposure and recall would promote the selective erasure of the relevant memory.”

Text:  A neural pathway that erases memories, The Guardian.

Pic: Total Recall, 1990.

What The Hell is Going On?

“For Sharp, the most interesting part of the Benjamin experiment has been learning about patterns in science fiction storytelling. Benjamin’s writing sounds original, even kooky, but it’s still based on patterns he’s discovered in what humans write. Sharp likes to call the results the “average version” of everything the AI looked at. Certain patterns kept coming up again and again. “There’s an interesting recurring pattern in Sunspring where characters say, ‘No I don’t know what that is. I’m not sure,'” said Goodwin. “They’re questioning the environment, questioning what’s in front of them. There’s a pattern in sci-fi movies of characters trying to understand the environment.” Sharp added that this process has changed his perspective on writing. He keeps catching himself having Benjamin-like moments while working: “I just finished a sci-fi screenplay, and it’s really interesting coming off this experience with Benjamin, thinking I have to have somebody say ‘What the hell is going on?’ Every time I use his tropes I think, oh of course. This is what sci-fi is about.” Sharp’s next project will be directing a movie called Randle Is Benign, about a computer scientist who creates the first superintelligent computer in 1981. “It’s uncanny how much parts of the screenplay echo the experience of working with Benjamin,” he said.

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“Of course, Benjamin is hardly an objective source of information about our sci-fi obsessions. His corpus was biased. “I built the corpus from movie scripts I could find on the Internet,” said Goodwin (the titles are listed in Sunspring‘s opening credits). But some stories got weighted more heavily than others, purely due to what was available. Explained Sharp, “There’s only one entry on the list for X-Files, but that was every script from the show, and that was proportionally a lot of the corpus. In fact, most of the corpus is TV shows, like Stargate: SG1 and every episode of Star Trek and Futurama.” For a while, Sharp said, Benjamin kept “spitting out conversations between Mulder and Scully, [and you’d notice that] Scully spends more time asking what’s going on and Mulder spends more time explaining.”

“For Sharp and Goodwin, making Sunspring also highlighted how much humans have been trained by all the scripts we’ve consumed. Sharp said this became especially obvious when the actors responded to Sunspring‘s script as a love triangle. There is nothing inherently love triangle-ish about the script, and yet that felt like the most natural interpretation. “Maybe what we’re learning here is that because of the average movie, the corpus of what we’ve watched, all of us have been following that pattern and tediously so,” mused Sharp. “We are trained to see it, and to see it when it has not yet been imposed. It’s profoundly bothersome.” At the same time, it’s a valuable lesson about how we are primed to expect certain tropes: “Ross [Goodwin] has created an amazing funhouse mirror to hold up to various bodies of cultural content and reflect what they are.”

Text:  Movie written by algorithm turns out to be hilarious and intense, Ars Technica

Pic: The Difference Engine.

At The Moment of Creation

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“On the monitor before us, cryptic fragments of source code flash by. While earthly physicists still struggle to find a unified mathematical framework for all phenomena—the No Man’s Sky equivalent already exists. Before us are the laws of nature for an entire cosmos in 600,000 lines.

“The universe begins with a single input, an arbitrary numerical seed—the phone number of one of the programmers. That number is mathematically mutated into more seeds by a cascading series of algorithms—a computerized pseudo-randomness generator. The seeds will determine the characteristics of each game element. Machines, of course, are incapable of true randomness, so the numbers produced appear random only because the processes that create them are too complex for the human mind to comprehend.

“Physicists still debate whether our own universe is deterministic or random. While some scientists believe that quantum mechanics almost certainly involves indeterminacy, Albert Einstein famously favored the opposing position, saying, “God does not play dice.” No Man’s Sky does not play dice either. Once the first seed number is entered into the void within the program, the universe is unalterably established—every star, planet, and organism. The past, present, and future are fixed indelibly, with change to the system only possible from a force outside the system itself—in this case, the player.

“In one sense, because of the game’s procedural design, the entire universe exists at the moment of its creation. In another sense, because the game only renders a player’s immediate surroundings, nothing exists unless there is a human there to witness it.”

Text: Inside the Artificial Universe That Creates Itself, Atlantic Monthly

Self Organising Plants

 

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“The enigmatic circles of sand – burnt orange, almost impeccably round and rimmed by a fringe of tall grass – are spaced at surprisingly regular intervals across the otherwise barren landscape. Over the course of decades, they appear, expand and then fade, almost as if they had a life cycle of their own.

“And, viewed from above, they seem so perfect and improbable their existence can only be ascribed to something not of this world. Perhaps they are the footprints of a god, as the Himba bushmen who live in the Namib desert have long believed. Or maybe the bare patches have been poisoned by the breath of a malicious dragon that dwells underground.

“Or else they’re the work of aliens who thought it might be fun to mess with the Earthlings by scratching out some circles in the grass and leaving us to puzzle over them for centuries. Hardly less fanciful- though far more grounded in fact – was this suggestion from a German scientist in 2013: After finding sand termites in every “fairy circle” he sampled, he concluded that the industrious insects might be geoengineering their harsh environment, burrowing out bare spots in ever-broader concentric circles in order to capture some of the desert’s scarce water for themselves.

“Whatever their cause, the fairy circles have brought countless scientists, mystics and conspiracy theorists to remote swath of southern African desert that was long thought to be the only place they could be seen.

“Those people didn’t know about Newman, Australia.

“Unbeknownst to almost anyone outside the small mining town, the same strange phenomenon that so captivated people in the Namib also occurs in Australia’s outback. Not only that, but a comparison of the two types of fairy circles could help solve the centuries-old mystery of what’s creating them.

“It’s not gods, scientists said on Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and it’s not dragons or bugs.

“It’s the plants themselves. They’ve self-organised.”

Text: ‘Fairy Circles Found in Western Australia May Have Solved an Old Mystery’, Sydney Morning Herald. 

Pic: “Self-organizing social behavior in the so-called plant-animal, a ‘solar-powered’ species of marine flat worm that gains all its energy from the algae within its own body, has been demonstrated by researchers from the University of Bristol, UK. Commonly known as the ‘mint-sauce worm’ due to its bright-green color, S. roscoffensis is found in shallow water on sheltered sand beaches at certain sites on the Atlantic Coast.Phys.org

Any Imaginable Future

“…New research […] shows that a major ice age was narrowly missed just before the industrial revolution , probably because the development of agriculture had nudged the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere just above the tipping point.

“The bottom line is we are basically skipping a whole glacial cycle, which is unprecedented,” said Andrey Ganopolski, at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in Germany and who led the research. “It is mind-boggling that humankind is able to interfere with a mechanism that shaped the world as we know it.”

Floating Icebergs under Cloudy Skies, 1859
Frederic Church, Floating Icebergs Under Cloudy Skies. June or July 1859.

“Like no other force on the planet, ice ages have shaped the global environment and thereby determined the development of human civilisation,” Schellnhuber said. “Now human interference is acting as a huge geological force, so this is a defining paper for the Anthropocene idea.” If carbon emissions are not restricted, he said, they could end the million-year-long period of ice age cycles altogether.

Michel Crucifix, at the Université catholique de Louvain in Belgium and not involved in the new research, said: “It reinforces previous assessments asserting that humanity’s collective footprint on Earth already extends beyond any imaginable future of our society.”

“Such long-term consequences may seem surprising, given that the emissions will occur over a few centuries at most,” he said. “In fact, the mean half-life of CO2 in the atmosphere is of the order of 35,000 years. Consequently, anthropogenic CO2 will still be in the atmosphere in 50,000 years’ time, and even 100,000 years, which is enough to prevent any glaciation.”

Text: Damian Carrington, Fossil fuel burning ‘postponing next ice age’, Guardian Australia