Friday, June 25, 2010

Landscape Archaeology

Field school rolls along; we've found a new site, and are generating good data for building a depositional history of the island. Above, three of my students; Megan C. shoots a photo while Tracy H. records information and Ken G. observes, having set up the scale and mugboard; off-camera is Sarah T. Plenty more to find as next week we put the inflatable and canoe--I call them 'Research Vessels'!--into the water!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Ripley in Mongolia

Above, Ripley Davenport in Mongolia, hauling 'Molly Brown', his 200kg sledge-on-wheels. In addition to walking across Mongolia--for all the reasons one does such a thing, many of which share the 'rationale' for other 'irrational' acts such as painting a picture--Ripley is raising money for a number of charities. One builds libraries for schoolchildren in Mongolia. A wealthy sponsor has just dedicated $1,000 for every 100 miles Ripley walks from here on out. I imagine $3000 will go a long way in Mongolia, and I imagine that is tremendous motivation!

Below, a recent update from the field:

The Gobi is truly spectacular. Just lately, she’s been displaying her true colours and being quite gentle with her lone walking guest.

In the evenings, I sit and watch the sunset and watch the desert change colours. Sometimes a gentle breeze caresses the whiskers on my rather disgusting beard and the air smells really potent with life.

Of course, sometimes it’s blowing a double six and rattles the tent walls like a thousand zombies on acid.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Pictures, Decisions, and Civilization

Below, a late draft of an introduction I'm working on for a poem by Portland poet David Cooke, 2009 winner of the Ruth Stone Poetry Prize, about Fernando Pereira, the photographer killed in the 1985 French bombing of Greenpeace's vessel Rainbow Warrior.

I post drafts here for a number of reasons, none of which I want to go into this moment. I don't include David's poem--it will be attached when we go to press with this item.

Pictures, Decisions, and Civilization
Cameron M. Smith
June 2010
444 words

Sixty-five million years of primate evolution have maintained vision as our primary sense. Artists of all kinds—from painters to wordsmiths—paint pictures in the mind to arouse feelings and evoke philosophies. The kinds of pictures we carry condition our decisions and our acts, and, more than any flag or document, these daily acts shape the true character of our civilization.

This logic is the reservoir from which photographers draw their significance. When the pictures we carry in mind differ from reality our actions depart from reality. As anthropologist William Rathje has pointed out, if we believe that our granola bar comes from a verdant Nature Valley because a packaging image tells us that, we are more likely to depart from reality. Advertisers, of course, know this, and have conditioned a great deal of departure from reality by creating false pictures which drive consumption regardless of the reality supplying the products.

But wonderful things have come from pictures as well: today, we put pictures of fish on manhole covers, reminding us that there are living things down-stream of our actions. Our civilization has only been doing this for about one generation, but, still, we adjust our actions according to those simple pictures. Archaeology tells us that civilizations don't normally go out with a dramatic crash, but a slow degradation. That degradation begins when our mental pictures differ from reality, destroying wisdom and eventually the valuation of wisdom.

Again; the photographer draws their meaning from all of this. A photograph can reconnect us with reality. Recently journalist Rikki Ott flew in the Gulf Coast region with a pilot who commented on BP's extension of no-fly zones: “There's only one reason for that," the pilot said. "BP doesn't want the media taking pictures of oil on the beaches. You should see the oil that's about six miles off the coast," he said grimly.”

You should see the oil, alright, because so long as civilization and conscience obtain, that seeing will condition your actions. When it no longer does, civilization does not end, but its character changes. Day by day, decision by decision, we degrade without pictures of reality.

Fernando Pereira, a 35-year old photographer, was killed when French commandos detonated explosives to sink Greenpeace's first vessel, Rainbow Warrior, in July 1985. While other crew escaped, Pereira—who had signed on for a six-month stint to photograph French nuclear testing in the South Pacific—returned belowdecks to retrieve his cameras. He drowned, entangled in the straps of his camera cases.

David Cooke's poem, Fixed, tells us more about the revolutionary potential of pictures and about Fernando Pereira.

Density of Being

"In Pasteur, holding his breath over the microscope, there is a density of being. Pasteur is never more alive than in that moment of scrutiny. At that moment he is moving forward. He is hurrying. He is advancing in seven-league boots, exploring distance despite his immobility."

From Antoine de Saint Exupery, 'Flight to Arras' (1942).

St. Ex writes with a distinctive confidence.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Good System Test

After seven rebuilds of the oral-nasal mask (over the last couple of months), and its installation into the pressure helmet, last night I breathed 100% supplied gas from tank, through high-altitude regulator, into helmet, and out of helmet, for 10 minutes. A very successful proof of concept test!

Monday, June 7, 2010

A Billion Tons of Magnetized Plasma

"We can see a billion tons of magnetized plasma blasting into space while debris from the explosion falls back onto the sun surface."

"The movie, recorded on April 19th, spans four hours of actual time and more than 100,000 km of linear space. "It's huge," says Schrijver. Indeed, the entire planet Earth could fit between the plasma streamers with room to spare."

Thursday, June 3, 2010

An Instance of Symbiosis

Some hermit crab species pluck young anemones from the sea floor and place them on their own bellies; the anemones attach, and find themselves fed with scraps from the crab's feeding. The crab, on the other hand, receives a protective shell in the form of the anemone's large fleshy foot, which grows up and over the hermit crab's otherwise-unprotected back.

Above, a scan of a sketch of this interaction, with the anemone's tentacles visible at the crab's belly, and the anemone's foot growing up and over the crab's back. This is a print-size reproduction of a sketch I've made of this instance of symbiosis (as it will appear in The Fact of Evolution); I have to be careful to draw on a scale and in such a way that small line art of this kind reproduces well. The text is not as it will appear; just notes to myself for the moment.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Does the World Need Another Book on Evolution?

Does the world need another book on evolution? Absolutely.

Some notes below on why, and some points working their way into my book-in-progress, The Fact of Evolution (Prometheus, slated for release in late 2010 / early 2011). These are notes to myself and much of this has to be translated into the prose of popular science.

First, most people still do not, deep down, believe that evolution occurs. We execute and exonerate prisoners based on DNA evidence, and yet most Americans still don't believe in evolution.

Second, science is a cumulative endeavor, and our understanding of biology continues to grow; so yes, this book is needed, and more will be needed after it, and more after those.

"We make our world significant by the courage of our questions,
and the depth of our answers." -- Carl Sagan

New material to be incorporated into the book:

* Horizontal Gene Transfer: microbial species can acquire new DNA from other, genetically-distant species, during a lifetime, and that newly-acquired DNA can be pased on to the next generation. Since there are almost certainly more microbial than macroscopic species, we can say that most of evolution is, in fact, Lamarckian.

* Mutagenesis: we now know that mutations aren't unusual, and that most of them don't result from 'zap'-like mechanisms such as cosmic ray strike. Rather, mutation occurs almost continuously, but the greater part of it is repaired by DNA repair systems. Thus, we completely overturn the concept of mutation from it's being an unusual occurence to a failure of DNA repair mechanisms.

* Symbiosis: it is now clear that no species exists alone; species continuously co-evolve with many other species. Thus, coevolution, symbiopsis, and parasitism take on new significance.

* Continuous New Discoveries of Instances of Speciation: instances of speciation continue to be observed both in the wild (e.g. cichlid fishes in Malawi) and the lab (e.g. E. coli evolution of citrate metabolism in Lenski's lab at Michigan State).

* Reworking the Question 'What is Biology For'?: Carl Woese has recently pointed out that with so much biological research funding coming from biotech companies, we must decide as a civilization what biology is for; is it to learn from, or to engineer?

* Re-investigating Basic Concepts: With new understanding from genomic studies, even basic concepts in evolution--such as species, gene, protein, and even the definition of life--continue to be refined.

* Mechanisms of Constraint on Variation: we now know mutations don't just come up from nowhere; Gould's point that there is an evolutionary heritage that constrains potential variation has largely been confirmed and widely supported with new genome data.

* Life Histories from Genetic Clocks: we have developed methods of tracking genome evolution over time, vastly increasing the resolution of taxonomic understanding.

* The Fallacy of 'Junk DNA': it has been shown that DNA once considered to have no phenotypic effect often does indeed have phenotypic effects, and that what was just a decade ago called 'Junk DNA' may often have important functions; this should be a strong caution for those working in the field of genetic engineering.

* Discoveries of Ancient Gene Function: powerful genome-mapping methods have revealed startling insights into gene functions and history; for example, the Pax-6 gene, widely distrivuted in animal life, controls the growth of photoreceptors, including eyes; the tinman gene regulates the circulatory pump (heart), and the Hox genes control the differentiation of anterior and posterior elements of the body.

* The Development of Synthetic Life: American scientists have recently claimed to have developed a synthetic genome; the implications demand a thorough philosophical debate that is informed by the must up-to-date understanding of evolution.

* The Recognition of Cultural Evolution: the fact that culture is an evolving information system has been established by various anthropologists and archaeologists (William H. Durham has been central to the study); the implications are not just for the field of anthropology, but for all the life sciences because it is the discovery of a second, parallel, largely-Lamarckian variety of evolution.