A Shazam for Nature: A New Free App Helps You Identify Plants, Animals & Other Denizens of the Natural World

Do you ever long for those not-so-long-ago days when you skipped through the world, breathless with the anticipation of catching Pokémon on your phone screen?

If so, you might enjoy bagging some of the Pokeverse’s real world counterparts using Seek, iNaturalist’s new photo-identification app. It does for the natural world what Shazam does for music.

Aim your phone’s camera at a nondescript leaf or the grasshopper-ish-looking creature who’s camped on your porch light. With a bit of luck, Seek will pull up the relevant Wikipedia entry to help the two of you get better acquainted.




Registered users can pin their finds to their personal collections, provided the app’s recognition technology produces a match.

(Several early adopters suggest it’s still a few houseplants shy of true functionality…)

Seek’s protective stance with regard to privacy settings is well suited to junior specimen collectors, as are the virtual badges with which it rewards energetic uploaders.

While it doesn’t hang onto user data, Seek is building a photo library, composed in part of user submissions.

(Your cat is ready for her close up, Mr. DeMille…)

(Ditto your Portobello Mushroom burger…)

Download Seek for free on iTunes or Google Play.

via Earther/My Modern Met

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

This Is Your Brain on Exercise: Why Physical Exercise (Not Mental Games) Might Be the Best Way to Keep Your Mind Sharp

brain exercise

In the United States and the UK, we've seen the emergence of a multibillion-dollar brain training industry, premised on the idea that you can improve your memory, attention and powers of reasoning through the right mental exercises. You've likely seen software companies and web sites that market games designed to increase your cognitive abilities. And if you're part of an older demographic, worried about your aging brain, you've perhaps been inclined to give those brain training programs a try. Whether these programs can deliver on their promises remains an open question--especially seeing that a 2010 scientific study from Cambridge University and the BBC concluded that there's "no evidence to support the widely held belief that the regular use of computerised brain trainers improves general cognitive functioning in healthy participants..."




And yet we shouldn't lose hope. A number of other scientific studies suggest that physical exercise--as opposed to mental exercise--can meaningfully improve our cognitive abilities, from childhood through old age. One study led by Charles Hillman, a professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois, found that children who regularly exercise, writes The New York Times:

displayed substantial improvements in ... executive function. They were better at “attentional inhibition,” which is the ability to block out irrelevant information and concentrate on the task at hand ... and had heightened abilities to toggle between cognitive tasks. Tellingly, the children who had attended the most exercise sessions showed the greatest improvements in their cognitive scores.

And, hearteningly, exercise seems to confer benefits on adults too. A study focusing on older adults already experiencing a mild degree of cognitive impairment found that resistance and aerobic training improved their spatial memory and verbal memory. Another study found that weight training can decrease brain shrinkage, a process that occurs naturally with age.

If you're looking to get the gist of how exercise promotes brain health, it comes down to this:

Exercise triggers the production of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, which helps support the growth of existing brain cells and the development of new ones.

With age, BDNF levels fall; this decline is one reason brain function deteriorates in the elderly. Certain types of exercise, namely aerobic, are thought to counteract these age-related drops in BDNF and can restore young levels of BDNF in the age brain.

That's how The Chicago Tribune summarized the findings of a 1995 study conducted by researchers at the University of California-Irvine. You can get more of the nuts and bolts by reading The Tribune's recent article, The Best Brain Exercise May be Physical. (Also see Can You Get Smarter?)

You're perhaps left wondering what's the right dose of exercise for the brain? And guess what, Gretchen Reynolds, the phys ed columnist for The Times' Well blog, wrote a column on just that this summer. Although the science is still far from conclusive, a new study conducted by The University of Kansas Alzheimer’s Disease Center found that small doses of exercise could lead to cognitive improvements. Writes Reynolds, "the encouraging takeaway from the new study ... is that briskly walking for 20 or 25 minutes several times a week — a dose of exercise achievable by almost all of us — may help to keep our brains sharp as the years pass."

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2015.

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via New York Times

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Infographics Show How the Different Fields of Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics, Physics & Computer Science Fit Together

Ask anyone who's pursued a career in the sciences what first piqued their interest in what would become their field, and they'll almost certainly have a story. Gazing at the stars on a camping trip, raising a pet frog, fooling around with computers and their components: an experience sparks a desire for knowledge and understanding, and the pursuit of that desire eventually delivers one to their specific area of specialization.

Or, as they say in science, at least it works that way in theory; the reality usually unrolls less smoothly. On such a journey, just like any other, it might help to have a map.




Enter the work of science writer and physicist Dominic Walliman, whose animated work on the Youtube channel Domain of Science we've previously featured here on Open Culture. (See the "Related Content" section below for the links.)

Walliman's videos astutely explain how the subfields of biology, chemistry, mathematics, physics, and computer science relate to each other, but now he's turned that same material into infographics readable at a glance: maps, essentially, of the intellectual territory. He's made these maps, of biology, chemistry, mathematics, physics, and computer science, freely available on his Flickr account: you can view them all on a single page here along with a few more of his infographics..

As much use as Walliman's maps might be to science-minded youngsters looking for the best way to direct their fascinations into a proper course of study, they also offer a helpful reminder to those farther down the path — especially those who've struggled with the blinders of hyperspecialization — of where their work fits in the grand scheme of things. No matter one's field, scientific or otherwise, one always labors under the threat of losing sight of the forest for the trees. Or the realm of life for the bioinformatics, biophysics, and biomathematics; the whole of mathematics for the number theory, the differential geometry, and the differential equations; the workings of computers for the scheduling, the optimization, and the boolean satisfiability.

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The Map of Computer Science: New Animation Presents a Survey of Computer Science, from Alan Turing to “Augmented Reality”

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The Map of Physics: Animation Shows How All the Different Fields in Physics Fit Together

The Map of Chemistry: New Animation Summarizes the Entire Field of Chemistry in 12 Minutes

The Art of Data Visualization: How to Tell Complex Stories Through Smart Design

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Map of Biology: Animation Shows How All the Different Fields in Biology Fit Together

Of all the science classes required throughout primary and secondary school, most students seem to like biology the best. Maybe, dealing as it does with such familiar things as plants, animals, and human beings, the popularity of biology has to do with its clear relevance to their life — or more to the point, to life itself. But any biology-loving youngster who decides to go take their studies more deeply into their favorite subject must sooner or later make a difficult choice: what kind of biology will they focus on? Biophysics, cellular biology, ecology, environmental biology, biomechanics, molecular biology, biochemistry, evolutionary biology... the list seems endless.

So instead of looking at the world of biology as a list, why not look as it as a map? Domain of Science, the Youtube channel previously featured here on Open Culture for their map of mathematics, map of physics, map of chemistry, and map of computer science, have just recently put together one for biology, a video tour of which appears above.




It begins with "the most basic unit in the foundation of all life," the cell, continues on to molecular, chemical, and physical processes, then to genes, populations, anatomy, the immune system, genetic engineering, paleontology, and even the search for life in outer space, with many other stops along the way besides.

"If there's one word that describes biology, it's complexity," says series creator and narrator Dominic Walliman. "There's a huge amount we still don't understand about how life works, how it started, and how it ended up with intelligent apes like us who are able to look back and try and work out. I feel like we'll be making new biological discoveries for many, many years to come." Encouraging words for those students now considering going into one of the many biological sciences, although they'll still have to decide exactly which biological science to go into — bearing in mind how many of those subfields have yet to emerge. It doesn't take that intelligent an ape to understand that, before long, biology's going to need a bigger map.

You can purchase Domain of Science's maps as posters here.

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The Map of Chemistry: New Animation Summarizes the Entire Field of Chemistry in 12 Minutes

Free Online Biology Courses 

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Meet Mandy Harvey, the Deaf Singer Songwriter Who Performs Barefoot & Feels the Music Through Vibrations in the Ground

Attractive young female singer-songwriters who shuck their shoes onstage sometimes find that this small attempt to pass themselves off as folksy and “real” has the opposite effect.

Mandy Harvey, however, is above reproach. The deaf singer-songwriter performs barefoot out of necessity, using her unclad soles to pick up on the vibrations of various instruments through the floorboards. It allows her to keep time and, in so doing, helps her to stay emotionally connected to the other musicians with whom she’s performing, as she told NPR earlier this year, when she was one of 10 finalists on America's Got Talent.

“I’ll feel and concentrate on the drums through the floor, through my feet and then the bass through your chest,” she said in an interview with Colorado Public Radio. “And then if a saxophone player is next to me then it will be on my arm. So you just designate different parts of your body so you can concentrate on who’s playing what and when.”




Born with near perfect pitch and a connective tissue disorder that impaired her hearing, she was able to pursue her love of music by relying on hearing aids and lip reading until 18, when she finally lost her hearing for good, as a freshman Vocal Music Education major at Colorado State University.

While she has never heard fellow songbirds Adele or Taylor Swift, she has gotten over the stage fright that plagued her when she still retained some hearing. Vocally, she turns to muscle memory and visual tuners to see her through.

Her talent is such that some listeners are convinced her deafness is a publicity stunt, a misperception that eats at Wayne Connell, founder of the Invisible Disabilities Association, a non-profit with whom Harvey is active:

We've created an idea [of] how people are supposed to look when they're broken and so when you don't fit that imaginary mold, then it's a trick, or you're a liar — or you're not really broken, so you shouldn't be doing certain things.

See Harvey performing barefoot at the Kennedy Center on the 23rd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, below.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Ernst Haeckel’s Sublime Drawings of Flora and Fauna: The Beautiful Scientific Drawings That Influenced Europe’s Art Nouveau Movement (1889)

If you follow the ongoing beef many popular scientists have with philosophy, you’d be forgiven for thinking the two disciplines have nothing to say to each other. That’s a sadly false impression, though they have become almost entirely separate professional institutions. But during the first, say, 200 years of modern science, scientists were “natural philosophers”—often as well versed in logic, metaphysics, or theology as they were in mathematics and taxonomies. And most of them were artists too of one kind or another. Scientists had to learn to draw in order to illustrate their findings before mass-produced photography and computer imaging could do it for them. Many scientists have been fine artists indeed, rivaling the greats, and they’ve made very fine musicians as well.

And then there’s Ernst Heinrich Haeckel, a German biologist and naturalist, philosopher and physician, and proponent of Darwinism who described and named thousands of species, mapped them on a genealogical tree, and “coined several scientific terms commonly known today,” This is Colossal writes, “such as ecology, phylum, and stem cell.” That’s an impressive resume, isn’t it? Oh, and check out his art—his brilliantly colored, elegantly rendered, highly stylized depictions of “far flung flora and fauna,” of microbes and natural patterns, in designs that inspired the Art Nouveau movement. “Each organism Haeckel drew has an almost abstract form,” notes Katherine Schwab at Fast Co. Design, “as if it’s a whimsical fantasy he dreamed up rather than a real creature he examined under a microscope. His drawings of sponges reveal their intensely geometric structure—they look architectural, like feats of engineering.”

Haeckel published 100 fabulous prints beginning in 1889 in a series of ten books called Kunstformen der Natur (“Art Forms in Nature”), collected in two volumes in 1904. The astonishing work was “not just a book of illustrations but also the summation of his view of the world,” one which embraced the new science of Darwinian evolution wholeheartedly, writes scholar Olaf Breidbach in his 2006 Visions of Nature.




Haeckel’s method was a holistic one, in which art, science, and philosophy were complementary approaches to the same subject. He “sought to secure the attention of those with an interest in the beauties of nature,” writes professor of zoology Rainer Willmann in a new book from Taschen called The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel­, “and to emphasize, through this rare instance of the interplay of science and aesthetics, the proximity of these two realms.”

The gorgeous Taschen book includes 450 of Haeckel’s drawings, watercolors, and sketches, spread across 704 pages, and it’s expensive. But you can see all 100 of Haeckel’s originally published prints in zoomable high-resolution scans here. Or purchase a one-volume reprint of the original Art Forms in Nature, with its 100 glorious prints, through this Dover publication, which describes Haeckel’s art as “having caused the acceptance of Darwinism in Europe…. Today, although no one is greatly interested in Haeckel the biologist-philosopher, his work is increasingly prized for something he himself would probably have considered secondary.” It’s a shame his scientific legacy lies neglected, if that's so, but it surely lives on through his art, which may be just as needed now to illustrate the wonders of evolutionary biology and the natural world as it was in Haeckel’s time.

via This is Colossal

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Google Street View Lets You Walk in Jane Goodall’s Footsteps and Visit the Chimpanzees of Tanzania

As mentioned here last month, Dr. Jane Goodall is now teaching her first online course through Masterclass. In 29 video lessons, her course will teach you about the three pillars of her lifelong work: environmental conservation, animal intelligence, and activism. But that's not the only way you can digitally engage with Jane Goodall's world. Over on Google Maps, you can take a visual journey through Gombe National Park in Tanzania, where Goodall conducted her historic chimpanzee research, starting back in July, 1960. As Google writes: this visual initiative lets you experience "what it’s like to be Jane for a day." You can "peek into her house, take a dip in Lake Tanganyika, spot the chimp named Google and try to keep up with Glitter and Gossamer." Completed in partnership with Tanzania's National Parks and the Jane Goodall Institute, this project contributes to an effort to use satellite imagery and mapping to protect 85 percent of the remaining chimpanzees in Africa. To get the most out of Street View Gombe, visit the accompanying website Jane Goodall's Roots and Shoots.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

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