Two Million Wondrous Nature Illustrations Put Online by The Biodiversity Heritage Library

Are we truly in the midst of a human-caused sixth mass extinction, an era of “biological annihilation”? Many scientists and popular science writers say yes, using terms like “Holocene” or “Anthropocene” to describe what follows the Ordovician, Devonian, Permian, Triassic, and Cretaceous periods. Peter Brannen, author of extinction history The Ends of the Earth has found at least one scientist who thinks the concept is “junk.” But Brannen quotes some alarming statistics. Chilling, even. “Until very recently,” he writes, “all vertebrate life on the planet was wildlife. But astoundingly, today wildlife accounts for only 3 percent of earth’s land animals; human beings, our livestock, and our pets take up the remaining 97 percent of the biomass… almost half of the earth’s land has been converted into farmland.”

This state of affairs does not bode well for the millions of remaining species getting edged out of their environments by agribusiness and climate change. We learn from extinctions past that the planet rebounds after unimaginable catastrophe. Life really does go on, though it may take millions of years to recover. But the current forms of life may disappear before their time. If we want to understand what is at stake besides our own fragile fossil-fuel based civilizations, we need to connect to life emotionally as well as intellectually. Short of globe-hopping physical immersion in the earth’s biodiversity, we could hardly do better than immersing ourselves in the tradition of naturalist writing, art, and photography that brings the world to us.

The Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), an “open access digital library for biodiversity literature and archives,” has for many years been making it easy for people to connect to nature through nature writing and illustration. In 2012, they announced the “success story” of their Flickr streams, both containing thousands of illustrations and photographs uploaded by the BHL staff and readers from their huge collections of books.

The first stream, currently at 122,281 images, has been carefully curated, and includes searchable galleries and albums divided by book title or subject, such as “Exotic botany illustrated,” “The Birds of Australia v.1,” and “Bats!” The second stream, consisting of over 2 million images, is a massive grab-bag of photos, illlustrations from nature, advertisements, and imaginative renderings.

Though far less useful for the scholar—or the very purposeful user—this second photostream offers more potential for chance discovery, through the aimless wandering that often leads to serendipitously sublime experiences. The formal BHL stream does not disappoint, though it may offer fewer surprises. Both of these image archives offer expansive views of humanity's encounter with the natural world, not only through statistics and academic jargon, but through the artistic recording of wonder, scientific curiosity, and deep appreciation.

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

Atheist Stanford Biologist Robert Sapolsky Explains How Religious Beliefs Reduce Stress

Let’s put aside for a moment the question of whether, or which, religion is “true.” If you think this question is answerable, you are likely already a partisan and have taken certain claims on faith. Say we ask whether religion is good for you? What say the scientists? As always, it depends. For one thing, the kind of religion matters. A 2013 study in the Journal of Religion and Health, for example, found that “belief in a punitive God was positively associated with four psychiatric symptoms,” including general anxiety and paranoia, while “belief in a benevolent God was negatively associated with four psychiatric symptoms.”

So, a certain kind of religion may not be particularly good for us—psychologically and socially—but other kinds of faith can have very beneficial mental health effects. Author Robert Wright, visiting professor of religion and psychology at Princeton, has argued in his lectures and his bestselling book Why Buddhism is True that the 2500-year-old Eastern religion can lead to enlightenment, of a sort. (He also argues that Buddhism and science mostly agree.)

And famed Stanford neuroendocrinologist and atheist Robert Sapolsky, author of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, makes an interesting case in the Big Think video above that “this religion business” humans have come up with—this form of “metamagical thinking”—has provided a distinct evolutionary advantage.

Religion seems to be an almost universal phenomenon, as Sapolsky—who is himself an atheist—freely admits. “90 to 95% of people,” he says, “believe in some sort of omnipotent something or other, every culture out there has it.” Rarely do two cultures agree on any of the specifics, but religions in general, he claims, “are wonderful mechanisms for reducing stress."

It is an awful, terrifying world out there where bad things happen, we’re all going to die eventually. And believing that there is something, someone, responsible for it at least gives some stress reducing attributes built around understanding causality. If on top of that, you believe that there is not only something out there responsible for all this, but that there is a larger purpose to it, that’s another level of stress-reducing explanation.

Furthermore, says Sapolsky, a benevolent deity offers yet another level of stress reduction due to feelings of “control and predictability.” But benevolence can be partial to specific in-groups. If you think you belong to one of them, you’ll feel even safer and more reassured. For its ability to create social groups and explain reality in tidy ways, Religion has “undeniable health benefits.” This is borne out by the research—a fact Sapolsky admits he finds “infuriating.” He understands why religion exists, and cannot deny its benefits. He also cannot believe any of it.

Sapolsky grudgingly admits in the short clip above that he is awed by the faith of people like Sister Helen Prejean of Dead Man Walking fame, despite and because of her “irrational, nutty,” and stubborn insistence on the impossible. He has also previously argued that many forms of religiosity can be indistinguishable from mental illness, but they are, paradoxically, highly adaptive in a chaotic, world we know very little about.

In his interview at the top, he pursues another line of thought. If 95% of the human population believes in some kind form of supernatural agency, “a much more biologically interesting question to me is, ‘what’s up with the 5% of atheists who don’t do that?’”

It’s a question he doesn’t answer, and one that may assume too much about that 95%—a significant number of whom may simply be riding the bandwagon or keeping their heads down in highly religious environments rather than truly believing religious truth claims. In any case, on balance, the answer to our question of whether religion is good for us, may be a qualified yes. Believers in benevolence can rejoice in the stress-reducing properties of their faith. It might just save their lives, if not their souls. Stress, as Sapolsky explains in the documentary above, is exponentially harder on the human organism than belief in invisible all-powerful beings. Whether or not such beings exist is another question entirely.

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

Pop Art Posters Celebrate Pioneering Women Scientists: Download Free Posters of Marie Curie, Ada Lovelace & More

We all know the name Marie Curie—or at least I hope we do. But for far too many people, that’s where their knowledge of women in science ends. Which means that thousands of young boys and girls who read about Isaac Newton and Louis Pasteur never also learn the story of Caroline Herschel (1750–1848), the first woman to discover a comet, publish with the Royal Society, and receive a salary for scientific work—as the assistant to the king’s astronomer, her brother, in 19th century England. Herschel discovered and catalogued new nebulae and star clusters; received a gold medal from the Royal Astronomical Society; and she and her brother William “increased the number of known star clusters,” writes the Smithsonian, “from 100 to 2,500.” And yet, she remains almost totally obscure.

Open a math or physics textbook and you may not come across the name Emmy Noether (1882-1935), either, despite the fact that she “proved two theorems,” the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) notes, “that were basic for both general relativity and elementary particle physics. One is still known as ‘Noether’s Theorem.’”

Noether fought hard for recognition in life. She received her Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Göttingen in 1907, and she eventually surpassed her scientist father and brothers. But at first, she could only secure work at the Mathematical Institute of Erlangen in a position without title or pay. And despite her brilliance, she was only allowed to teach at Göttingen University as the assistant to David Hilbert, also without a salary.

Noether suffered discrimination in Germany “owing not only to prejudices against women, but also because she was a Jew, a Social Democrat, and a pacifist.” Other prominent women in scientific history have encountered similarly intersecting forms of discrimination, and continue to do so. Much has changed since the times of Herschel and of Noether, but “there is much work to be done,” writes Eamon O’Flynn of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. “Part of making positive change includes celebrating the contributions women have made to science, especially those women overlooked in their time.” For this reason, the Perimeter Institute has created a poster series, called "Forces of Nature," for “classrooms, dorm rooms, living rooms, offices, and physics departments.”

The posters feature Curie, Noether, computing pioneer Ada Lovelace, stellar astronomer Annie Jump Cannon, and “first lady of physics” Chien-Shiung Wu. Should you want one or all of these as high-resolution images printable up to 24”x36”, visit the Perimeter Institute’s site and follow the links to fill out a short form. Whether you’re a parent, teacher, or mentor—these striking pop art posters seem like an excellent way to get a conversation about women in science started. Follow up with the Smithsonian’s “Ten Historic Female Scientists You Should Know,” SDSC's Women in Science project, Rachel Ignotofsky’s Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World, and—for a contemporary view of women working in every possible STEM field—the Association for Women in Science.

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

The Social Lives of Trees: Science Reveals How Trees Mysteriously Talk to Each Other, Work Together & Form Nurturing Families

In addition to its ham-handed execution, maybe one of the reasons M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening failed with critics is that its premise seemed inherently preposterous. Who could suspend disbelief? Trees don’t talk to each other, act in groups, make calculations, how foolish! But they do, forester Suzanne Simard aims to convince us in the TED video above.

Trees aren’t just trees. They are the visible manifestations of “this other world” underground, “a world of infinite biological pathways that connect trees and allow them to communicate, and allow the forest to behave as if it’s a single organism. It might remind you of a sort of intelligence.” One shared not only by trees but by all of the beings that live in and among them. Forests are alive, though perhaps they are not plotting their revenge on us, even if we’ve earned it.

Simard tells the story of growing up in British Columbia among the inland rainforests. Old wet temperate forests crawling with ancient ferns like giant green hands; cities of mushrooms growing around centuries-old fallen trees; whole planes of bird and insect existence in the canopies, American megafauna, the elk, the bear…. On a recent hike deep into the Olympia National Forest in Washington, I found myself thinking some similar thoughts. It’s not that unusual to imagine, in the throes of “forest bathing,” that “trees are nature’s internet,” as Simard says in a Seattle TED talk.

The difference is that Simard has had these thoughts all her life, devoted 30 years of research to testing her hypotheses, and used radioactive carbon isotopes to find two-way communication between different species of tree while being chased by angry grizzly bears. Likewise, most of us have noted the glaring scientific absurdities in the book of Genesis, but few may see the problem with Noah’s Ark that Italian botanist Stefano Mancuso does in his talk above. No one thought to bring any plants? God somehow neglected to mention that all those animals would need ecosystems, and fast? We laugh about an old man literally loading reproducing pairs of every animal on a boat… imagine him trying to fit entire forests….

Mancuso’s charming accent and self-deprecating humor make his observations seem lighthearted, but no less devastating to our idea of ourselves as self-sufficient alpha creatures and of plants as barely alive, inanimate stuff scattered around us like nature’s furniture, one step above the foundational rocks and stones. The idea is not limited to the Bible; it has “accompanied humanity” he says. Yet, just as professors do not belong at the top of a hierarchy of life—as medieval scholars liked to imagine—plants do not belong at the bottom. Let Mancuso convince you that plants exhibit “wonderful and complex behavior that can be considered intelligence.”

Isn’t this all a little presumptuous? Does anyone, after all, speak for the trees? Might their language be forever alien to us? Can we talk about “what plants talk about,” as ecologist J.C. Cahill asserts? Can we make soap opera speculations about “the hidden life of trees,” as the title of German forester Peter Wohlleben’s book promises? Perhaps human language is necessarily anthropomorphic—we insist on seeing ourselves at the center of everything. Maybe we need to think of trees as people to connect to them—as nearly every ancient human civilization has talked to nature through the intermediaries of spirits, gods, devas, sprites, nymphs, ancestors, etc.

As a forester with a lumber company, Wohlleben says, he “knew about as much about the hidden life of trees as a butcher knows about the emotional life of animals.” They were already dead to him. Until he began to wake up to the silent communication all around him. Trees can count, can learn, can remember, he found. Trees have families. They nurse their children. As he says in the interview above, “I don’t claim this, that is actual research. But the scientists normally use language than cannot be understood. So I translated this, and surprise, surprise! Trees are living beings, trees are social, trees have feelings.” For most people, says Wohhleben, this really does come as a surprise.

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

The Art of Explaining Hard Ideas: Scientists Try to Explain Gene Editing & Brain Mapping to Young Kids & Students

If you’ve seen Bong Joon-ho’s film Okja, about an Agribusiness-engineered gargantuan mutant pig and her young Korean girl sidekick, you may have some very specific ideas about CRISPR, the science used to edit and manipulate genes. In fact, the madcap fictional adventure’s world may not be too far off, though the science seems to be moving in the other direction. Just recently, Chinese scientists have reported the creation of 12 pigs with 24 percent less body fat than the ordinary variety. It may not be front-page news yet, but the achievement is “a big issue for the pig industry,” says the lead researcher.

There’s much more to CRISPR than bioengineering lean bacon. But what is it and how does it work? I couldn’t begin to tell you. Let biologist Neville Sanjana explain. In the Wired video above, he undertakes the ultimate challenge for science communicators—explaining the most cutting-edge science to five different people: a 7-year-old, 14-year-old, college student, grad student, and—to really put him on the spot—a CRISPR expert. CRISPR is "a new area of biomedical science that enables gene editing,” Sanjana begins in his short intro for viewers, “and it’s helping us understand the basis of many genetic diseases like autism and cancer.”

That’s all well and good, but does he have anything to say about the pig business? Watch and find out, beginning with the adorable 7-year-old Teigen River, who may or may not have been primed with perfect responses. Play it for your own kids and let us know how well the explanation works. Sanjara runs quickly through his other students to arrive, halfway through the video, at Dr. Matthew Canver, CRISPR expert.

From there on out you may wish to refer to other quick references, such as the Harvard and MIT Broad Institute’s short guide and video intro above from molecular biologist Feng Zhang, who explains that CRISPR, or “Clustered Regularly Intersperced Short Palindromic Repeats,” is actually the name of DNA sequences in bacteria. The gene editing technology itself is called CRISPR-Cas9. Just so you know how the sausage is made.

Enough of pig puns. Let’s talk about brains, with neuroscientist Dr. Bobby Kasthuri of the Argonne National Laboratory. He faces a similar challenge above—this time explaining high concept science to a 5-year-old, 13-year-old, college student, grad student, and a “Connectome entrepreneur.” A what? Connectome is the product of the NIH's Human Connectome Project, which set out to “provide an unparalleled compilation of neural data” and “achieve never before realized conclusions about the living human brain.” This brain-mapping science has many objectives, one of which, in the 5-year-old version, is “to know where every cell in your brain is, and how it can talk to every other cell.”

To this astonishing explanation you may reply like Daniel Dodson, 5-year-old, with a stunned “Oh.” And then you may think of Philip K. Dick, or Black Mirror’s “San Junipero” episode. Especially after hearing from “Connectome Entrepreneur” Russell Hanson, founder and CEO of a company called Brain Backups, or after listening to Sebastian Seung—“leader in the field of connectomics”—give his TED talk, “I am my connectome.” Want another short, but grown-up focused, explanation of the totally science-fiction but also completely real Connectome? See Kasthuri’s 2-minute animated video above from Boston University.

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

Stephen Hawking’s Ph.D. Thesis, “Properties of Expanding Universes,” Now Free to Read/Download Online

Image by NASA, via Flickr Commons

Imagine being Stephen Hawking’s dissertation advisor? Not that most of us can put ourselves in the shoes of eminent Cambridge physicist Dennis Sciama... but imagine a student succeeding so profoundly, after having overcome such remarkable difficulty, to become the celebrated Stephen Hawking? One would feel immensely proud, I’d guess, and maybe just a little intimidated. Some graduate-level professors might even feel threatened by such a student. It’s doubtful, however, that Sciama—who signed off on Hawking’s thesis in 1966 and died in 1999—felt this way.

As F.R. Ellis and Roger Penrose write, when Hawking announced a significant finding about black holes in 1974, Sciama “quickly recognized the importance... hailing it as initiating a new revolution in our understanding.” Despite his portrayal by David Thewlis as “a kind of authoritarian gatekeeper” in the Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, Sciama “was much more than that picture suggests,” writes another of his highly accomplished mentees, Adrian Melott; “he was a superb mentor who brought out the best in his students.” Ellis and Penrose, themselves esteemed scientists strongly influenced by Sciama, write of his “astonishing succession of research students,” three of whom became fellows of the Royal Society.

I mention these names because they are just a few of the many people who inspired, challenged, and guided Hawking, much of whose fame rests on his bestselling popular cosmology, A Brief History of Time. While he may be talked of as a lone eccentric singularity whose mind operates above our mortal plane, like every scientist, he developed in a community that includes many such minds. The observation in no way diminishes Hawking’s accomplishments--it might, ideally, spur those of us with an interest in his work to look at how it developed in conversation and debate with others, like eminent Cambridge physicist Fred Hoyle.

We can begin to do that now by going back to Hawking’s graduate days and reading his doctoral thesis, which has been made available for free download by the Cambridge University Library. “Properties of Expanding Universes” has proven so popular that it crashed the library web site, with more than 60,000 views yesterday. By contrast, “other popular theses might have 100 views per month,” says Stuart Roberts, deputy head of research communications at Cambridge.

In a statement accompanying the dissertation’s release, Hawking matter-of-factly situates himself in a vast community of “great” minds:

By making my PhD thesis Open Access, I hope to inspire people around the world to look up at the stars and not down at their feet; to wonder about our place in the universe and to try and make sense of the cosmos. Anyone, anywhere in the world should have free, unhindered access to not just my research, but to the research of every great and enquiring mind across the spectrum of human understanding.

Should we have such open access, all of us could follow the debates across academic projects, learn how the most sophisticated views of the universe’s nature get formulated and refined. However, we’d probably also find that few other physicists express themselves with as much clarity as Hawking. Whether or not we understand his scientific explanations, we can understand his prose, and his directness of expression has won him millions of readers who may have never have otherwise read any theoretical physics. See the first paragraph of Hawking’s introduction below:

The idea that the universe is expanding is of recent origin. All the early cosmologies were essentially stationary and even Einstein whose theory of relativity is the basis for almost all modern developments in cosmology, found it natural to suggest a static model of the universe. However there is a very grave difficulty associated with a static model such as Einstein's which is supposed to have existed for an infinite time. For, if the stars had been radiating energy at their present rates for an infinite time, they would have needed an infinite supply of energy. Further, the flux of radiation now would be infinite. Alternatively, if they had only a limited supply of energy, the whole universe would by now have reached thermal equilibrium which is certainly not the case. This difficulty was noticed by Olders who however was not able to suggest any solution. The discovery of the recession of the nebulae by Hubble led to the abandonment of static models in favour of ones which were expanding.

Whether the remainder of “Properties of Expanding Universes” is as readable may be difficult to determine for a little while. As of the writing of this post, at least, both the original link and a secondary URL hosting a photographed version of the document have ground to a halt. (Update: Pages are serving fairly well again, at least for now.) No doubt many of the visitors are physicists and grad students themselves. But their numbers may be dwarfed by laypeople eager to see Hawking’s peculiar genius first emerge into the world, from a community of similarly brilliant cosmologists.

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

Your Brain on Art: The Emerging Science of Neuroaesthetics Probes What Art Does to Our Brains

If you’ve followed debates in popular philosophical circles, you’ve surely heard the critique of “scientism,” the “view that only scientific claims are meaningful.” The term doesn’t apply only in defenses of religious explanations, but also of the arts and humanities—long imperiled by sweeping budget cuts and now seemingly upended by neuroscience.

We have the neuroscience of music, of literature, of painting, of creativity and imagination themselves…. What need anymore for those pedants and obscurantists in their ivory tower academic cubicles? Sweep them all away for better MRI machines and statistical programs! Who, gasp the opponents of scientism, would hold such a philistine view? Maybe only a straw man or two.

For those in the emerging field of “neuroaesthetics,” the goal is not to vivisect the arts, but to observe what art—however defined—does to the brain. Neuroaesthetics, notes the Washington Post video above, theorizes that “some of the answers to art’s mysteries can be found in the realm of science.” As University of Houston Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal puts it in the video below, “the more we understand the way the brain responds to the arts, the better we can understand ourselves.” Such understanding does not obviate the mystery of art as, the Post writes in an accompanying article, "the domain of the heart."

The spectacle of performing artists, writers, and musicians wearing skullcaps covered with wires while in the midst of their creative acts may look ludicrous to us layfolk. The University of Houston takes this research quite seriously, however, appointing three visual artists-in-residence to work alongside many others on Professor Contraras-Vidal’s ongoing neuroaesthetic projects, which also include dancers and musicians. In addition to studying artists’ brains, the NSF-funded project has recorded “electrical signals in the brains of 450 individuals as they engaged with the work of artist Dario Robleto in a public art installation.”

The Post summarizes some of the possible answers offered by this kind of research: arts such as dance and theater stimulate our desire to experience intense emotions together in a group as a form of social cohesion. Seeing live performances—and surely even films, though that particular art form is slighted in many of these accounts—triggers a “neural rush…. With our brain’s capacity for emotion and empathy, even in the wordless art of dance we can begin to discover meaning—and a story.” This brings us to the importance our brains place on narrative, on movement, the “logic of art” and much more.

For better or worse, neuroaesthetics is—at least at an institutional level—in some competition with those branches of philosophy classically concerned with aesthetics, though often the two endeavors are complementary. But using science to interpret art, or interpret the brain on art, should in no way put the arts in jeopardy. Serious scientific curiosity about the oldest and most universal of distinctively human activities might instead provide justification—or better yet, funding and public support—for the generous production of more public art.

via The Washington Post

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

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