What is a species? That's not a simple question.
And it's even harder to answer after you've had a few.
Intrepid science journalist Charles Q. Choi takes inspiration from both the Drunk History series of videos and a really awful lot of whiskey to try and help you better understand a scientific concept (and also the finer points of orc biology). This was an idea I had, which came together with the help of several science journalist friends during the Science Online conference back in January. I'm still impressed with how accurate Charles was on the science while in that state. I can't speak to the Tolkien mythology.
Video Link (Note: This seems to play softly on some computers. If you're having trouble hearing it, plug in headphones or turn up your speakers.)
Thanks to Rose Eveleth, Colin Schultz, and Jennifer Honn — whose work on editing and producing this video was invaluable. Also thanks to John Rennie, Steve Ashley, Olivia Koski, Maki Naro, and Stephen Granade — whose input and assistance made this possible. And, of course, special thanks to Charles, who really was fully recovered by the next morning.
Good news for humanity's sense of shiny special uniqueness! Sure, other animals use tools. Chimpanzees and bonobos might even have behaviors that can be classified as cultural. But those damn dirty apes still can't throw a fastball to save their lives.
Becky Lang at Discover magazine has an interesting story on this research, which centers around the biology that allows fast pitches to happen, and how we developed it, while our closest relatives did not.
Cell culture lines are cells, taken from donor tissue, that have been divided and separated over and over and over — providing researchers with reliably identical "families" of cells that can be used to biomedical research. Some, like the now-famous HeLa line, are derived from cancerous tissue and replicate indefinitely. Others, like WI-38, will only divide a set number of times (in the case of WI-38, it's 50), but new cells can be frozen at any point and stored. When you thaw them out later, they'll pick back up dividing from the point in the 50-division cycle where they were when frozen.
WI-38 is a particularly important cell culture line. Used extensively in the development of vaccines, these are the cells that helped create the vaccine for Rubella, a disease that, just a few decades ago, used to kill and maim many fetuses whose mothers' became infected. Between 1962 and 1965, it's estimated that rubella infections caused 30,000 stillbirths and left 20,000 children with life-long disabilities.
But WI-38 is controversial. That's partly because the cells that founded the line came from the lung tissue of a fetus that was legally aborted during the fourth month of pregnancy by a woman in Sweden in 1962. At Nature News, Meredith Wadman has a fascinating long read about the moral and ethical issues surrounding WI-38. This isn't just about the abortion question. Also at issue: Did the fetus' mother consent to tissue donation? And are we okay with the fact that she and her family have never received compensation, despite the money that's been made off selling WI-38 cell cultures?
Medical Research: Cell Division by Meredith Wadman in Nature News
Icelandic news outlets are reporting that an Icelandic whaling company, Hvalur hf, "caught its first fin whale yesterday evening," after sailing out yesterday with two boats, both due back in port today.
Here's an incredibly cool video showing the prow of a massive ice breaking ship as it plows through Antarctica's Ross Sea. The footage is sped up, to pack two months of travel into five minutes. But, unlike a lot of time-lapse videos, this one also has a really informative audio track, in which marine scientist Cassandra Brooks waxes poetic about the many different kinds of ice and explains why she and her team were out there, breaking through the stuff, to begin with.
Bonus: At the end, you get to see the absolute adorableness that is penguins on high-speed fast forward.
Via Deep Sea News
Over at Fast Company, our pal Chris Arkenberg wrote about how advances in synthetic biology and biomimicry could someday transform how we build our built environments:
"Cities Of The Future, Built By Drones, Bacteria, And 3-D Printers"
Innovations emerging across the disciplines of additive manufacturing, synthetic biology, swarm robotics, and architecture suggest a future scenario when buildings may be designed using libraries of biological templates and constructed with biosynthetic materials able to sense and adapt to their conditions. Construction itself may be handled by bacterial printers and swarms of mechanical assemblers.
Tools like Project Cyborg make possible a deeper exploration of biomimicry through the precise manipulation of matter. David Benjamin and his Columbia Living Architecture Lab explore ways to integrate biology into architecture. Their recent work investigates bacterial manufacturing--the genetic modification of bacteria to create durable materials. Envisioning a future where bacterial colonies are designed to print novel materials at scale, they see buildings wrapped in seamless, responsive, bio-electronic envelopes.
Another great ramble from the always-fascinating Venkatesh Rao entitled "The Dead-Curious Cat and the Joyless Immortal," considers several explanations for our species' curiosity, and asks whether our weird, ubiquitous artificial life-forms (corporations) share this trait, and why:
Alone among the curious animals (though this seems like a conceit that more research might invalidate), we seem to be curious about clearly useless things. Or at least, things that have no obvious and immediate use. Humans seem to frequently poke at things that yield returns, if at all, only generations later. And often in ways unsuspected by those who do the poking.
We stare at the stars, we peer through microscopes, we climb mountains and we dive to the ocean floor.
This behavior, so natural to humans, is incomprehensible to human organizations. So things like space programs or other pure curiosity driven efforts have to be justified by politicians on the basis of “will improve life here on earth through the discovery of new materials and advances in medicine.” This is probably the mother of all idiotic fictions. Fortunately, we don’t seem to require our institutional fictions to be credible. Merely sufficient to stop conversations we don’t want to have.
There is an interesting symmetry here. Organizations naturally try to avoid pain — the pain of business model obsolescence or national decline for instance – through institutionalized “curiosity.” They find joy-seeking unnatural and in need of justification (hence the paradoxical notions of “efficient” innovation with high “yield” or “impact” and the relentless war on waste).
This has even been turned into a depressingly banal formula for innovation: what pain are you seeking to relieve?
For humans the reverse is true. Curiosity driven by pain-aversion is unnatural, but curiosity driven by joy-seeking is natural and requires no further explanation. Efficiency is the last thing on our minds when we are being curious. The concept does not even apply: efficiency pre-supposes a goal. Waste is pain in the efficient pursuit of goals.
Say you're a marine biologist and you want to study the little bitty creatures of the sea — shrimps and worms and things like that. How do you go about capturing them?
Why, with an underwater vacuum, of course.
At the PNAS First Look blog, David Harris writes that this "SCUBA-tank powered vacuum, called an “airlift,” inhales shrimp, sand fleas, marine worms, and 'things that would swim away if they had the chance.'"
"The earliest sawfishes likely arose in the shallow Tethys Sea, that ocean surrounded by the ancient continents of Godwanda and Laurasia, during the Cretaceous period at least 60 million years ago," writes Dr. M. at Deep Sea News.
These "sole survivors of an ancient bloodline" now number only seven species which roam the muddy bottoms of coastal areas, bays and estuaries.
All sawfishes can move easily between fresh and saltwater and often venture deep upstream into rivers. The sawfish lifestyle puts this both their size and saw near humans. All seven species are considered critically endangered by the IUCN. As much as we have impacted them, sawfish have also greatly influenced our culture.
And now, they're one of the most threatened species on our planet. Thanks, humans!
More: Exaltation to Extinction for Sawfishes [Deep Sea News]
On the left is a picture of me with my bike, taken by my friend Laura Kling. On the right is the same image, as it would be seen by a person with protanopia — a relatively common (as in, still very rare) form of color blindness that affects the ability to see green, yellow, and red colors.
The Color Blindness Simulator will allow you to do this with your own photos.
On the Vintage Ads LJ group, the awesome Man Writing Slash has rounded up a series of old ads that use mechanical methaphors for the human body.
One of my favorite ad tropes is the Body=Machine/Body=Factory idea, because the imagery is often more detailed and also more hilarious than in most ads. As a kid I used to LOVE any illustrations of the body that depicted tiny workers inside, such as The Human Body, for example. :D This link to a book about Fritz Kahn's Der Mensch als Industriepalast is also fascinating (although not advertisement). Brief video version of that book HERE (well worth 3 minutes of your time.) This series of articles and illustrations in the same vein (XD) appeared in the Berliner Morgenpost in 1931 and is simply breathtaking.