Science and Nature

Way Off The Lamarck

“If my theory of relativity is proven successful, Germany will claim me as a German and France will declare that I am a citizen of the world. Should my theory prove untrue, France will say that I am a German and Germany will declare that I am a Jew.”

Albert Einstein

I was lucky enough to get 6 hours in Paris the other day and went for a wander around Notre Dame. Before you get there though there is the Jardin Des Plantes and I thought I would take a walk around. Didn’t have enough money on me to go into the evolution museum even though I wanted to but this statue caught my eye I was a little taken aback. Take a look…

When I first saw the statue my first thought, a little unfairly, was that Lamarck was responsible for the theory of evolution in the same way that cheese was responsible for the great train robbery – not at all (actually that was my second thought, my first was “wait a f**king minute!”). However, on thinking it over maybe a fairer way to look at it might be like da Vinci and the helicopter in that although their ideas would not have worked, they were among the first attempts to solve certain problems.

I’m fairly sure if you asked a French person now who was responsible for the theory of evolution they would say Darwin. It is highly probable that the trumpeting of Lamarck in France represented part of the battle between the British and French empires, the two major powers of that era, in that they were trying also to be perceived to be intellectually and culturally dominant. A similar stooshie went on over who discovered Neptune with the British trying to claim it from the French.

Although this is intellectually dishonest behaviour, I suppose it would be preferable to the kind of thing that the Americans are putting out these days to show their cultural dominance.

The Jardins Des Plantes is a nice place though, and there are a few more pictures if you click on the READ MORE below.

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Planet Green Interview

A while back I was interviewed by author Mickey Z for the website Planet Green about my other website Exit Stage Right.

Here is the interview…

Michael Greenwell Puts the Focus on Extinction with “Exit Stage Right” (Interview)

Only his DJ career should be extinct

Scotland’s Michael Greenwell has worked, at various times, as a university tutor, a barman, a DJ (“not a very good one,” he clarifies), an office lackey, supermarket worker, president of a small charity, a researcher, a librarian, a volunteer worker in Nepal during the civil war there, and “some other things that were too tedious to mention.” Nowadays, he explains, “I am always in the education sector in one way or another.”

Part of his role as educator is the creation of a blog called Exit Stage Right, where you’ll find this mission statement of sorts:

“We are in the early stages of what could easily become the biggest mass extinction the planet has ever seen. This site is a resource for anyone to use to keep track of what has just become extinct or what is in serious danger.”

Jeff Corwin, author of 100 Heartbeats, would likely agree: “Every 20 minutes we lose an animal species,” Corwin explains. “If this rate continues, by century’s end, 50% of all living species will be gone. It is a phenomenon known as the sixth extinction. The fifth extinction took place 65 million years ago when a meteor smashed into the Earth, killing off the dinosaurs and many other species and opening the door for the rise of mammals. Currently, the sixth extinction is on track to dwarf the fifth.”

Thus, promoting awareness and action on the crucial issue of extinction is part of Michael Greenwell’s activist life and spirit. “I used to be an inveterate marcher but have pretty much given up on it now and like everyone else am looking for a way to effect real change without precipitating disaster or inviting the imposition of further constraints upon the public,” he says.

To hear more of his thoughts, check out the interview below…

My Conversation With Michael Greenwell

Planet Green: How did you get started on the issue of extinction?

Michael Greenwell: A few years ago, I started to notice the increasing frequency of the “Only 200 of this thing left” or “__________ on verge of extinction” stories that pop up every couple of weeks on page 11. Like anyone else I thought “Oh, that’s terrible” but I started to wonder why these things were not front page news. It is an entirely different category of story to a story about some politician being an idiot in one way or another (don’t get me started on celebrities), because if a politician is sacked or voted out there is always another vainglorious clown waiting to take his or her place. Unlike politicians, in the animal extinction issue, “gone” means “gone forever and not coming back” which is a much more serious thing.

PG: How did that lead to the creation of your blog?

MG: I thought about just putting all the stories I could find on the issue on one site with no fear or favor about where it comes from—just a link to where the story comes from and then the info. I hoped maybe to get some general readers but also that maybe some activists and scientists that work in the field would take a look at it and use it as a resource. That has happily been the case. Aside from that you would be surprised at some of the abuse I have got for it.

PG: Is there a common thread in such abuse?

MG: Usually it is of the “animals will hurt you if they get a chance so why should we give a shit about them?” variety. This is so ridiculous I don’t even bother responding to it usually.

PG: Conversely, have you heard from readers who’ve thanked you for the blog and now see extinction as an urgent issue?

MG: Yes. Notwithstanding the abuse I get quite a lot of correspondence about it all. I often get emails from teenagers asking for help with a school project about something which is a positive sign. If i can I direct them to where they want to be looking for more information on the subject or groups they want to join. There are also a lot of people who tell me that they had never realised the problem was this serious and so on. A lot of conservationist groups send me their press releases too. Finally, I occasionally receive emails from people asking me to endorse their eco-product or enviro-tourism. I haven’t yet seen one of these that I would consider having anything to do with.

PG: If you could reach as wide an audience as possible with information about extinction and the human role in this maddening trend, what would you tell them?

MG: I was thinking the about it the other day when I was showing Supersize Me to a group of students. The doctor was telling Morgan Spurlock about how the human liver is resilient and can heal itself but that by doing his McDeaths experiment he was literally pickling his liver with toxic food like was done in Leaving in Las Vegas with alcohol. I thought that there was an analogy there. The ecosystem is resilient, it can take a lot of shit that you might throw at it. Even if it takes a temporary hit it can rebound and replenish itself…some individual cells will be gone of course but other ones are made. This is the natural way of it in normal times. However, if you just continually throw toxins at it day after day after day then there comes a point when it just breaks down and there are only 2 ways out…transplant or death. As there is no transplant to another planet available (and even if there was, should it make a difference?) we and everything else only have one way to go if we don’t stop our toxic diet. And the doctor has been telling us for a long long time that we need to start looking after ourselves better.

Another Video by Michael Greenwell

PG: Okay, what can we do to start looking after ourselves better?

MG: Ideal world or right here right now?

PG: A little of both?

MG: On these issues the public are way ahead of the politicians. We have to change first. We can’t wait for them because we don’t have enough time left. That isn’t to say we should let them off the hook either. Having said that, consumer choices sometimes seem like the difference with voting Tory or Labour or Democrat or Republican. Like coke and diet coke. Essentially it is like choosing to be shot in the head 5 times or shot in the head 4 times. So if there is something to be done in the field of consumption (did you know that that is what they used to call Tuberculosis?) then the choice is not really between this thing and another supposedly more ethical thing. It is rather between this thing and nothing or repairing the old thing instead of throwing it away. Use and buy LESS is the message…instead of use and buy different, even it is tougher than choosing one thing or the other to consume. Buy less stuff, use less power. LESS is a very difficult message to transmit because everywhere we look we see the message MORE on every billboard, TV screen and in every newspaper and magazine. This is at least something practical we can do to reduce the damage. Ideally, we could realize that we are a species that is capable of improving our surroundings and work out why we seem so often to do the exact opposite. Like what I am trying to do with Exit Stage Right…. the first step is seeing that you have a serious problem.

PG: Where can readers find your work on the Web?

MG: I am a conscientious objector to Facebook. You can get me on Twitter and there is Exit Stage Right and my home page.

Yuri Gagarin

That would be a happy birthday to Yuri Gagarin the first human being ever to go into space who, by any standards, has to be a hero.

I read a biography of him a few years ago of which the name escapes me for the moment.  It was very interesting but seemed to suggest foul play surrounding his death (in a plane crash) that has never been proven.

What is certainly true about him as that after his incredible achievement, the propaganda role he was asked/forced to play never sat well with him and he became increasingly upset with, and alientated from, the leadership of the former communist regime. They were never happy about his unwillingness to support them wholeheartedly and therefore relations became somewhat frosty (no cold war pun intended).

He just wished to fly again and this desire unfortunately led to his death. This reluctance to be a poster boy for the regime may be the reason for the lack of attributable quotes and speeches by him.

Anyway, here are a couple from him…

“What beauty. I saw clouds and their light shadows on the distant dear earth…. The water looked like darkish, slightly gleaming spots…. When I watched the horizon, I saw the abrupt, contrasting transition from the earth’s light-colored surface to the absolutely black sky. I enjoyed the rich color spectrum of the earth. It is surrounded by a light blue aureole that gradually darkens, becoming turquiose, dark blue, violet, and finally coal black.”

“No I didn’t see God. I looked and looked but I didn’t see God.”



IT’S WILLIAM MacGILLIVRAY’S BIRTHDAY TOO

Whilst there are people all around the world celebrating Burns Night, it is worth mentioning that today is the birthday of another Scot of note.

William MacGillivray was the illegitimate son of a soldier. He was brought up by his uncle in Harris and said “the solitude of Nature was my school”.

He was enrolled in Aberdeen university at only the age of 12 and used to walk home to Harris every summer. Furthermore, he wished to see the natural history collections in the British Museum and walked all the way to London to see them. He said of the trip…

‘I felt my love of natural history very much increased by the inspection of the museum. At the same time I felt convinced that to study Nature I must have recourse to Nature alone, pure and free from human interference. . . I am afraid that my vanity will be too much increased by this visit.’

This trip may have informed much of his later work as the Natural History museum in London state on their site that one of the reasons that he is not more famous may be because

Although adored by his students, MacGillivray did not endear himself to everybody. With an absolute conviction in his own abilities, he tended to be provocative and outspoken. He often condemned scientists who examined specimens without ever seeing the creature in its natural habitat.

They also quote a letter to a colleague…

‘To those really desirous of information respecting our native species, I would say, let us betake ourselves to the fields and woods; let us traverse the hills and valleys together; let us there study our favourites, pursue them from brake to bush.’

MacGillivray later became the curator at the museum of Natural History in Edinburgh and the Royal College of Surgeons. He later left this post to take up the post of Professor of Natural History at Aberdeen University. During this post he introduced the practice of taking students on field trips and according to one student he

‘he could walk the most active of us into limp helplessness’.In amongst all this he had been writing prodigiously as well as becoming a renowned natural artist.

There is definitely more than one notable Scot with a birthday today.

 

2010 Ig Nobel AWARDS

In case all the hullaballoo with the Chinese and the Vatican being a bit angry about the Nobel prizes that were handed out made you miss the real story, the IgNobel awards were handed out a couple of weeks ago.

Here are some of the winners as documented in the Guardian

Medicine prize

Psychologists Simon Rietveld and Ilja van Beest at the University of Amsterdam share the award for discovering that breathing difficulties brought on by asthma can be alleviated by repeated rollercoaster rides.

Physics prize

Awarded to Lianne Parkin and her team at the University of Otago in New Zealand for demonstrating that people are less likely to slip over on icy footpaths if they wear their socks outside their shoes instead of inside.

Biology prize

A description of the sexual antics of the short-nosed fruit bat earned the award for Gareth Jones at Bristol University and collaborators in China. The team showed that females who performed oral sex on their mates copulated for longer. “It is the first documented case of fellatio by adult animals other than humans to my knowledge, and opens questions about whether female animals can manipulate males via sexual activity, perhaps in this case to improve their chances of successful fertilisation,” Jones told the Guardian. He planned to demonstrate the behaviour at the ceremony using puppets.

Writing about the research for the Huffington Post last year, the primatologist Frans de Waal said: “The fellatio story on bats is a bright spot in an otherwise miserable record that denies animals the pleasure principle, homosexuality, and other forms of non-reproductive sex.”

Peace prize

Awarded to psychologist Richard Stephens and others at Keele University for confirming that swearing relieves pain. Stephens, who began the study after striking his thumb with a hammer, found volunteers could tolerate more pain if they repeated swearwords rather than neutral words. He suspects that “swearing induces a fight-or-flight response and nullifies the link between fear of pain and pain perception”.

Engineering prize

The task of monitoring dangerous bugs in whales at sea is a formidable one. Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse and others at the Institute of Zoology in London developed a way to collect fluids ejected from whales’ blowholes by attaching petri dishes to the underside of small, remote-controlled helicopters and hovering them overhead.

Management prize

To Alessandro Pluchino and team at the University of Catania for demonstrating mathematically that companies work more efficiently if staff are promoted at random.

Chemistry prize

For research in 2005 that overturned the long-held belief that oil and water do not mix, the prize was awarded to Eric Adams at MIT and others, including researchers at BP.

Economics prize

Awarded jointly to the executives and directors of Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, AIG and Magnetar for “creating and promoting new ways to invest money – ways that maximise financial gain and minimise financial risk for the world economy, or for a portion thereof.”

THE BIG ONES – MY UNABASHED POST

Where are we? – A question that has been ever more accurately answered by a long stretch of people from Aristarchus of Samos to Edwin Hubble and many many before, between and after. Suffice to say we have a very good idea now.

Who are we and what are we? – I would posit that both of these have been satisfactorily answered by Darwin but not in the sense that many people who seek to misrepresent Darwin for right-wing political ends would suggest. Let us not forget that one of the reasons that Darwin got time to study  his science more was that he fell out with the ship’s captain (whom he was employed to talk to…he wasn’t employed to be ship’s naturalist) because the captain agreed with slavery and Darwin vehemently did not.

How are we and/or how should we be? – This one is the province of the philosophers ie all of us.

Why are we? – Probably unanswerable question.

When are we? – This has also been convincingly answered. Look it up yourself – you have the time.

And today we got a lot closer to another one…

Are we alone? – I know that this is not a definitive answer but the odds just changed considerably. It is possible that over time this will become one of the biggest stories in history. If it isn’t this one, there is a high possibility it will be another one… and soon.

Check it out. I am completely unashamed to say that the fact we are attaining such a level of understanding is one of the great things about being alive in this time. The tragedy, as it has been pointed out before, is that just as we are on the point of getting it we are also on the point of fucking our little corner of it up beyond repair.

Here is what won’t help…

STELLARIUM

This morning I discovered a beautiful piece of freeware and since I finished work I have been playing around with it.No adverts, no nonsense – just great.

It is called Stellarium and it is an astronomy program. It is really easy to use.

You only have to enter which city you are in and work out which way is north, south etc and you get a sky map with all the stars, their names, distances and other information. All the planets and stars move in “real” time so you can follow them and predict them on your screen while you look at them out your window. This is wonderful if like me, you can’t afford a telescope and live somewhere with too much pollution to get the best out of just looking out the window.

You can also put it on pause so you can take a proper look at the various things too. There is a switch to turn off light pollution so that even in the day you can see where everything is (see screenshot below)…

The “starlore” function allows you to get the info on the mythology surrounding different constellations and includes the mythologies from Chinese, Western, Sami, Korean, Navajo, Aztec, Egyptian, Lakota, Maori and other cultures.

You can set it to look like the actual sky or sumperimpose constellation lines or the mythological pictures too. All the genuine scientific and astronomical information is there on top left of screen with distances etc.

I am LIKE-A-KID-IN-A-SWEET-SHOP.

I have listened to every astronomy lecture I could get my hands on for years but have never had access to a telescope. I hope I know quite a lot about the subject but still have problems pointing at the sky and saying “that one is _______ and that one is ______”. I get it right sometimes but others no.

With this thing it is possible for anyone, lectures or not, to find a simple point of reference and for the first time in your life you can go out and do what our ancestors did every night and name it.

However, unlike our ancestors, you can also say what is made of and how far away it is.

Have a go and fiddle about with it for an hour. Just brilliant.