An assortment of things to read as you sip your coffee, my dears.
I use more index cards than anyone I know, and Carl Linnaeus has fascinated me since I first heard of him years ago. So imagine my delight at finding this article: How the index card cataloged the world.
The index card was a product of the Enlightenment, conceived by one of its towering figures: Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist, physician, and the father of modern taxonomy. But like all information systems, the index card had unexpected political implications, too: It helped set the stage for categorizing people, and for the prejudice and violence that comes along with such classification.
* * *
In 1767, near the end of his career, Linnaeus began to use “little paper slips of a standard size” to record information about plants and animals. According to the historians Isabelle Charmantier and Staffan Müller-Wille, these paper slips offered “an expedient solution to an information-overload crisis” for the Swedish scientist. More than 1,000 of them, measuring five by three inches, are housed at London’s Linnean Society. Each contains notes about plants and material culled from books and other publications. While flimsier than heavy stock and cut by hand, they’re virtually indistinguishable from modern index cards.
The Swedish scientist is more often credited with another invention: binomial nomenclature, the latinized two-part name assigned to every species. Before Linnaeus, rambling descriptions were used to identify plants and animals. A tomato, for example, was a mouthful: Solanum caule inermi herbaceo foliis pinnatis incisis. After Linnaeus, the round fruit became Solanum lycopersicum. Thanks to his landmark study, Systema Naturae, naturalists had a universal language, which organized the natural world into the nested hierarchies still used today—species, genus, family, order, class, phylum, and kingdom. [continue]
How cool is that?
If you happen to wonder why I use so many index cards, take a look at Introducing the Hipster PDA over at 43folders.com. I came across that page years ago, and adopted a variation of that approach for organizing things. It’s not the only method I use, but it is highly useful and satisfying.
From Nautilus: The Case for More Intellectual Humility.
It’s not easy changing someone’s mind, especially if what you’re trying to change is something like their settled opinion. Only rarely does persuasion succeed in replacing one belief with its opposite, even among scientists. As the late philosopher of biology David L. Hand once wrote, “The objectivity that matters so much in science is not primarily a characteristic of individual scientists but of scientific communities. Scientists rarely refute their own pet hypotheses, especially after they have appeared in print, but that is all right. Their fellow scientists will be happy to expose these hypotheses to severe testing.”
When you’re persuaded, though, it can be memorable. The feeling of having your view change when you didn’t want it to, or weren’t expecting it to, is, at first, a little disorienting, like putting on a new pair of strong prescription glasses. But you quickly find that you appreciate the resulting clarity. [continue]
Here’s an article that Nature published today: Archaeogenomic evidence reveals prehistoric matrilineal dynasty. The abstract:
For societies with writing systems, hereditary leadership is documented as one of the hallmarks of early political complexity and governance. In contrast, it is unknown whether hereditary succession played a role in the early formation of prehistoric complex societies that lacked writing. Here we use an archaeogenomic approach to identify an elite matriline that persisted between 800 and 1130 CE in Chaco Canyon, the centre of an expansive prehistoric complex society in the Southwestern United States. We show that nine individuals buried in an elite crypt at Pueblo Bonito, the largest structure in the canyon, have identical mitochondrial genomes. Analyses of nuclear genome data from six samples with the highest DNA preservation demonstrate mother–daughter and grandmother–grandson relationships, evidence for a multigenerational matrilineal descent group. Together, these results demonstrate the persistence of an elite matriline in Chaco for ∼330 years. [continue]
The full article is online, complete with maps and photos.
A tiny snail may offer an alternative to opioids for pain relief. Scientists at the University of Utah have found a compound that blocks pain by targeting a pathway not associated with opioids. Research in rodents indicates that the benefits continue long after the compound have cleared the body. The findings were reported online in the February 20 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. [continue]
Woolly mammoth on verge of resurrection, scientists reveal. And they are apparently quite serious about this. (!) From the Guardian:
The woolly mammoth vanished from the Earth 4,000 years ago, but now scientists say they are on the brink of resurrecting the ancient beast in a revised form, through an ambitious feat of genetic engineering.
Speaking ahead of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Boston this week, the scientist leading the “de-extinction” effort said the Harvard team is just two years away from creating a hybrid embryo, in which mammoth traits would be programmed into an Asian elephant.
“Our aim is to produce a hybrid elephant-mammoth embryo,” said Prof George Church. “Actually, it would be more like an elephant with a number of mammoth traits. We’re not there yet, but it could happen in a couple of years.” (…)
I am particulartly interested in this part of the article:
Church, a guest speaker at the meeting, said the mammoth project had two goals: securing an alternative future for the endangered Asian elephant and helping to combat global warming. Woolly mammoths could help prevent tundra permafrost from melting and releasing huge amounts of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.
“They keep the tundra from thawing by punching through snow and allowing cold air to come in,” said Church. “In the summer they knock down trees and help the grass grow.” [continue]
Well! This is an interesting proposal. From the CBC: Scientists propose refreezing Arctic in battle against climate change.
A group of researchers has proposed using wind-powered pumps to refreeze the Arctic.
The proposal seems ambitious: it involves 10 million devices deployed over 10 per cent of the Arctic, at a cost of $500 billion US. [continue]
Sounds more promising than anything else I’ve heard. You think it would work?
From The Telegraph: Humble red berry could be the answer to deadly superbugs.
The rise of deadly superbugs which are resistant to antibiotics could be thwarted by a humble and widely available red berry, scientists have said.
Researchers seeking to understand why traditional healers in the Amazon rainforest use Brazilian peppertree berries to treat skin complaints found the plant had the power to fight off potentially lethal infections such as MRSA.
Traditional classes of antibiotics, which seek to attack and kill harmful bacteria, are becoming increasingly ineffective as the pathogens learn how to survive the onslaught.
Scientists at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia found the peppertree compounds worked in a more intelligent way than existing antibiotics, by “disarming, not destroying” the bugs.
Rather than physically attacking the harmful bacteria, the refined flavone compounds within the berry repressed the gene that allows the dangerous cells to communicate with each other, thereby stopping the infection in its tracks. [continue]
I wonder if anything that grows in my neck of the woods has similar properties.
I like medical mysteries, so this is exactly my kind of article. From the New York Times: His Doctors Were Stumped. Then He Took Over.
David Fajgenbaum was the fittest of his friends at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school, a 6-foot-3 gym addict and former quarterback at Georgetown. His mammoth hands seemed more suited to spiraling footballs than the fine fingerwork a doctor-in-training might need. He had endurance to match, taking multiple hits and returning to the field to play on.
“This guy was a physical specimen,” said his former roommate, Grant Mitchell, who used to walk to work with him. When they would arrive at the hospital for his obstetrics rotation, his friend recalled, “he would basically coerce me into doing pull-ups on the tree outside.”
In July 2010, that all changed. The 25-year-old woke up at night drenched in sweat. His lymph nodes were swollen. He felt stabs of abdominal pain, and odd red bumps began sprouting across his chest. Most bizarre of all, he felt very tired — so tired that he began slipping into empty exam rooms between patients, stealing five-minute naps to get through the day.
“Guys, I think I’m dying,” he recalled telling his friends.
A visit to the emergency room confirmed his fears. A doctor told him that his liver, kidneys and bone marrow were not working properly. Even more troubling, the doctor had no idea why his body was failing. “What do you think is going on?” he remembers the doctor asking him. [continue]
Have you come across any of Gary Taubes’ writing? If you’ve got the slightest interest in nutrition, history, and health, he is worth your attention. Here’s a recent article of his from the Guardian: Is sugar the world’s most popular drug?
Imagine a drug that can intoxicate us, can infuse us with energy and can be taken by mouth. It doesn’t have to be injected, smoked, or snorted for us to experience its sublime and soothing effects. Imagine that it mixes well with virtually every food and particularly liquids, and that when given to infants it provokes a feeling of pleasure so profound and intense that its pursuit becomes a driving force throughout their lives.
Could the taste of sugar on the tongue be a kind of intoxication? What about the possibility that sugar itself is an intoxicant, a drug? Overconsumption of this drug may have long-term side-effects, but there are none in the short term – no staggering or dizziness, no slurring of speech, no passing out or drifting away, no heart palpitations or respiratory distress. When it is given to children, its effects may be only more extreme variations on the apparently natural emotional rollercoaster of childhood, from the initial intoxication to the tantrums and whining of what may or may not be withdrawal a few hours later. More than anything, it makes children happy, at least for the period during which they’re consuming it. It calms their distress, eases their pain, focuses their attention and leaves them excited and full of joy until the dose wears off. The only downside is that children will come to expect another dose, perhaps to demand it, on a regular basis. [continue]
For more of Taubes’ writing, see the links he provides to his works.
If you’re concerned about fraud in scientific literature, you’ll like this article from the Guardian: The hi-tech war on science fraud.
One morning last summer, a German psychologist named Mathias Kauff woke up to find that he had been reprimanded by a robot. In an email, a computer program named Statcheck informed him that a 2013 paper he had published on multiculturalism and prejudice appeared to contain a number of incorrect calculations – which the program had catalogued and then posted on the internet for anyone to see. The problems turned out to be minor – just a few rounding errors – but the experience left Kauff feeling rattled. “At first I was a bit frightened,” he said. “I felt a bit exposed.”
Kauff wasn’t alone. Statcheck had read some 50,000 published psychology papers and checked the maths behind every statistical result it encountered. In the space of 24 hours, virtually every academic active in the field in the past two decades had received an email from the program, informing them that their work had been reviewed. Nothing like this had ever been seen before: a massive, open, retroactive evaluation of scientific literature, conducted entirely by computer.
Statcheck’s method was relatively simple, more like the mathematical equivalent of a spellchecker than a thoughtful review, but some scientists saw it as a new form of scrutiny and suspicion, portending a future in which the objective authority of peer review would be undermined by unaccountable and uncredentialed critics. [continue]
Did you see this? From the NYT: Cold tolerance among Inuit may come from extinct human relatives.
Inuit who live in Greenland experience average temperatures below freezing for at least half of the year. For those who live in the north, subzero temperatures are normal during the coldest months.
Given these frigid conditions, anthropologists have wondered for decades whether the Inuit in Greenland and other parts of the Arctic have unique biological adaptations that help them tolerate the extreme cold.
A new study, published on Wednesday in Molecular Biology and Evolution, identifies gene variants in Inuit who live in Greenland, which may help them adapt to the cold by promoting heat-generating body fat. These variants possibly originated in the Denisovans, a group of archaic humans who, along with Neanderthals, diverged from modern humans about half a million years ago. [continue]
From the Beeb Doctors confirm 200-year-old diagnosis.
Doctors have confirmed a diagnosis made more than 200 years ago by one of medicine’s most influential surgeons.
John Hunter had diagnosed a patient in 1786 with a “tumour as hard as bone”.
Royal Marsden Hospital doctors analysed patient samples and case notes, which were preserved at the museum named after him – the Hunterian in London.
As well as confirming the diagnosis, the cancer team believe Mr Hunter’s centuries-old samples may give clues as to how cancer is changing over time. [continue]
Perhaps I’ll stop by the Hunterian Museum next time I’m in London.
Oooh, look what Science Daily has for us today: 17th Century strain of smallpox retrieved from partial mummified remains of Lithuanian child:
New genetic research from an international team including McMaster University, University of Helsinki, Vilnius University and the University of Sydney, suggests that smallpox, a pathogen that caused millions of deaths worldwide, may not be an ancient disease but a much more modern killer that went on to become the first human disease eradicated by vaccination.
Well, how cool is that?
The findings, published in the journal Current Biology, raise new questions about the role smallpox may have played in human history and fuels a longstanding debate over when the virus that causes smallpox, variola, first emerged and later evolved in response to inoculation and vaccination.
“Scientists don’t yet fully comprehend where smallpox came from and when it jumped into humans,” says evolutionary geneticist Hendrik Poinar, senior author of the study, director of the McMaster Ancient DNA Centre and a researcher with Michael G. DeGroote Institute of Infectious Disease Research. “This research raises some interesting possibilities about our perception and age of the disease.”
Smallpox, one of the most devastating viral diseases ever to strike humankind, had long been thought to have appeared in human populations thousands of years ago in ancient Egypt, India and China, with some historical accounts suggesting that the pharaoh Ramses V -who died in 1145 BC — suffered from smallpox.
In an attempt to better understand its evolutionary history, [continue]
Today the BBC published an article that is awesome on so many levels. It is The sugar conspiracy. The summary:
In 1972, a British scientist sounded the alarm that sugar – and not fat – was the greatest danger to our health. But his findings were ridiculed and his reputation ruined. How did the world’s top nutrition scientists get it so wrong for so long?
And indeed, how did they?
If you care about health, science, and whether the nutrition advice you’ve tried to follow is nonsense or not, this is worth your time.
From Wired: Easy DNA Editing Will Remake the World. Buckle Up.
Using the three-year-old technique, researchers have already reversed mutations that cause blindness, stopped cancer cells from multiplying, and made cells impervious to the virus that causes AIDS. Agronomists have rendered wheat invulnerable to killer fungi like powdery mildew, hinting at engineered staple crops that can feed a population of 9 billion on an ever-warmer planet. Bioengineers have used Crispr to alter the DNA of yeast so that it consumes plant matter and excretes ethanol, promising an end to reliance on petrochemicals. Startups devoted to Crispr have launched. International pharmaceutical and agricultural companies have spun up Crispr R&D. Two of the most powerful universities in the US are engaged in a vicious war over the basic patent. Depending on what kind of person you are, Crispr makes you see a gleaming world of the future, a Nobel medallion, or dollar signs.
The technique is revolutionary, and like all revolutions, it’s perilous. Crispr goes well beyond anything the Asilomar conference discussed. It could at last allow genetics researchers to conjure everything anyone has ever worried they would—designer babies, invasive mutants, species-specific bioweapons, and a dozen other apocalyptic sci-fi tropes. It brings with it all-new rules for the practice of research in the life sciences. But no one knows what the rules are—or who will be the first to break them. [continue]
From The Atlantic: Compensating for the Missing Chunk of My Brain.
“Do me a favor and don’t wear any eye makeup when you come in,” I recall the receptionist having requested over the phone. “It messes with the goggles.”
Instead of saying, “Goggles?” as I was thinking, I said, “Eye makeup?”
“Mascara, eye shadow, eyeliner,” the receptionist said.
I’d been to this functional neurology center in a suburb of Portland, Oregon, several times since 2007, when I was diagnosed with having a puddle of cerebral-spinal fluid—the water that your brain floats in—about the size of a lemon where my right parietal lobe would be. The parietal lobe is the part of the brain responsible for judging time, space, distance, and the location of the body, among other tasks. I was diagnosed only a couple of months before leaving for grad school in Southern California; I had been hoping to get to the bottom of why learning to drive had proven impossible for me. [continue]
We all know our bodies are home to countless millions of bacteria and microorganisms, but without seeing them with our bare eyes it’s almost impossible to comprehend. This petri dish handprint created by Tasha Sturm of Cabrillo College, vividly illustrates the variety of bacteria found on her 8-year-old son’s hand after playing outdoors. The print itself represents several days of growth as different yeasts, fungi, and bacteria are allowed to incubate. [blockquote]
This is about eleventy million times cooler than plaster-casting a kids’ handprint. So interesting! The photos of the bacteria make me want to drop everything and become a bacteriologist.
From abcnews.go.com: Ecuadorean Dwarfs May Unlock Cancer Clues.
Twenty years ago, when Guevara began treating and studying the dwarfs of southern Ecuador, it was because he wanted to help them. But an interesting and quirky pattern started to emerge. He realized that there has never been a single incidence of cancer or diabetes among them.
"I start noticing that somehow in this area that we all know in Ecuador is an area with high rates of cancer, not one of these patients has ever died of cancer," he says. "And I’m talking about a total of 135 names that I can think of. None of them has ever died of cancer. To me the possibility that that is a coincidence is almost none, because every single family in this case has at least one or two or three relatives that have died of cancer." [continue]
Scientists from the Monell Center present behavioral and chemical findings to reveal that an individual’s underlying odor signature remains detectable even in the face of major dietary changes.
"The findings using this animal model support the proposition that body odors provide a consistent ‘odorprint’ analogous to a fingerprint or DNA sample," said Gary Beauchamp, PhD, a behavioral biologist at Monell and one of the paper’s senior authors. "This distinctive odor can be detected using either an animal’s nose or chemical instruments." [continue]
From Discover Magazine: Why Darwin Would Have Loved Botox.
During unconscious facial mimicry, Schilbach discovered, several regions of the brain become active. One of those, the left precentral gyrus, becomes active when people get the urge to move their facial muscles (such as when a song makes them sad). Other regions (the right hippocampus and the posterior cingulate cortex) become active when we have emotional experiences, helping to retrieve emotional memories. Another part of the brain that becomes active during facial mimicry (the dorsal midbrain) relays emotional signals to the rest of the body, bringing on the physical feelings that go along with emotions, like a racing heartbeat.
When humans mimic others’ faces, in other words, we don’t just go through the motions. We also go through the emotions.
Recently Bernhard Haslinger at the Technical University of Munich realized that he could test the facial feedback theory in a new way. He could temporarily paralyze facial muscles and then scan people’s brains as they tried to make faces. [continue]
From the New York Times: Dry-Ice Martini and Electric Cake.
When does a recipe become a science project?
Is it when the compulsion to create an edible electrical circuit keeps a cook up all night, wrapping Twizzler string licorice in pure silver?
Is it when a baker decides to bake 20 equilateral-triangle-shaped pecan pies for Thanksgiving, then attach them together with magnets to form an 80-serving icosahedron? (The recipe begins with 30 cups of flour and 2 large sheets of 24-gauge steel.)
Certainly, when the urge to build a better chocolate fountain — and then fill it with 10 gallons of hot gravy — becomes irresistible, some line between cooking and science has been crossed. [continue].
From csmonitor.com: Iceland’s new island is an exclusive club – for scientists only.
Buckled in? Check. Life jacket secure? Check. Noise-reduction headphones on? Check. No seeds in any of your belongings? Check. You sure? Yes. And up lifts the Icelandic Coast Guard’s Super Puma helicopter ferrying me to Iceland’s jealously guarded natural gem, Surtsey Island.
Though it was named this summer to the UNESCO World Heritage List – joining other natural heritage sites like the Great Barrier Reef, the Galapágos and Yellowstone National Park – no tourist will ever get to visit.
Located 20 miles off Iceland’s southern coast, Surtsey – named after Surtur, the fire giant of Norse mythology – was created in a volcanic eruption that began not millions of years ago, but on Nov. 14, 1963. It was a fresh specimen of geological and biological evolution. And even as the eruption was still in progress in 1965, the Icelandic government designated the island a nature reserve – for scientists only; a place they could document the evolution rock by rock, blade by blade, bird by bird.
Geneticist Sturla Fridriksson has been here from the beginning, and my feet had barely hit the island before its white-maned icon was chuckling to me that he’s "twice as old as these hills… Here in Iceland we talk about the trolls getting very old. And the trolls are as old as the mountains." [continue]
From the Globe and Mail: Scientists target mouse memories to erase.
It seems like a movie plot, but scientists have developed a way to erase specific memories in mice while leaving others intact and not damaging the brain.
By manipulating levels of an important protein in the brain, certain memories can be selectively deleted, researchers led by neurobiologist Joe Tsien of the Medical College of Georgia reported in the journal Neuron.
While some experts have suggested there could be value in erasing certain memories in people such as [continue]
From Science Daily: New Life Found In Ancient Tombs.
Life has been discovered in the barren depths of Rome’s ancient tombs, proving catacombs are not just a resting place for the dead. The two new species of bacteria found growing on the walls of the Roman tombs may help protect our cultural heritage monuments, according to research published in the September issue of the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology.
The Catacombs of Saint Callistus are part of a massive graveyard that covers 15 hectares, equivalent to more than 20 football pitches. The underground tombs were built at the end of the 2nd Century AD and were named after Pope Saint Callistus I. More than 30 popes and martyrs are buried in the catacombs.
"Bacteria can grow on the walls of these underground tombs and [continue]