Monday, 22 November 2010

Species Seekers

A Breed of their own

The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff

Financial Times, 20-21 November 2010

‘Our perfect naturalist,’ wrote the English clergyman, naturalist and novelist Charles Kingsley in 1855, “should be strong in body; able to haul a dredge, climb a rock, turn a boulder, walk all day … he should know how to swim for his life, to pull an oar, sail a boat, and ride the first horse which comes to hand; and, finally, he should be a thoroughly good shot, and a skilful fisherman; and, if he go far abroad, be able on occasion to fight for his life.’

Amid the tales of adventure and hardship vividly told by the American science writer Richard Conniff in this marvelous book, most of those naturalists who made it their mission to travel the globe in of search glory and new species were far from perfect. But as he captures the mania for collecting and cataloguing the natural world in the 18th and 19th centuries, Conniff shows that these daredevil amateurs played an invaluable ‘part in building a great and permanent body of knowledge’.

What does it mean to discover a species? Surely local people had known most of these species for many years before they were ‘discovered’. Discovery, explains Conniff, isn’t just a matter of being the first person to lay eyes on an animal, plant or insect. You must recognize that there’s something different about it and explain in print just how and why it’s different. That requires some scheme of classification.

At the beginning of the 18th century, naturalists knew only a few thousand species, and sometimes could not even distinguish plants from animals. That changed in 1735 when the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus published his system for identifying and classifying species.

Armed with the Linnaean system, guns, nets, collecting boxes and an almost missionary sense of purpose, species seekers went everywhere, from the Namib Desert to the Great Barrier Reef, and brought back creatures that even the authors of medieval bestiaries could hardly have imagined.

Naturalists were often caught up in the business of conquest and colonization, using natural history to advance their own careers and to remake the world on European lines. Yet many of us are alive today, for instance, because naturalists identified obscure species that later turned out to cause malaria, yellow fever, typhus and other epidemic diseases.

Modern species seekers still aim to catalogue every species on Earth, even though the tally is nearing 2m, and new ones are found daily. In 2003, the eminent American zoologist E. O. Wilson proposed the Encyclopedia of Life, a web-based project with a page for every species within 25 years. But as Wilson acknowledged at the time, ‘the truth is that we do not know how many species of organisms exist on Earth even to the nearest order of magnitude.’ He thought the final count would be about 10m. Others believe it could be 50m or even 100m - numbers that Conniff’s heroes and fools could not have imagined. We still live in the great age of discovery and this is the story of how it began.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Sleights of Mind

A fascinating look at a new branch of cognitive research: "neuromagic"

Sleights of Mind: What the neuroscience of magic reveals about our everyday deceptions by Stephen L Macnik, Susana Martinez-Conde and Sandra Blakeslee

New Scientist, 20 November 2010

MAGIC, it mystifies and captivates us. We shake our heads in disbelief as coins are conjured out of thin air, as cards are mysteriously summoned from a pack, and as the magician's assistant vanishes before our eyes. Of course, there is no such thing as "magic", so how does magic work? It's a question that neuroscientists like Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde are trying to answer. In the process they have conjured up a new branch of cognitive research called neuromagic.

From misdirection and the magical practice of "forcing", to mirror neurons and synaptic plasticity, Sleights of Mind is a spellbinding mix of magic and science. The authors invite us to sip this heady potion as they show us how understanding the myriad ways in which the brain is deceived by magic may solve some of the mysteries surrounding how it works.

“Magic tricks fool us because humans have hard-wired processes of attention and awareness that are hackable,” say the authors. Magicians use your mind’s intrinsic properties against you. In a magical feat of their own, the authors persuaded magicians such as James Randi and Teller from the Las Vegas headline act Penn and Teller to deconstruct tricks so that Macknik and Martinez-Conde could later attempt to reconstruct what is going on inside your head “as you are suckered”.

Magic, say the neuroscientists, could reveal how the brain functions in everyday situations such as shopping. However, it is a stretch to believe, as the authors do, that if you’ve bought an expensive item that you never intended to buy, then you were probably a victim of the “illusion of choice”, a technique magicians use to rob their dupes of genuine choice.

The magician toys with us when he appears to put a coin into his right hand, closes it, waves his left over it, and then opens the right. The coin, which we feel must still be there, has “vanished”. He makes us experience the impossible by disrupting the expected relationship between a cause and its effect.

What we see, hear, and feel is based on what we expect to see, hear and feel due to our experiences and memories. When these expectations are violated the brain takes more time to process data or our attention focuses on the violation. Success or failure for the magician relies on his skill in diverting our attention away from the method and towards the magical effect.

Great magicians, through countless hours of practice, manipulate our attention, memory and causal inferences using a bewildering combination of visual, auditory and tactile methods. The greatest magic show on earth, though, is the one happening in your brain.

Thursday, 4 November 2010


Ghost Particle

Neutrino by Frank Close

New Scientist, 6 November 2010

For a moment in the late 1920s, Niels Bohr considered the unthinkable: abandoning the notion of conservation of energy. He wasn't calling for its wholesale rejection, only that it be disregarded whenever a neutron decayed into a proton and an electron, as some energy appeared to go missing along the way.

Wolfgang Pauli, who was wont to damn poor ideas as "not even wrong", came up with a solution he called "a terrible thing" - an unknown particle to account for the missing energy. Since it had to be electrically neutral with little or no mass, it was called the neutrino, the "little neutral one".

In this short and informative book, Frank Close recalls those who had the ingenuity and patience to catch and understand this elusive particle that barely interacts with other matter. Their successors are hunting neutrinos left over from the big bang, and no one knows what story these relics will tell.