Tag Biology

Mix CD | Birdsongs/Songbirds

Some friends of mine commissioned a 60th birthday gift for their father, an avid birdwatcher. The three-disc set featured 60 songs about 60 bird species.

HIV, by Luke Jerram

Nearly all the images we see of viruses use false coloration, either for illustrative or aesthetic purposes. Glass sculptor Luke Jerram makes clear, colorless models of viruses and bacteria, working in consultation with microbiologests and under the glass-given physical constraints of gravity and fragility. The resulting works (including all the big names: E. coli, swine flu, Ebola, smallpox, and HIV) are stunning and sobering. Jerret’s website quotes a note he received from an unnamed viewer: “I just saw a photo of your glass sculpture of HIV. I can’t stop looking at it. Knowing that millions of those guys are in me, and will be a part of me for the rest of my life. Your sculpture, even as a photo, has made HIV much more real for me than any photo or illustration I’ve ever seen. It’s a very odd feeling seeing my enemy, and the eventual likely cause of my death, and finding it so beautiful.”


HIV,” 22cm, from the sculpture series Glass Microbiology, by Luke Jerram Smithfield Gallery, London, 22 September–9 October 2009 :: via Freakonomics Blog

Originally published at culture-making.com.

The out-of-left-field kind of science

The newly-appointed head of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the richest privately endowed funding agency in the US, on how in terms of productive scientific creativity, small efforts of passion may contribute more than better-funded and -planned big projects. (Which is not to say, I’d assume, that a given passion project is more likely to succeed; just that the successful project is often one driven by passion).

It’s hard to be sure whether the big science projects — which can take a significant percentage of the funding from the NIH, for example — are ultimately going to be as productive as typical investigator-initiated science projects. My own view is that what’s consistently propelled American scientific success has been individual, investigator-initiated science projects. I don’t imagine that will change too much. That’s not to say that the larger projects — for example, the genome-sequencing projects — are not worth it. Obviously, some of them are. Some people will be motivated by pursuing the X Prize to try things that they never would have done otherwise. A certain number of these catalytic events are really worth it. But I tend to favor the creative and individually masterminded, out-of-left-field kind of science, which often ends up being the most transformative. I’m confident that much of the truly original ideas come from people doing things that they are passionate about and then stumbling onto something completely unexpected. Certainly, the biological field is strewn with examples of great discoveries — absolutely revolutionary discoveries — that came out of seemingly trivial things. It’s not very often that big science leads you to true innovation in the sense of novel discoveries.

from “Questions for Robert Tjian,” by Greg Boustead, seedmagazine.com, 16 November 2008

Originally published at culture-making.com.

The dignity of plants

I think this is getting at something important, though perhaps from the wrong angle. I feel like the dignity of plants (and, I think more usefully, that of landscapes and ecosystems) can only have meaning when you approach it with a view towards relationships: creation/creator, creation/cultivator. The relationship, not the plant, is what has or can be denied dignity. Two other notes: I don’t think the “interference with the plant’s ability to reproduce” is a great litmus test in any case, since most domesticated plants have lost the ability to make it without human help (and we with their help). And finally, fittingly, it’s worth remembering that Switzerland was the setting for Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, that great and terrible tale of a creator’s failure to love his creature.

For years, Swiss scientists have blithely created genetically modified rice, corn and apples. But did they ever stop to consider just how humiliating such experiments may be to plants?

That’s a question they must now ask. Last spring, this small Alpine nation began mandating that geneticists conduct their research without trampling on a plant’s dignity.

“Unfortunately, we have to take it seriously,” Beat Keller, a molecular biologist at the University of Zurich. “It’s one more constraint on doing genetic research.”

Dr. Keller recently sought government permission to do a field trial of genetically modified wheat that has been bred to resist a fungus. He first had to debate the finer points of plant dignity with university ethicists. Then, in a written application to the government, he tried to explain why the planned trial wouldn’t “disturb the vital functions or lifestyle” of the plants. He eventually got the green light.

The rule, based on a constitutional amendment, came into being after the Swiss Parliament asked a panel of philosophers, lawyers, geneticists and theologians to establish the meaning of flora’s dignity.

“We couldn’t start laughing and tell the government we’re not going to do anything about it,” says Markus Schefer, a member of the ethics panel and a professor of law at the University of Basel. “The constitution requires it.”

In April, the team published a 22-page treatise on “the moral consideration of plants for their own sake.” It stated that vegetation has an inherent value and that it is immoral to arbitrarily harm plants by, say, “decapitation of wildflowers at the roadside without rational reason.”

On the question of genetic modification, most of the panel argued that the dignity of plants could be safeguarded “as long as their independence, i.e., reproductive ability and adaptive ability, are ensured.” In other words: It’s wrong to genetically alter a plant and render it sterile.

Originally published at culture-making.com.

Doing science in the open

A challenge to the culture of peer-reviewed scientific authority (and secrecy). Not surprisingly, the traditionalists don’t think this premature openness is such a good idea, partly because of how it might change the way scientists work with (and against!) each other—but perhaps more, due to its potential effects on how “Science” and scientists interact with the broader public.

Barry Canton, a 28-year-old biological engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has posted raw scientific data, his thesis proposal, and original research ideas on an online website for all to see.

To young people primed for openness by the confessional existence they live online, that may not seem like a big deal. But in the world of science—where promotions, tenure, and fortune rest on publishing papers in prestigious journals, securing competitive grants, and patenting discoveries—it’s a brazen, potentially self-destructive move. To many scientists, leaving unfinished work and ideas in the open seems as reckless as leaving your debit card and password at a busy ATM machine.

Canton is part of a peaceful insurgency in science that is beginning to pry open an endeavor that still communicates its cutting-edge discoveries in much the same way it has since Ben Franklin was experimenting with lightning. Papers are published in research journals after being reviewed by specialists to ensure that the methods and conclusions are sound, a process that can take many months.

“We’re a generation who expects all information is a Google search away,” Canton said. “Not only is it a Google search away, but it’s also released immediately. As soon as it happens, the video is up on YouTube and on all the blogs. The old model feels kind of crazy when you’re used to this instant information.”

from “Out in the open: Some scientists sharing results,” by Carolyn Y. Johnson, Boston Globe, 21 August 2008

Originally published at culture-making.com.

“Biology #1” by Brian Dettmer

I like the tension between destroying the book and revealing its contents — it’s fun to think of all the images hidden in so many books on my own shelves.


“Biology #1,” carved textbook, by Brian Dettmer, from the show “Book Work: Dissections and Excavations,” at Aron Packer Gallery, Chicago :: via wood s lot

Originally published at culture-making.com.

Mix CD | Entomology

Wimbo Zuri Catalog No. 018.1A05-1

Created for an evolutionary biologist, each track on this mix is matched with a taxonomical order of insects. The fifteen songs on this disc cover half the orders. For the fifteen less-sung-about orders (including thrips, springtails, caddisflies, walkingsticks, etc.) I composed a single song that covered them all, which I put onto a bonus disc.

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