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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

An Accumulation of Errors

This week I read an article which described how Astronomers at observatory high in the Andes had for the first time visualized with their telescopes the clearest images yet available of the formation of a solar system similar to our own. In this haunting image in concentric bands of blank space are seen as the proto planets are caught in the act of clearing away from their own region of space of the vast clouds of cosmic debris. It was in a manner similar to this our own Earth came to be.

It had not always been so. Long ago in a relative instant all that was to become the universe was set in motion by a singular chain of chaotic events. In an incalculable release of energy one by one the laws of nature unfolded from the singularity to form all that we know and see.  Space itself from some infinitely small point expanded into the void. To some it may seem that our existence from that point was merely a matter of consequence. All however is not as it would seems for this planetary system in which you and I exist is anomalous to the vast majority of this violent and chaotic universe. There had been no uniform means of creation its is by laughing chance that we find ourselves here on this island of relative stability, by chance a kind of order had arisen and where the laws of nature tend to make a kind of intuitive sense. Perhaps it is due to the favorable nature that stability provides many a grand and mysterious set of circumstances have since evolved. Chief among these of course, is life itself. 

 If we examine this closely there we may be some comparative analogies drawn. Though life and consciousness have for eons continually driven from chaos the creation of temporary pockets of complexity these however hand remained in the context of time as fleeting as a spark from a flame. From a perspective within the sphere of influence of these sparks time is marked out in the scale to which we are all familiar. Entire lives are lived and generations pass and our inheritance like a string are drawn out from the past through the present into the future. This inheritance being the sole survivor of this experience exists then simultaneously in all three. The fire itself is order from disorder.
 From this chaos here in the relative calm of our stable celestial neighborhood a fragile balance has then existed for eons. It is well known that in any sufficiently complex system there the cumulative effects of entropy will over time become apparent.  In respect to the human body it is through an accumulation of errors in our genetic code where this tendency toward degradation and our own individual mortalities are made evident.

It would seem logical that through the accumulation of these errors that this process would in due course cause all to turn ultimately to dust. However this has proven to not be the case for therein a contradiction exists. During the duplication a genetic trait’s code an error on occasion will occur during the process of transcription where in an advantage in survivability can be bestowed into a line of inheritance. 

Is it thereby through this accumulation of errors that both dissolution and rebirth are mitigated?  It would seem that by these means that despite the obstacles that life muddles on in an ever evolving pageant. 


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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Parasitic Arms Race

The parasitic arms race

Though it may appear to some that we feel secure in our domination over nature it is important on occasion to recall that this was not always the case. Certainly the news of late should serve as a reminder to this. Throughout all of the kingdoms of life that have ever existed on Earth there has been an ongoing arms race the prize of which is survival. This arms race has left within each us all a lasting legacy of immunologic memory of biological battles fought well before anyone alive was ever born.

In a previous creatures log “the realms of the very small” I wrote about the microscopic creatures such as demodex that make themselves at home upon the surface of our bodies. For the most part these fellow travelers tend to cause us no harm. There are however whole legions of viruses, bacteria and parasites that are far less benign. As early man wandered around the coasts until he literally walk out of Africa into Eurasia he took with him only the parasites that came along for the journey. However there in the African cradle of human evolution there remains in the environment hosts of creatures that evolved specifically to parasitize us. 

Ebola was discovered by the outside world only in 1976. Hidden there on the fringes of man’s territory it had surely lingered for millennia. Since that time in contained remote areas in central Africa there have been limited outbreaks in which entire villages have fallen in its wake. In the decades since it has elicited within us a nascent fear. Reminiscent of all the plagues of our nightmares it kills indiscriminately as jumps from host to host.Here in the west perhaps because we live far from the region of our natural evolution we erroneously feel we have had little to fear from our ancient nemesis. However there are no more “contained areas”, for anywhere in the world is now accessible within a day’s time. As our populations swell and technology everyday makes the world a little smaller, we should abandon this notion of invincibility in the face of a very old and sophisticated enemy.
                                                      A heart effected by Chagas disease

Are we headed toward a perfect storm to which we will one day become extinct like all previous occupants of the top of the food chain throne? I would say not. The plagues that have for eons besieged our bodies are doing just as nature had evolved them to do and they have done it well. However despite this almost constant battle, along the way humans have not only survived but have thrived. Hidden within each of us transcribed within the strands of our DNA is the story of many a hard fought battle of survival. The evidence of which can be seen in the traces of parasitic bacterial and viral DNA sequences that abound intermingled with our native code. Some of these splices possibly date back to the beginnings of life on earth. These battles have undoubtedly influenced our own evolution.  Some of these subsequent adaptations may have greatly improved our survivability. However we should not fool ourselves that we should go unscathed this time. We will survive as we have done before.  This time we possess the advantage of foresight.   Armed with the latest that medical science can provide we should take the responsibility to do all we can.  We must remember while doing so to maintain a healthy respect for our enemy and an eye on our own frailty.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Green Hills Of Mars

The Green Hills of Mars

Since the earliest days of astronomy and indeed into the deep recesses of history there has remained within the human psyche an abiding desire to know what life might inhabit the worlds that share our solar system. Looking into the night sky with the naked eye upon Venus and Mars our ancestors wondered how and why these stars behaved differently than those of the background. These stars like the others of their kind in time came to be known as planets.  In our imaginations they took upon the names and characteristics of whatever local god seemed appropriate. There in the sky the planets of love and war dominated their arena in the same ways that these aspects of life dominated us. Later as notions of what it really meant to be a planet grew more mature so too did the imagery used to depict them had become.  
However in the absence of true knowledge so deep was this desire to know these unknowable places that men began in their imaginations to create visions of ornate fantasy. On these worlds fantastical realms there in existed, each populated by dragons, fairy kingdoms, and hot steamy jungles. And in the case of Mars, there even existed a worldwide system of canals. All of these were readily created to fill the void left by these knowledge gaps.  

 We now know much to our disappointment that Venus and Mars are for the time being uninhabitable. One has a shrouded atmosphere many times denser than our own with temperatures hundreds of degrees hotter than our own. And the other is a barren lifeless dessert with little if any atmosphere to speak of.  Despite how much we have learned the most basic questions have remained unanswered. Is it possible that even in these most desolate environments, can and does life exist beyond the Earth?
Let’s look at the evidence so far. We do not because of the extreme environments on Venus yet possess the technology that would make such a voyage possible. Perhaps in a future time we will make that leap. But for purely practical reasons we must focus on Mars.

                                                  Mars Then and Now 
                Credit & Copyright: 
Tom Ruen, Eugene Antoniadi, Lowell Hess,  

I’m old enough to remember references from science texts to the green seasons on mars. Maps indicting the dry and wet cycles were considered by some to be of sound theory. It was  astronomers like Schiaparelli and  Percival Lowell who in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century s  who popularized such notions. Though extrapolations on grand canals and advanced cultures had maye missed the mark had they perhaps in the world before color photography visualized a rare and anomalous greening event?

By the nineteen seventies these ideas had been firmly dismissed by science.  Imagery of Mars showing it to be the arid and cold wasteland that we know today had existed for some time.  By the time the twin Viking landers had touched down in 1976 the consensus was that Mars was a dead world. The mission would be one of confirmation rather than discovery. To their credit however a number of biological experiments were conducted.

 When the results of these experiments were released to the general pubic Mars was officially declared dead. There were however within the details contradictory results that some say  showed just the opposite. In particular the Viking biology package GEX/LR/PR designed to capture the telltale signs of chemical metabolism in soil found some interesting results. However in the absence of earth-like organic compounds these results were considered to be no more than an aberration.

Viking chemistry of life soil experiments

Since that time four rover missions have successfully touched down on the red planet. What they have discovered there along with what we now know about extremophiles on earth has been revolutionary in the field of planetary science. With the use of rovers and satellites have found conclusive evidence of past and possible current water that could be trapped below the  frozen surface. We are forced now to reevaluate and replicate those early experiments.


 1996 an announcement was released which made headlines around the world. What they discovered within  a 4-billion-year-old Martian meteorite found in Antarctica was shocking. Under microscopic examination they discovered  there what appeared to be fossilized bacteria. The excitement that followed this amazing news was however short lived as this evidence was deemed once again to be inconclusive.
 The other day I read of another discovery this time from a meteorite that struck Egypt in 1911. The article describes a find similar to those of the Allen hills discovery of 1996. In this case however structures more similar to what would be described as cellular or similar to earth biology was found. Now however because such Ideas are chastised within the scientific community they are all but ignored. I not being a scientist do not have a professional reputaion to throw away by advocating such notions.


additional reading

I could make the case that there is now sufficient evidence to place a manned mission to Mars squarely at the top of our scientific priority list. We as humans have a deep seated desire to make the discoveries that answer these questions. However in the last fifty years the arbiters of science have stalled this human urge by continually denying the possibilities on the grounds of insufficient evidence.  Currently there are grand plans on the boards at NASA yet as always they remain twenty years or more away. The unfortunate truth is there is no political will to make the commitment to use the necessary resources. Are we doomed to be a one planet species?

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The four modes 

Since before dawn of human history man, through his senses has created  imagery of himself and the spirits that populated his world.  At a lost point in history wild troupes of humans began to wander barefoot out of the wilderness for the safety of  a community.After having partially abandoning the natural  world  they then had need then to bring a sense of order or to reconcile themselves to his ever new world. There at the genesis of culture as the challenges of an changing landscape grew in complexity abstract ideas
had need to develop.

Its a difficult thing to keep one's outlook on the world fresh as it was in youth. This is why we are drawn to imagery, words, sound, and motion. The four modes to which biology translates the outside world into our thoughts from our senses. In a previous post I noted how in art  there is little hope in capturing anything close to a simulacrum of an experience. Despite this being any artists abiding dream I still believe it to be true. It however may never have been the point of art in the first place. Could it be rather the exercise itself or the discovery of a new manner of seeing to which we are moved? Serendipity or a happy accident could this be from where original thought springs forth? There an all seeing subconscious that never sleeps and a biological system sifting through reams of input are combined to create a new "vision".

Göbekli Tepe

Our ancestors looked to these four modes as a means of bringing flesh to ideas that had no natural equivalence. weather it be the beating of a drum to capture a fleeting rhythm or a line to define the  edge of a real or an imaginary form. Even it today's world where serious discourse is dominated by scientific ideas there remains a desire to pull from the realm of perception something more. So perhaps the artist as modern day shaman can lead us out of the wilderness to a new landscape.

So in this spirit I have conducted a little experiment. Please forgive me however despite my intentions I suspect the following to be a bit pretentious.;pageID=3117953744996442538;onPublishedMenu=pages;onClosedMenu=pages;postNum=0;src=pagename

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The realms of the very small

What we consider to be subjective reality is often determined by the scale in which the subject is observed. Take for example the relative strength of a puny ant compared to the most powerful human weight lifter, there is just no comparison the ant wins every time. While driving out west large mountains can appear small at a distance. Growing larger over many hours their true mass is discovered.

In my last post I discussed the leaps in evolution that were required to reach the point at which we now find ourselves.  I described how simple two dimensional single celled organisms had for the benefit of their species joined together to make a play at a three dimensional world and in doing so had become a whole greater than its parts.

 Part and parcel to this transformation would be the sense of individuality that is afforded by this type of existence. This notion of individuality however when looked at from the perspective of the very small becomes less clear. On these scales there is another world in which we inhabit, to which none of us are ever truly conscious to. There we are forced to discover that we did not wholly abandon the world of the microscopic. On these scales the tissues and organs of our bodies begin to resemble tiny machines and factories. Within our bodies thousands of these mechanisms work continuously to keep us alive by producing energy, repairing and replacing cells, and defending itself from foreign invaders.

                              Meet my organism

That’s where my organism comes in. I would introduce you to it however it has no name. But then again he doesn't need one. Its true shape is hidden beneath a mass of skin supported in an erect position by a bony frame of skeleton. It interacts with the world in much the same way as a mollusk tasting and feeling its way about.  I envision it to be akin to a six foot worm. To this worm as a child my consciousness was grafted. Each year as I grew older toward adult hood less and less off its original nature was evident to my fledgling mind. Now in a mature state it rules the world of my subconscious warning me of danger and thirst, and oddly precognizant of things in a way I can’t understand. This organism exists in the world of the microorganism where it fights everyday for survival against hosts of foreign aggressors. These aggressors are made up of the greater biome that surrounds us.  It is also from this world where arises our primitive drives and emotion that many of us spend a lifetime attempting to master. Though we may have conquered the façade of the macro world there seems to be a constant struggle within the micro world which we can never win. The truth however may be more surprising for in fact we for a long time have reached a kind of Symbiotic equilibrium with our tiny friends.


This week the below referenced articles caught my attention and started me thinking along these lines. In the article it referenced in brief a study that described how closely intertwined we are biologically in relation to the world around us.  

The article goes on to describe how our personal biomes are made up of organisms that are highly specific to our own bodies and households and distinct from others. It is well known that these organisms live upon and within our bodies in numbers that far exceed those of our own native human cells. So vast in number are these cells they behave as a benign cloud of life colonizing every environmental niche our bodies come in contact with. These organisms are highly mobile they go where we go. So pervasive are they that within hours of checking into a hotel our own individual biomes will replace those of the previous occupants. In the future because of the highly specific nature that each of our biomes possess it may one day be possible to develop new identification tools akin to fingerprinting. One day these may even prove more reliable than the current standard DNA sequencing.

                                         The secret life of Insects

Scale it up a bit to the level where limbs and appendages take shape. There on these scales just below our ability to distinguish them, hosts of tiny creatures inhabit our skin hair and nails tagging along for a ride. These creatures are just small enough to go unseen yet under a microscope they are familiar enough to be recognized as animals. These tiny creatures since the dawn of time have been evolving along side us on a parallel course. Evolution has ensured that we are exceedingly well suited at acting the part of a host for these happy critters. Whether we like it or not, like the hosts of animals that survive on the fringes of our society we have come to a state of equilibrium with these benign travelers. Spiders, rats, and roaches however that's another story entirely.

Alvin Davison, Practical Zoology (New York: American Book Company, 1906) 131

Monday, August 25, 2014

Ignore for the moment, the incessant call of the doomsday naysayers.

 I will admit that I do enjoy the role of the devil’s advocate. I do it so often that I do it without consciously thinking about it. It’s kind of a verbal exercise in which I make statements concerning things that are at the same time both factual and not entirely true. The goal of the exchange is to elicit a response an then perhaps  friendly debate.

 Last weak  as I was preparing to be away for several days, I had need to communicate some last minute instructions to my coworkers. After having written a fairly complex set of instruction to one particular coworker via email I asked if there were any questions I could answer before I go. In response Dana who sits beside me in the next cubicle posed a question. “What does it all mean?” To which I answered automatically, “To consume and to be in turn consumed”.  She responded with her usual sarcastic tone. “What about love?” I must admit I was uncharacteristically caught off guard.

 Days later while sitting in my beach chair by the Jersey shore my mind wandered back to this question. Gazing out along the black rock jetty I imaged a long ago time when life as we now know it began to flourish. Encrusted there upon a craggy spring-tide edge a rusting patina of bio-film held precariously. In those hard times had spontaneously arisen a fundament of a body.


              Roland Thaxter - Thaxter, R. Botanical Gazette 17(12):389-406 (1892

 Cells had differentiated perhaps by accident preserving resources in the process. Cells over generations continued to specialize in myriad experimental expression. In the process blind alleys and dead ends would be exposed and eliminated by natural selection. After a near infinity of trial and error a configuration akin to a system of tissues was achieved. A fruiting body  would then rise to perchance preserve its fragile survival until the hard times had passed. In Parallel we too must survive the rigors of this world. We however through the lenses of everyday life tend to be blind to the struggle.


 Animals have been documented by science to possess many amazing senses and abilities that far outpace our own. Our brains it would seem had needed to reorganize with nature selecting to replace or abandoning others deemed less valuable survival mechanisms. Through some chance genetic bottle neck the landscapes of our minds were altered. A race in tune with the well fare of its kind created a new way of life in which we could sense for the first time our essential oneness with others. 


Valuable senses were lost in the process. Dull to the world around us we are surrounded instead by a ring of family bound by love. It was perhaps on the edge of a sea not unlike this one where our ancient ancestors were busily collecting crab and fish first felt these budding emotions. They in time would become so tightly bound to our new way of life that they became integral to it. It was then that to protect and care for each other went from a weakness to strength.

In the breadth of time on Earth in which life has existed what we think of as purely human emotions are relative newcomers. In comparison within the billions of years prior to the advent of our line life’s only goal was survival.  The first order of life did so by, consuming the abundant chemical and solar energies that were so readily available. As competition grew fierce an arms race was triggered in which it was far more economical to let someone else do their work of collecting energy for them. This way of life persisted as the primary mode of existence onward up until the end of the last ice age.

If you imagine these ephemeral ideas such as the emotion of love as being creations of the sentient mind or recognized from the primordial wellspring, either way these notions are new to us. So why then do we insist on placing them squarely at the top of our existential spectrum? It is I think not merely the fact that this is a human-centric world. Can it be that simple that the desire to love and be loved merely a mechanism through which we by extension increase our genetic survivability? By recognizing the essential oneness with those of our kind we have gained a powerful tool that allows us to more easily able to share and exploit common resources. Enhanced over millennia there traits have been ingrained into every aspect of culture. When all is said and done the equation To consume and to be in turn consumed, still rings true. It is also true however that Together we survive and alone we perish.

When looking out upon the roiling sea I am reminded of when in my days of youth how complex it all seemed. Through the eyes of a young artist I was obsessed with trying to capture in graphic form what I was experiencing. With my limited abilities I could not achieve anything approaching a facsimile of experience. It would take me a few years of trying before I realized that such a feat was unachievable. 

Our experience of the natural world through our senses has been altered to where we can only reference it through abstract patterns. We must infer meaning of imagery through the sieve of the mental and cultural images we have already created. This is the nature of Art and this is why it is so important to us. It is our nature then to weave from these emotions a landscape of connections.  Despite the incessant call of the doomsday naysayers there is one unavoidable fact. Never before in all of the history of our species have we lived in an age of such abundance. Take a moment now and again take note of it.