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When I was a child, the great blue whale was the attraction I most looked forward to seeing at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Now my grandchildren look forward to it.

But in an article on the website called Seeker about how the whale gets cleaned every year, I learned that the model I saw was not anatomically correct.

“The original model was based on measurements taken by American Museum of Natural History scientists in the 1920s. The measurements were of a dead female blue whale captured by a whaling station in the southern Atlantic, and although the artists who crafted the whale followed the original records, there were anatomical inaccuracies, likely because the whale that the scientists examined was already decaying. …

” ‘It was the wrong color. It had bulging eyes, probably due to decomposition,’ [Melanie Stiassny, curator for the Department of Ichthyology] said. In 2001, artists adjusted the body color and flattened the whale’s eyes, also adding a navel that had originally been omitted.

“Today, the [whale] resembles living blue whales more closely than before. However, while scientists’ knowledge of blue whales has certainly improved, there is still much about these giants that remains elusive.

” ‘We still don’t know how many blue whales are out there,’ Stiassny said. ‘We don’t know exactly where they go to breed. They still remain one of the great mysteries of the ocean.’ ”

More at Seeker.

Art: Richard Ellis

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Our friend Mika is back in Hokkaido these days, after several years in New York working in restaurants and perfecting her “house” dancing. But every once in a while she ventures out to help on a street art project. Here is her friend Florence Blanchard’s mural for CBM Network (Crossing Biological Membranes) at the University of Sheffield in England.

At her WordPress site, Florence explains what the art represents, “I am delighted to present my newest mural here – a collaboration with CBMNet at the University Of Sheffield, in conjunction with Festival Of The Mind 2016 / Fear of the Unseen: Engineering Good Bacteria.

“The ‘Crossing Biological Membranes Network’ is composed of scientists working to understand the mechanisms by which substances are transported into, within, and out of cells. Their ultimate aim is to produce knowledge which will enable the development of new technologies in the Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy sector (eg: producing biofuels using E coli bacteria).

“My role in this collaboration has been to translate the CBMNet area of work into a large outdoor mural located within the university campus. For this occasion I have presented my interpretation of a detail of a cell membrane as seen under an electron microscope, having undergone a cryofracture.

“A cryofracture is a procedure in which the sample is frozen quickly and then  broken with a sharp blow so you are able to study its structure in very close detail – Imagine breaking a bar of chocolate with hazelnuts, this way you can see how hazelnuts are positioned inside the bar.”

“For an online animation of a biomembrane cryofracture follow this link: http://www.sciencephoto.com/media/530082/view.”

Check out the WordPress post.

Photo: Florence Ema Blanchard
Blanchard’s street art is tied to a scientific quest: “Engineering Good Bacteria.”

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Art: Maurice Sendak
From
Kenny’s Window, Sendak’s first children’s book

Maria Popova recently posted about the importance of play, commencing her review of Diane Ackerman’s book Deep Play with an anecdote from her own life.

“One July morning during a research trip to the small New England island of Nantucket, home to pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell, I had a most unusual experience.

“Midway through my daily swim in the ocean, my peripheral vision was drawn to what at first appeared to be a snorkel. But as I looked directly at the curious protrusion, I realized it was the long glistening neck of a stately bird, gliding over the nearly waveless surface a few away.

“By some irresistible instinct, I began swimming gently toward the bird, assuming it would fly away whenever my proximity became too uncomfortable.

“But it didn’t. Instead, it allowed my approach — for it was deliberate permission that this majestic bird gave me, first assessing me with a calm but cautious eye, then choosing not to lift off or even change course as this large ungraceful mammal drew near. I came so close that I could see my own reflection in the bird’s eye, now regarding me with what I took to be — or, perhaps, projected to be — a silent benevolence. …

“In this small act ablaze with absolute presence, I felt I had been granted access to something enormous and eternal.

“The experience was so intensely invigorating in part because it was wholly new to me, but it is far from uncommon. It belongs to the spectrum of experience which Diane Ackerman, one of the greatest science storytellers of our time, describes in Deep Play … a bewitching inquiry into those moods colored by ‘a combination of clarity, wild enthusiasm, saturation in the moment, and wonder,’ which render us in a state of ‘waking trance.’ …

The more an animal needs to learn in order to survive, the more it needs to play … What we call intelligence … may not be life’s pinnacle at all, but simply one mode of knowing, one we happen to master and cherish. Play is widespread among animals because it invites problem-solving, allowing a creature to test its limits and develop strategies. In a dangerous world, where dramas change daily, survival belongs to the agile not the idle. We may think of play as optional, a casual activity. But play is fundamental to evolution. Without play, humans and many other animals would perish. …

“It is hardly happenstance,” adds Popova, “that the word ‘play’ was central to how Einstein thought of the secret to his genius — he used the term ‘combinatory play’ to describe how his mind works. Ackerman considers what it is that makes play so psychologically fruitful and alluring to us …

Above all, play requires freedom. One chooses to play. Play’s rules may be enforced, but play is not like life’s other dramas. It happens outside ordinary life, and it requires freedom.

More.

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You never know what you will pick up from twitter. I started following Ferguson Library tweets after the death of Michael Brown. The library has wonderful tidbits about books, among other topics.

A tweeted tidbit on the antiquity of fairy tales is from Science magazine.

David Shultz writes, “A new study, which treats these fables like an evolving species, finds that some may have originated as long as 6000 years ago.

“The basis for the new study, published in Royal Society Open Science, is a massive online repository of more than 2000 distinct tales from different Indo-European cultures known as the Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index, which was compiled in 2004. Although not all researchers agree on the specifics, all modern Indo-European cultures (encompassing all of Europe and much of Asia) descended from the Proto-Indo-European people who lived during the Neolithic Period (10,200 B.C.E.–2000 B.C.E.) in Eastern Europe. Much of the world’s modern language is thought to have evolved from them.

“To conduct the study, Jamshid Tehrani, an anthropologist at Durham University in the United Kingdom, and colleagues scanned the repository. They limited their analysis to tales that contained magic and supernatural elements because this category contained nearly all the famous tales people are familiar with. This narrowed the sample size to 275 stories, including classics such as Hansel and Gretel and Beauty and the Beast. …

“Tehrani says that the successful fairy tales may persist because they’re ‘minimally counterintuitive narratives.’ That means they all contain some cognitively dissonant elements—like fantastic creatures or magic—but are mostly easy to comprehend.

“Beauty and the Beast, for example contains a man who has been magically transformed into a hideous creature, but it also tells a simple story about family, romance, and not judging people based on appearance. The fantasy makes these tales stand out, but the ordinary elements make them easy to understand and remember. This combination of strange, but not too strange, Tehrani says, may be the key to their persistence across millennia.”

More.

(from a Ferguson Library tweet)

An illustration of Beauty and the Beast from 1913.

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It’s amazing what mysterious creatures scientists find in the fossil records of life on our planet. Jonathan Webb describes one such creature at the BBC.

“A 430 million-year-old sea creature apparently dragged its offspring around on strings like kites — a baffling habit not seen anywhere else in the animal kingdom.

“Scientists who discovered the fossil have dubbed it the ‘kite runner.’ Ten capsules tethered to its back appear to contain juvenile progeny, all at different stages of development.

“Reported in the journal PNAS, the many-legged, eyeless, 1 centimeter [fossil] was dug up from a site in Herefordshire before being taken to Oxford and computerised. This process involved grinding away the specimen, slice by slice, and photographing each of those sections to assemble a 3D reconstruction. …

” ‘You take its anatomy, code it into a data set and then run probabilistic methods on it, which will tell you how likely it is that something evolved in a particular way,’ [David Legg, a palaeontologist from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History,] explained. …

” ‘Nothing is known today that attaches the young by threads to its upper surface,’ said co-author Derek Briggs, from Yale University. …

“It was the variety of shapes seen among the 10 tethered babies that Dr Legg found most convincing. ‘We see them develop and begin to resemble the adult form more and more, as they get bigger,’ he said. ‘I’m definitely convinced that that’s what they were.’ ”

More at the BBC, here.

Photo: D Briggs/D Siveter/ Sutton/D Legg
This tiny, eyeless fossil creature, unrelated to any living species, carried babies in capsules tethered to its back.

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Here’s a recent story about how fungi, of all things, may be affecting global warming.

From ScienceDaily: “Microscopic fungi that live in plants’ roots play a major role in the storage and release of carbon from the soil into the atmosphere, according to a University of Texas at Austin researcher and his colleagues at Boston University and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. The role of these fungi is currently unaccounted for in global climate models. Some types of symbiotic fungi can lead to 70 percent more carbon stored in the soil.

” ‘Natural fluxes of carbon between the land and atmosphere are enormous and play a crucial role in regulating the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and, in turn, Earth’s climate,’ said Colin Averill, lead author on the study and graduate student in the College of Natural Sciences at UT Austin. …

“Soil contains more carbon than both the atmosphere and vegetation combined, so predictions about future climate depend on a solid understanding of how carbon cycles between the land and air.

“Plants remove carbon from the atmosphere during photosynthesis in the form of carbon dioxide. Eventually the plant dies, sheds leaves, or loses a branch or two, and that carbon is added to the soil. The carbon remains locked away in the soil until the remains of the plant decompose, when soil-dwelling microbes feast on the dead plant matter and other organic detritus. That releases carbon back into the air. …

“Where plants partner with [ecto- and ericoid mycorrhizal] (EEM) fungi, the soil contains 70 percent more carbon per unit of nitrogen than in locales where [other] fungi are the norm. The EEM fungi allow the plants to compete with the microbes for available nitrogen, thus

reducing the amount of decomposition and lowering the amount of carbon released back into the atmosphere.

More.

Photo: Colin Averill
The fruiting body of a fungus associated with the roots of a Hemlock tree in Harvard Forest.

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I’m turning to Maria Popova again as she reviews a book on classic scientific illustrations for her blog.

Natural Histories: Extraordinary Rare Book Selections from the American Museum of Natural History Library … [spans] five centuries of anthropology, astronomy, earth science, paleontology, and zoology representing all seven continents. Each highlighted work is accompanied by a short essay exploring its significance, what makes it rare — scarcity, uniqueness, age, binding type, size, value, or nature of the illustrations — and its place in natural history. …

“What makes many of these illustrations particularly fascinating is that they represent a brief slice of history in the evolution of visual representation — after the advent of photography in the early 20th century, many of these lavish artistic illustrations were supplanted by photographic images, which shifted science to a much more aesthetically sterile approach to describing and depicting species.

“They’re also a heartening and enduring example of the magic that lies at the intersection of art and science as scientists not only sought out the best artists to illustrate their articles, but also versed themselves in drawing and produced exquisite artworks of their own.”

More at Brain Pickings. Hippos, crabs, owls, whales, monkeys, frogs, trilobites!

Illustration: Louis Renard (1678-1746)
Although there are coloration and anatomical errors in these drawings, all the specimens can be identified to genus, and some even to species. 

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