From the New York Times-bestselling author of How Not to Be Wrong, himself a world-class geometer, a far-ranging exploration of the power of geometry, which turns out to help us think better about practically everything
How should a democracy choose its representatives? How can you stop a pandemic from sweeping the world? How do computers learn to play chess, and why is learning chess so much easier for them than learning to read a sentence? Can ancient Greek proportions predict the stock market? (Sorry, no.) What should your kids learn in school if they really want to learn to think? All these are questions about geometry.
For real. If you're like most people, geometry is a sterile and dimly-remembered exercise you gladly left behind in the dust of 9th grade, along with your braces and active romantic interest in pop singers. If you recall any of it, it's plodding through a series of miniscule steps, only to prove some fact about triangles that was obvious to you in the first place. That's not geometry. OK, it is geometry, but only a tiny part, a border section that has as much to do with geometry in all its flush modern richness as conjugating a verb has to do with a great novel.
Shape reveals the geometry underneath some of the most important scientific, political, and philosophical problems we face. Geometry asks: where are things? Which things are near each other? How can you get from one thing to another thing? Those are important questions. The word geometry, from the Greek, has the rather grand meaning of measuring the world. If anything, that's an undersell. Geometry doesn't just measure the world - it explains it. Shape shows us how.
This book is a further contribution to the series Cambridge Studies in Philosophy and Biology. It is an ambitious attempt to explain the relationship between intelligence and environmental complexity, and in so doing to link philosophy of mind to more general issues about the relations between organisms and environments, and to the general pattern of "externalist" explanations. This is a highly original philosophical project that will appeal to a broad swath of philosophers, especially those working in the philosophy of biology, philosophy of mind, and epistemology.
Dip below the ocean's surface and you are soon confronted by forms of life that could not seem more foreign to our own: sea sponges, soft corals, and serpulid worms, whose rooted bodies, intricate geometry, and flower-like appendages are more reminiscent of plant life or even architecture than anything recognizably animal. Yet these creatures are our cousins. As fellow members of the animal kingdom--the Metazoa--they can teach us much about the evolutionary origins of not only our bodies, but also our minds.
In his acclaimed 2016 book, Other Minds, the philosopher and scuba diver Peter Godfrey-Smith explored the mind of the octopus--the closest thing to an intelligent alien on Earth. In Metazoa, Godfrey-Smith expands his inquiry to animals at large, investigating the evolution of subjective experience with the assistance of far-flung species. As he delves into what it feels like to perceive and interact with the world as other life-forms do, Godfrey-Smith shows that the appearance of the animal body well over half a billion years ago was a profound innovation that set life upon a new path. In accessible, riveting prose, he charts the ways that subsequent evolutionary developments--eyes that track, for example, and bodies that move through and manipulate the environment--shaped the subjective lives of animals. Following the evolutionary paths of a glass sponge, soft coral, banded shrimp, octopus, and fish, then moving onto land and the world of insects, birds, and primates like ourselves, Metazoa gathers their stories together in a way that bridges the gap between mind and matter, addressing one of the most vexing philosophical problems: that of consciousness.
Combining vivid animal encounters with philosophical reflections and the latest news from biology, Metazoa reveals that even in our high-tech, AI-driven times, there is no understanding our minds without understanding nerves, muscles, and active bodies. The story that results is as rich and vibrant as life itself.
The ingredients for reactions ancestral to metabolism could have formed very easily in the primordial soup, new work suggests.
they found that the glyoxylate and pyruvate reacted to make a range of compounds that included chemical analogues to all the intermediary products in the TCA cycle except for citric acid. Moreover, these products all formed in water within a single reaction vessel, at temperatures and pH conditions mild enough to be compatible with conditions on Earth. ❧
Annotated on October 13, 2020 at 10:20PM
The Society for Mathematical Biology - e-Conference 2020.
August 17 - 20, 2020
That many songbirds sing their songs over and over again in an effort to master them before performing in front of potential mates is well known. What has remained less clear is whether they also practise the visual displays that they often use alongside their songs. Research published this week in Royal Society Open Science reveals that they do. The team studied male Java sparrows that dance with bounces and make wiping motions with their bills in an effort to convince females to mate with them. The researchers watched the males in captivity and found that they repeatedly practised dancing early in life in front of their mothers and fathers long before they were ready to breed. While their moves were not particularly good at the start, all males dramatically improved over time, suggesting that the parents may well be providing valuable feedback, and that awkward adolescent dancing may extend beyond Homo sapiens.
The ladybug bloom appears to be about 80 miles by 80 miles, but the ladybugs aren’t in a concentrated mass that size; they’re spread throughout the sky.
How do we come up with ideas? How do we make decisions? And how can we do both better? Steven Johnson has explored this question and written a dozen books about it. In this playful, thoughtful episode, Steven has some fascinating stories, like how Darwin made the decision to get married — or how a defecating duck helped lead to the invention of the computer. Through their own stories, Steven and Alan Alda share their thoughts about the transformative nature of ideas and what sort of environments best give rise to creativity.
The commercial about Alda Communication Training makes me wonder if they recommend scientists and communicators have their own websites? In particular, I’m even more curious because of Johnson’s mention of his commonplace book and how he uses it in this episode. I suspect that scientists having a variety of interconnecting commonplaces (via Webmention) using basic IndieWeb or A Domain of One’s Own principles could better create slow hunches, create more links, increase creativity and diversity, and foster greater innovation. I’ll have to follow up on this idea. While some may do something slightly like this within other parts of social media, I don’t get the impression that it’s as useful a tool in those places (isn’t as searchable or permanent feeling, and is likely rarely reviewed over). Being able to own your digital commonplace as a regular tool certainly has more value as Johnson describes. Functionality like On This Day dramatically increases its value.
But there’s another point that we should make more often, I think, which is that one of the most robust findings in the social sciences and psychology over the last 20 years is that diverse groups are just collectively smarter and more original in the way that they think in, in both their way of dreaming up new ideas, but also in making complicated decisions, that they avoid all the problems of group think and homogeneity that you get when you have a group of like minded people together who are just amplifying each other’s beliefs.—Steven Johnson [00:09:59]
Think about a big decision in your life. Think about the age span of the people you’re talking to about that choice. Are they all your peers within three or four years? Are you talking somebody who’s a generation older and a generation younger?—Steven Johnson [00:13:24]
I was talking to Ramzi Hajj yesterday about having mentors (with a clear emphasis on that mentor being specifically older) and this quote is the same sentiment, just with a slightly different emphasis.
One of the things that is most predictive of a species, including most famously, humans, of their capacity for innovation and problem solving as an adult is how much they play as a newborn or as a child.—Steven Johnson [00:28:10]
Play is important for problem solving.
I think you boil this all down into the idea that if you want to know what the next big thing is, look for where people are having fun.—Alan Alda [00:31:35]
This is interesting because I notice that one of the binding (and even physically stated) principles of the IndieWeb is to have fun. Unconsciously, it’s one of the reasons I’ve always thought that what the group is doing is so important.
Ha! Alda has also been watching Shtisel recently [00:50:04].
The only that will make you feel better every time you use it.
Nice tangential mention of IndieWeb hiding in here too.
Spoiler: Migration is hard.
In his new book, the renowned ethnologist argues that emotions are key to understanding both human and animal behavior.
In 1964 Quastler's book The Emergence of Biological Organization was published posthumously. In 2002, Harold J. Morowitz described it as a "remarkably prescient book" which is "surprisingly contemporary in outlook". In it Quastler pioneers a theory of emergence, developing model of "a series of emergences from probionts to prokaryotes".
The work is based on lectures given by Quastler during the spring term of 1963, when he was Visiting Professor of Theoretical Biology at Yale University. In these lectures Quastler argued that the formation of single-stranded polynucleotides was well within the limits of probability of what could have occurred during the pre-biologic period of the Earth. However, he noted that polymerization of a single-stranded polymer from mononucleotides is slow, and its hydrolysis is fast; therefore in a closed system consisting only of mononucleotides and their single-stranded polymers, only a small fraction of the available molecules will be polymerized. However, a single-stranded polymer may form a double-stranded one by complementary polymerization, using a single-stranded polynucleotide as a template. Such a process is relatively fast and the resulting double-stranded polynucleotide is much more stable than the single single-stranded one since each monomer is bound not only along the sugar phosphate backbone, but also through inter-strand bonding between the bases.
The capability for self-replication, a fundamental feature of life, emerged when double-stranded polynucleotides disassociated into single-stranded ones and each of these served as a template for synthesis of a complementary strand, producing two double-stranded copies. Such a system is mutable since random changes of individual bases may occur and be propagated. Individual replicators with different nucleotide sequences may also compete with each other for nucleotide precursors. Mutations that influence the folding state of polynucleotides may affect the ratio of association of strands to dissociation and thus the ability to replicate. The folding state would also affect the stability of the molecule. These ideas were then developed to speculate on the emergence of genetic information, protein synthesis and other general features of life.
Lily E. Kay says that Quastler's works "are an illuminating example of a well reasoned epistemic quest and a curious disciplinary failure". Quastler's aspiration to create an information based biology was innovative, but his work was "plagued by problems: outdated data, unwarranted assumptions, some dubious numerology, and, most importantly, an inability to generate an experimental agenda." However Quastler's "discursive framework" survived.
Forty-five years after Quastler's 1964 proposal, Lincoln and Joyce described a cross-catalytic system that involves two RNA enzymes (ribosymes) that catalyze each other's synthesis from a total of four component substrates. This synthesis occurred in the absence of protein and could provide the basis for an artificial genetic system.
Should arrive some time between March 13 – March 25.
I suspect based on the Wikipedia article for Quastler that this may also be the same book as the slightly differently titled Essays on the Use of Information Theory in Biology. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1953). There’s also a 1955 review of the text with this name available as well.
Google uses the first title with 273 pages and the Symposium text specifically cites Information Theory in Biology as the correct title several times.
The tough part seems to be that there are very few copies available online and the ones that are are certainly used, in poor condition, and priced at $100+. Ugh…