Tag Archives: science

bathtub prune syndrome

13 Sep

From The New York Times health beat, and via Kottke, what happens in the tub may serve a purpose:

An evolutionary neurobiologist and his co-authors examined 28 fingers wrinkled by water. They found that they all had the same pattern of unconnected channels diverging away from one another as they got more distant from the fingertips. The wrinkles allow water to drain away as fingertips are pressed to wet surfaces, creating more contact and a
better grip.

whiskey creature

19 Jul

Electron microscope image of the whiskey fungus. Photo: Caren Alpert.

The story of not just a new species, but a completely new genus of fungi, first discovered devouring the trees, street signs, and houses in the Canadian town of Lakeshore, Ontario:

The air outside a distillery warehouse smells like witch hazel and spices, with notes of candied fruit and vanilla—warm and tangy—mellow. It’s the aroma of fresh cookies cooling in the kitchen while a fancy cocktail party gets out of hand in the living room.

Wired‘s Adam Rogers writes about the black stuff radiating from the whiskey distillery and how the company’s fears had been put to rest by a team of researchers who concluded the fungus was a common environmental type, “in no way the distillery’s fault.” But, James Scott, an old-fashioned mycologist who fancied legacy knowledge instead of newer, chemistry-based ways of identifying fungus species, took a second look.

When he arrived at the warehouse, the first thing he noticed (after “the beautiful, sweet, mellow smell of aging Canadian whiskey,” he says) was the black stuff. It was everywhere—on the walls of buildings, on chain-link fences, on metal street signs, as if a battalion of Dickensian chimney sweeps had careened through town. “In the back of the property, there was an old stainless steel fermenter tank,” Scott says. “It was lying on its side, and it had this fungus growing all over it. Stainless steel!” The whole point of stainless steel is that things don’t grow on it. … Scott found the black fungus as far as a mile away from the warehouse. And the closer it was, the thicker it grew, clinging like ashy cotton candy to walls, rooftops, even garden furniture. Under a microscope, it looked to be a mè9lange of different species, but much of it was thick-walled, rough-skinned stuff he’d never seen before. It looked like poorly hewn barrels, strung together end to end.

In the lab though, the stuff just wouldn’t grow like it did in the town. He figured he knew what it wanted.

Making growth media for fungi is really just feeding them a dish they like to eat. So, on a hunch, Scott bought a bottle of Canadian Club. “I put maybe a shot of whiskey in a liter of agar and filled the petri plates with it,” Scott says. “That made it grow a hell of a lot faster.”

Eventually, Scott would discover, via a wild goose chase that led him all the way back to 1872, that this fungus had been discovered around distilleries in Cognac but that it had been mislabeled. The fungus did feed off the “angels’ share,” a winemaker’s term for the small amounts of vaporous alcohol vented during fermentation. By the end, Scott had made a major discovery and it seemed like as good a time as any to end on a high note. But he had more questions.

How did the mold use the angels’ share? A genetic analysis showed that it was only distantly related to cellar fungus, and researchers at a Department of Energy genomics lab—always looking for potential new ways to turn plants into ethanol for biofuel—added Baudoinia to their list of fungi-to-do. Physiological studies suggested that the ethanol helps the fungus produce heat-shock proteins, protective against temperature extremes, which might explain how it can survive the wide range of temperatures in habitats from Cognac to Canada to Kentucky. Even weirder, how does a fungus that’s millions of years old, older than Homo sapiens, find a near-perfect ecological niche amid stuff people have been making for only a couple of centuries?

That last is perhaps the most interesting question of all. Scott, now a tenured professor at the University of Toronto, works everyday in search of the answer.

birds as clocks, beethoven as whale

24 Feb

Clocks mentioned in a recent (possibly recycled) Radiolab episode:

Spice Clock
Clock of Birds
Flower Clock (+ Scent Calendar)

The episode is on time, specifically its relativity. Einstein knew about this, knew that time was relative, that someone moving quickly had to experience time differently than someone moving slowly. In other words, hummingbirds literally experience time at a faster rate than we do, and we experience time at a faster rate than a whale.

They mention whales first in regard to Beethoven. In what is one of the simpler but more fascinating musical experiments, a sound artist slowed Beethoven’s 9th Symphony so that it stretched an entire day; a piece that was intended for 70 minutes now lasted exactly 24 hours. It’s as if a whale had written the piece, as if time was happening altogether more slowly.

But what of the clocks mentioned above? The spice clock, the clock of birds. Those were interesting—and telling I think.

They come from Jay Griffiths, who wrote a book called A Sideways Look at Time. Before clocks were lit up, people had no idea how to tell what time it was in the dark. So someone created a spice clock. “Cinnamon for about 1 o’clock, turmeric at 2 o’clock…” You wake up, smell turmeric, and go back to sleep. It’s not time to wake up yet.

The clock of birds comes from Papua New Guinea, where certain people teach their children that it’s the morning call of the New Guinea friarbird or the hooded butcherbird—not an alarm buzzing in their ears, or a digital clock blinking 7:30 am—that will let them know it’s time to wake up and getting ready for school. Likewise, when those birds begin their afternoon calls, the kids know it’s time to go home.

The flower clock? From Carl Linnaeus, botanist, zoologist, and “father or taxonomy.” In 1751, he created a clock from a variety of flowers. “Something that blooms in the morning and then folds up, like a morning glory, would be there in the morning, then in the evening, an evening primrose would come out.”

“And connected to that,” Griffiths says, “…on the Andaman islands in the Indian Ocean, people have a scent calendar, which I found to be the most beautiful idea, because what it was is a way of describing the months by the scents of certain fruits and flowers.”

Each of these is inventive and fun to imagine, but likewise, each highlights something rather grievous in contemporary American culture. What once was a basic way of understanding and interacting with the natural world is now a novel contraption highlighted on a popular radio show.

It shouldn’t really surprise us that people could tell what time it was based on the flowers blooming, or that you could tell it’s spring by the aromas in the air. Aside from the spice clock, these are not inventions; they are incredibly natural ways to perceive time. Waking up to a bird call is little different than waking up to a sound coming from a small box next to the bed. In fact, it’s much less painful, it doesn’t require energy or plastic or take up space. Why don’t we train our children to wake to the sounds of the hooded butcherbirds any longer?

I think Griffiths does understand this. After the segment on clocks she says, “Time is everywhere in nature. One of the things I wanted to do with the book, was to say, ‘We think of time being to do with clocks,’ but in fact, for most of the world for most of history, time has been absolutely embedded in nature in some beautiful ways.”

It’s impossible to explain just how lovely Griffiths is when she speaks. Her British accent and almost giddy joy is infectious; her voice alone is reason to listen. At the very end, before the show circles back to that elongated symphony of Beethoven’s, she says something beautiful, something that, in a way, explains an earlier post:

“In prayer, in meditation, in art, and in love, actually, people lose that very fretful ticking-off sense of clock time, and what you fall into is something transcendent. All that you have to have done is loved somebody to know that, and to hold them for half an hour, and you can know that that half an hour has lasted an eternity.”

“Time standing still in a moment like that,” says host Robert Krulwich, “is like a very… swollen… now.”

“Yes! Exactly! Exactly. And in a sense, that’s when the moment meets the eternal. That is all that matters, this moment that you’re holding in your hand.”

frozen eggs, design charrettes

4 Feb

I am not, I have realized, a forward thinker. I will not be inventing the printing press, or the next overly-hyped Web phenomenon. I am instead a deep thinker. I find myself on board with new ideas, but also urging caution. Introspection. I want us to ask ourselves the tough questions.

This isn’t for the sake of nostalgic traditionalism, but rather for the good of true innovation, the necessary check to narrowly focused visionaries. After all, we tend to praise artificial solutions to our artificial problems—those caused by last generation’s artificial solutions.

I think of how many times I’ve thought this in just the last few months. Birth control is causing an ‘infertility epidemic’ so we begin freezing women’s eggs. We’re consuming exorbitant amounts of energy so Las Vegas builds its next unrepentant, conspicuous spectacle ‘sustainably.’ When will we learn to stop and think—not for the four or five hours of our design charrette—but for a length of time worthy of what is being considered?

This is what I want to do. Criticism not in service to self-congratulatory pontification, but to the depth of our various discussions—and to the long future they’ll inevitably inform.