October 08, 2010

Notes from the Ground, Benjamin R. Cohen

I didn't have time to actually read this, so this is not really a review, let alone a fair review. TIME: the early American republic, extending into the 1840s. PLACE: mostly Virginia, synechdochal for that republic. PLAYERS: the systematic farmers, and their silent interrogatory, the soil. THE ACTION: to use science to make farming a stouter support for the young nation.

Which, obviously, it did, although we also already know that it identified some problems and left them for later.

Consider the Georgic as an alternative to the Pastoral ideal. The Georgic, like the man with the stercorary himself, dreams of earning a comfortable life by hard, moral, sensible labor. (Is there a name for the urban idyll?) Still useful, still contested.

I did not finish this because I am having a field season of my own, so I was pleased to skim past this, in a discussion of the first complete map of Virginia:

Fatigue, privation, and roadless miseries are classic problems of field scientists. But to establish a viable survey system one had to acquire information from the field and incorporate it into a presentable report at the home base, a process that gave no attention to the work of the assistants, or their travails...

Find in a Library: Notes from the Ground

So wrote clew.

June 28, 2010

The Story of the Soil, Cyril G. Hopkins

I'm interested in several of the sub-themes of this book, but the story as a whole was almost unreadably dull. I will summarize, in case someone else can be saved the trouble of reading the whole thing.

Overt story: young man armed with the new soil science checks out olf tired farmland while looking for a cheap farm to put back into good heart. Meets farmers' daughter, courts her, carries her off to be a farmwife.

By line count, most of the book must be the hero reciting tables of soil nutrient content and plant nutrient use... table after table after table of values measured east of the Mississippi. He is mostly speaking to a family of Southern farmers (Virginia?), who are suffering genteel poverty not just because of the waw, but because their land has 'worn out', as it does. The hero explains the need for additional nitrogen, and the inadequacy of merely recycling animal manures, and the use of clover; and winds up worrying about the long-term national need to maintain stocks of phosphorus. All of this startles me as evidence that we've known for yonks, since much much earlier than any of our conservation laws, that we were running agriculture on a literally unsustainable basis; and even why; but it's always the next generation's problem.

The other half of the plot is the rapprochement of the North and the South, mostly by admiring Southern women and vilifying or pitying blacks. I think the race descriptions are trying to be as generous to blacks as they can without losing a white Southern audience, but they're pretty awful all the same.

Project Gutenberg: The Story of the Soil

So wrote clew.

May 10, 2010

The evolution of prose

Nature Methods just published a paper that uses careful descriptions of grimaces, e.g. "the eyes close and the area around them tightens", which were originally developed to estimate pain in infants, to calibrate pain in mice. (We want to know how much what we're doing to them hurts, often because we're testing painkillers.) This is (explicitly) a followup to one of Charles Darwin's books, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. The modern version of that is the "Mouse Grimace Scale (MGS)": sparing of text, chary of assertion.

Langford et al. say "there has been no study of facial expressions of pain in any nonhuman species." In 130 years! (but there is a 2003 conference volume on the expression of animal emotions.) Of course, we spent a lot of the intervening time refusing to believe even that infants could feel pain, and had to back into the admission that animals can. I suppose we went through denying that infants and animals could feel pain while accepting the stricture that, if they could, it would be wrong of us to inflict it; the latter not widely accepted in Darwin's day; history bends towards justice in a very gradual curve.

I can't think of an argument for believing that animals didn't feel pain that doesn't rule out the belief that other human beings feel pain. Other humans may say so, but then, we lie.

Langford, D. J. et al., "Coding of facial expressions of pain in the laboratory mouse", Nature Methods, doi:10.1038/nmeth.1455 (2010).

Project Gutenberg text 1227, Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, 1857. (Good line drawings of dogs -- it's a very English book, as I recall.)

So wrote clew.

March 28, 2010

The Map that Changed the World, Simon Winchester

William Smith was a working man, a largely self-taught surveyor in the enclosures-and-canals era of England. He could not, therefore, travel around the world like Charles Darwin and spend decades afterwards thinking about what he saw; but he was intensely attentive to the rocks his mines and canals cut through, and the fossils in them, so much so that he invented stratigraphy, the science of understanding geology by looking at the layers rocks are laid in. He was most professionally interested in knowing where coal was likely to be, and where canals wouldn't leak.

England seems to be a pretty good place to do this, but still: most people didn't cotton on. No-one else thought of mapping the geology of Britain, the whole thing!, by dint of travelling across just about all of it personally, taking notes and samples. Several people admired the map that resulted enough to plagiarize it, though; because Smith was not gentle, and not suave, he had a long bad stretch of life in which no-one arranged reward or payment or even interesting work for him. (He gets a patron before he dies, though.) Grand formal English science was half built on excluding outsiders (n.b.; how did Humphry Davy wedge himself in? Faint ties to gentility and friends in the Friends, looks like).

Find in a Library: The Map that Changed the World

So wrote clew.

January 29, 2010

Corvus: a life with birds, Esther Woolfson

Woolfson accidentally fell into living with birds in her house in Edinburgh, first doves (doves breed faster than rabbits. Anyone who knows anyone who keeps doves will be asked, someday, if they would like some excess doves) then storebought parrot-type birds, then rescued corvids.

There is some reflection of the kind that stands for 'deep thoughts' here, but most of it is reflection doing a good imitation of clear glass: just what the birds did, what the people did, what the people thought at the time. I am as sorry as Woolfson that we can't ask what the birds thought, because the evidence that the smarter animals, corvids among them, have some kind of self-image and concept of other beings' plans and intents has convinced me.

Living with birds -- 'keeping' is not a strong enough term -- is, clearly, not for the tidy. Corvids cache. They cache a little of everything they like, anywhere they can, so that the house has the residue of old squishes under all the carpets and curtains, and a hole in one wall for a rook to post long-term hoard into. I felt a little squeamish, even while I was grateful that someone was willing to live so much closer to the birds' temperament, to see what they would do.

Allowing bird behavior makes a bit more sense in a house built basically of stone, therefore less fragile and already uncomfortable:

The Glasgow house where I was brought up had, in the way of houses of the time, no heating, only inadequate fireplaces, more of them unused, and a large stove in the kitchen. The house was large, built of stone and, winter or summer, glacially cold. The possibility of installing heating was, as I recall, briefly discussed, my father's reluctance to have the Arts and Crafts panelling warped by the drying effects of central heating eventually overriding all other considerations, and so we continued to endure the almost universal experience of Scottish life of the time, ice on the insides of bedroom windows, fierce dashes from bed to clothes, the only warm piece of the anatomy at bathtime being the portion submerged. [...] I don't remember what we wore but I do remember that my father, concerned for their comfort and well-being, insisted that our dogs, three of them, wore sweaters indoors.

Someone inured to that much discomfort can live with smallish wild animals. The magpie Spike was almost too wild to live with humans, much as they loved him:

Han [...] spent time practising kung fu. [...] It became her habit of an evening, before Spike's bedtime, to engage with him in a bout of combat, an enterprise that delighted him since he was unfailingly up for a fight. She would initiate the bout by punching the air near his head, one side, then the other, just enough to enrage him [...] his the advantage in proper flight, hurling himself towards her, eyes yellow and protected, squeaking with martial fury, wings a blur and rustle of crisp, bright feather. Wham! Wham! He'd squeak frenetically, shouting random words -- 'Smike! Oy! Oy! Spikey! Hello! Hello!' -- as he attacked her moving fists, diving for her head as she leapt and danced away from him. [...] all the more strange and thrilling perhaps because of the imbalance in size of the participants, their cultural diversity, or the fact that one of them at least had failed to master the important philosophical requirements of the martial arts.

Daughter Han won international trophies, which is only just for someone with a training program you would expect of Li Po.

Find in a Library: Corvus.

So wrote clew.

January 16, 2010

The Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin

Of course this is mostly about the biology Darwin observed on his trip; it is absolutely amazing how much he observed -- geology nearly at its birth, fluid mechanics and its use by organisms to eat and disperse, the variation of species... but also all the people he met. It is profoundly obvious that he was of the egalitarian, liberal Wedgewood temperament. He admires the dashing horsemen of South America, but only when their gallantry extends to middle-aged native women; he is furious at the exclusion of a talanted black officer in a nowhere in the grasslands.

Also, when learning to use the bolas, he brings down the horse he's riding at the time.

Project Gutenberg file#944, The Voyage of the Beagle

So wrote clew.

January 24, 2009

The Jewel House, Deborah E. Harkness

Harkness opens with four pages of justification for calling her subjects' studies science; if I understand correctly, the word is used contemporaneously for investigations into the natural world, but "scientist" is not used, and also there's some resistance to calling just-pre-Royal-Society work "science" because they were Natural Philosophers, and not empiricists, etc etc.

But! The strain of this book is that the Royal Society rooted in, even fed off parasitically, a broad and deep community of investigators of all kinds; just not reliably English gentlemen. Cities in the sixteenth century had many immigrants; England called them "Strangers", who could win their way to "denizen". And many of these people were traders in useful or artistic or natural wonders, and exchanged descriptions and specimens with colleagues and relatives across Europe as well as new colleagues in all stations in England. At this stage they're still putting together a pointillist picture of the world, discovering that some accepted truths are fables and others understate the wierdness of reality; plants and insects are brought across continents in what, saddlebags?, it's amazing any of them grew; and even collecting and ordering and copying others' knowledge is hard and useful, since print culture is just getting started.

But London, and traders, are not the strongest power in England, and combinations of courtiership and self-aggrandizement by better-born Englishmen -- sometimes much worse scientists -- shouldered aside the Strangers. From this vantage (I'm exaggerating Harkness' argument considerably), the Royal Society was a step backward, freezing out foreigners and hands-on experimenters in its insistence on making science gentle.

This argument is embodied on pp. 212-213. Hugh Plat was a brewers' son (and a lawyer) and rich but London-y, not courtly; his book Jewell house of art and nature is practical and tested knowledge, gathered from many walks of England; applied science, but how not science? On the other hand, Francis Bacon, son of a courtier (and a lawyer) wrote The New Atlantis, which sets up all science in a gorgeously funded, but centralized and presumably controlled, campus.

But Salomon's House was not a wishful romance. Instead, it was a dressed-up representation of the real world of science in Elizabethan London. The streets of the City already boasted several libraries, James Garret's fantastic tulip garden, James Cole's curiosity cabinet, and Giovan Battista Agnello's elaborate chemical laboratories and furnaces. St. Bartholomew's Hospital, where Clowes and Baker worked alongside other physicians and nurses, was known throughout Europe for its cutting-edge medicine, and John Hester's shop on St. Pauls' Wharf belched out all sorts of aromatic fumes as he made powerful new chemical medicines and herbal concoctions for hs urban clientele. The City's workshops produced delicate clocks and mathematical instruments, as well as perpetual-motion machines and large engineering devices. The City of London was already engaged in the study of nature, and [...] did not need Bacon's encouragement [...]

Much later (p. 250):

Those who commented at all tended to criticize Bacon for his unwillingness to do the work of science, as well as for his lack of appreciation for what was already being done.

Find in a Library: The Jewel House

Or the original The jewel house of art and nature..., if you have academic access.

So wrote clew.

December 29, 2008

Kris Longknife: Intrepid, Mike Shepherd

It is not at all generally the case that alluvial soil, after a few days' exposure to air, turns "as hard as concrete". That would be plinthite, probably, on Earth, which gets that way not from an alluvial origin but from high iron concentrations in steadily wet conditions.

Perhaps the planet in question has a lot of iron and arable alluvial soils are also indurable, but it's not something you could expect people to deduce from 'alluvial' and no other data.

That pedogenic detail aside, I have generally enjoyed this space-opera series. The main characters talk about how awful war is in a way that doesn't ring true to me for what adults would actually say, but I can take as a broad-brush painting of how the characters plausibly feel about morally iffy things they know they've decided to do. Possibly it's all aimed at the genre's twelve-year-old ideal reader. This would also explain the great care in knowing when the characters have on their special undies of various sorts; it's all very literal. And, come to think of it, sex is adumbrated, not twee but not laid out lasciviously.

And it mines history, mostly Napoleonic naval and US military, but anything where needed... I had forgotten that a filibuster was originally a opportunist invader from the States.

I was creeped out by Marque and Reprisal because its armed princess heroine decides that anyone who doesn't enjoy killing her enemies is weak. Maybe it's over-picky of me to question the tone of a character I find saner, especially when it makes this readable when actual history is too strong for my stomach. And there's plenty of it, at least six novels now.

Find in a Library: Kris Longknife: Intrepid

So wrote clew.

November 11, 2008

Magical origins

Galileo's Glassworks: The Telescope and the Mirror lays out the stories about ancient, more-or-less mythical seeing devices that were confused with the development and capabilities of the telescope. The ancient devices were generally curved mirrors, and may have had some historical basis -- on the Pharos of Alexandria, perhaps. Since, in the late 1500s, rediscovering ancient knowledge seemed more admirable or likely than making new discoveries, people writing about new instruments they didn't understand tended to throw in references to the magical ones.

Benjamin Franklin's Numbers is mostly about the enormous, plicate magic squares Franklin developed. Magic squares don't tickle my fancy, but the ones represented by overlapping multicolored circles are quite the thing.

I did enjoy the first chapter, in which Pasles defends Benjamin Franklin from the charge of being mathematically untalented. (I hadn't even realized there was such a charge; is not dear Ben our Founding Nerd?) Franklin was an applied mathematician first, e.g. as a founder of demography. Malthus eventually cited him in An Essay on the Principle of Population. All the estimation of how fast populations would grow, and what to invest in, fit the early American history laid out in A Calculating People, q.v..

In a library:

Galileo's Glassworks, Eileen Adair Reeves

Benjamin Franklin's Numbers, Paul C. Pasles

So wrote clew.

September 26, 2008

Structural Equation Modeling and Natural Systems, James B. Grace

The `structural equations' are what I would call systems of equations, which would be nothing out-of-the-way in modeling with differential equations. This is an explanation of how to set up and use such systems when you are beginning with statistics, specifically, linear relationships with error terms. There are lists and cookbook examples of how to map out relations and equations and get from there, eventually, to testable hypotheses about your actual system.

It's not written in the mathematical style, that is, it isn't deductive; it builds up from examples and rules-of-best-practice instead, with standards of how to draw the flowcharts that make them a notation for how you're thinking about the system (curved vs straight lines, for instance. There's a whiff of the drafting template in this, updated to drag-and-drop software).I think it's longer than a deductive exposition would need to be, but on the other hand the examples are useful for a different case of mind.

Nonlinear relationships are dealt with, but not very thickly; there are separate works on nonlinear structural equations.

Find in a Library: Structural Equation Modeling and Natural Systems

So wrote clew.

June 13, 2008

Partial Order in Environmental Sciences and Chemistry, Rainer Brüggemann and Lars Carlsen, eds.

I have wondered, in some environmental or geomorphic courses, whether the drive to quantify wasn't slightly misplaced; whether it would be possible, and more reliable if less precise, to merely rank qualities without trying to rank them on a metric line. In this sense 'metric' doesn't mean 'meters, centimeters...', but any system in which there are distances that you can add up, and divide in half, etc., as one can meters or feet. There are plenty of systems, called generally 'topology', that describe complicated things/worlds that aren't metric; in which you can say that two things are near but not how near they are. (I gave up on the book Small Pieces Loosely Joined after way, way too much falling-about astonishment that the common users' Internet has more of a topology than a metric, without any sign that we were going to be introduced to the idea of a topology -- or graph, any name will do -- and the many things known about them.)

Then I had the mild shadow of a realization that if you have orders, you might have partial orders; for instance, you and your parents and your grandparents are in 'parent-child' orders with each other, but your maternal and paternal grandparents almost certainly can't be so ordered; none of them are parent or child to the other three. If you go back far enough, your tree of descent certainly does cross itself, though; very possibly with 'legs' of different numbers of generations; even this commonplace example doesn't nail down descriptions right away. Also, mm, ecosystems, they have both spatial and developmental nesting, partially ordered sets (posets) might arise very naturally.

So they do, and here are some examples. The book starts with an even lovelier natural source; you can't rank molecules into a single order of development, but there are obvious ways to put them into directed graphs with partial orders. If A is a sub-molecule of B and C, perhaps because B and C have different side-chains, that's the beginning of an order; and this happens rather a lot with organic molecules, since organisms would naturally rather not build everything from scratch. There might be a molecule D that has the side-chains of both B and C; or that might be impossible; so the 'family tree' of molecule A has a range of possible shapes.

There are metrics on some traits of molecules, e.g. their boiling-points, and there are some mappings from posets to metrics. (Much of this book is thinking about toxicology, for which it's handy to be able to guess from molecular data what the organism or system effects might be.)

A later chapter (Wayne L. Myers,G. P. Patil,Yun Cai) is describing biodiversity by posets> They start by pointing out that political contention 'need's a single ordering, and the bulk of the chapter is describing habitat diversity in a part of Pennsylvania. Handy, if you're trying to set policy for watershed protection.

I'm dubious that political matters naturally need a single ordering, though. Market contention surely does -- in fact, would like to translate everything into the single metric of price or price-of-tort. This seems to me to be one of the things we need political systems to avoid; we have alternate rankings, of things you cannot alienate, things you can give away but not sell or buy, things you can sell or buy only if some other characteristic is in play. In a partially-ordered mindset, you need not say that one of the characteristics is more protected than another, even if both are protected with regard to a third. It's hard to live up to this in reality, when we have limited resources and generally end up trying to minimize harm (for which we do need to rank the harms).

For that matter, the political process leads us to try and rank goods; the Democratic primary just concluded was rrrrather an example of that; every political platform with realistic goals must be. Somewhere along here we must hit Arrow's Impossibility Theorem; I am being very lazy about this post, because I am mostly trying to get a lingering urge to procrastinate off my desk, but does the AIT arise from a poset-ness in social goods?

Find in a Library: Partial Order in Environmental Sciences and Chemistry

So wrote clew.

May 24, 2008

The Canon, Natalie Angier

'A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science'

This seemed like a useful (maintain background generalist knowledge) but un-stressful (at a nonscientists' level) evening's book; it probably was useful, and it was eventually enjoyable, but very odd to read. Angier makes a point of not writing in the dry, cagey, impersonal pitch of Real Science. I follow that far easily. But the whirligig, bubbly style she does use kept me off my balance; I had to cautiously interpret each non-literal statement to see if it was meaningful for the science, inaccurate with respect to the science; most of it was neutral decoration on the content, playing with the sound of sound words. I don't think she ever misleads a reader, not one who doesn't believe in the Doctrine of Signatures anyway. People who can handle the dry style are well-enough served by pop science publishing as it is. So this ought to be a useful and enjoyable book for some people now ill-served.

A sample sentence: "Like bones, structural proteins give the cell its shape and integrity, and like bone tissue they are not at all inert, are in fact so feisty and eager to flaunt their powers that one might think they belonged to the metaphoric skeletons that one tries to keep in one's closet."

The cover art on the paperback has the effect on me that I think the prose has on its intended audience; I don't need to interpret every step, I just like looking at it. The artist, Marian Bantjes, has a lovely website, including startling amounts of what I can't help but see as Pee-Chee doodles, immanent with talent; and other techniques, more or less formal. I particularly liked Sugar.

Find in a Library: The Canon, ISBN-13 978-0-547-05346-2

So wrote clew.

June 13, 2007

Stable Isotope Ecology, Brian Fry

Now my subject, but the narrative is really not my style. Personalizing the isotopes makes it harder for me to remember how their differentiation works, because when they are described with anything like velleity it confuses my picture of the completely un-willed processes that fractionate isotopes. All of this book is anthropomorphized, and the characters who are people to start with get extra cute nicknames; it is the opposite of credentialist, which is good, but I found it distracting.

My mental frame bent out of true when, for instance, thinking of isotope fractionation through cell stomata. The plant cells do have something like velleity, do expend energy to act on a biological need for more or less H2O or CO2, but nothing actually cares which isotope comes in; it happens, reliably, but un-willed.

On the other hand, for the many people who don't remember anything outside a story with intent, such a metaphor is probably useful. The glee Fry exhibits in describing the ecosystem problems untangled by isotope studies ought to pull people in. The equations one needs are there, carefully boxed and explained; and the examples are broken down into very simple comprehensible parts, which I am grateful for.

Find in a Library:Stable Isotope Ecology

So wrote clew.

October 27, 2005

Tales from the Underground: A Natural History of Subterranean Life, David W. Wolfe

Here's a sampler of soil knowledge; the chapters stand pretty well alone but build well if read in order. The subjects are 'fun stuff', oddities of natural history, but Wolfe points out the many practical things provided us by soil creatures: antibiotics, bioremediation, plant health... the one that surprised me was prarie dogs as pasture-maintainers.

Prairie dogs keep the plants near their cities pruned to just below prairie-dog standing height. I guess they like to be able to either stand up and look out, or drop down and scurry in secret. They don't, because of this, eat anything down to the roots. As many a lawn-caretaker knows, regular trimming of grass will often make it grow more densely. Better yet, mowing a bit higher, say, prairie-dog height, encourages many plants to grow and none to take over: it's one of the main things you need to do to maintain a flowering meadow. So prairie dog habitat often has denser and more diverse cover than the same land without its dogs; their cropping encourages clover, and discourages shrubs and prickly pear. Without the prairie dogs, bad-fodder shrubs and pear tend to take over and outcompete the grass, making the land less useful to grazing animals. There is, I gather, some reason to believe that prairie with prairie dogs would support more grazing animals than prairie without. (Consider, of course, the thundering herds before western colonization.)

Alas, the U.S. has been actively subsidizing the poisoning of prairie dogs since the early 19th c., and we don't have a lot left.

Find in a Library

So wrote clew.

April 08, 2005

PDEs not PDQ

Evolutionary Theory: Mathematical and Conceptual Foundations, by Sean H. Rice, tries to not use any more math than is needed. This only holds off the PDEs until the case of multiple alleles at one locus, p. 24.

Theoretical Ecosystem Ecology: Understanding Element Cycles, Göran I. Ågren and Ernesto Bosatta, is PDE-free all the way to a concept of substrate quality, page 37. Those aren't bad, actually; the persnickety equations are often just ODEs.

Theoretical... compares its results to quite a lot of empiric data, considering that it's a short book on mathematics. Also, there's some odd, odd Nordic poetry (in translation) and some worked exercises; very useful, and I must get back to it after this quarter's class in PDEs.

Somewhere else asserts nitrogen:food-energy:water::carbon:fossil-fuel-energy:air. In the soil, it's more like potential and ?metabolic? energy, but they're still wonderfully linked.

ISBN: 0521580226 (Theoretical...)

LCCN: QH 344 A35 1996 (Theoretical...)

ISBN: 0878937021 (Evolutionary...)

LCCN: QH 366.2 R523 2004 (Evolutionary...)

July 14, 2004

Cruel Delight, James A Steintrager

Subtitle: enlightenment culture and the inhuman

Nice work on a nasty subject, the conflation of pity, power, reason, and science with cruelty in the Enlightenment. It doesn't just remind one that science, medicine especially, developed with cruelty, but makes an argument that the delight in cruelty was more of the scientific impulse than one would like to think. I only skimmed it, as (one) I really ought to be working on a dozen other things, and (two) it draws lots of its evidence from Hogarth and de Sade. I accordingly noticed mostly the surgery & sex parts, which jump out because of the illustrations. I didn't do any justice to the arguments from the Scottish Enlightenment, which had most of the claims for kindness and sympathy as natural states; from Adam Smith, among others.

I did notice, among a dozen more things I want to read, a reference to a novel Melmoth the Wanderer by one Charles Maturin, which has a shipwreck in it; I want to read that and look for Patrick O'Brian's Maturin's slightly creepy scientific detachment.

Slightly later in the day, again distracted from those dozen things, I was drawn into Love at Goon Park; also about slightly creepy scientific detachment with results that were probably a boon to human suffering. Goon Park is the nickname of the psych lab where Harry Harlow did the paradigm-shattering experiments with wire-mother monkeys, and many follow-up experiments; all showing with great clarity that affection, even a pale simulacrum of affection, is as necessary for primate development as food.

The first experiment showed that baby macaques preferred a terry-cloth 'mother' to an equally warm wireframe 'mother', even if the latter had the milk. Follow-ons demonstrated that affection and socialization are needed for monkey development. This overturned a congeries of accepted theories, among them that babies had no particular attachment to their parents except as a source of food, that maternal affection led to needy stupidity, etc etc. The three amazing things in the summary of the experiments and the theories they overthrew are, first, that anyone could have had such cruel beliefs about humans or monkeys; second, that monkeys at least can develop well-enough given the least, barest, pathetic simulacrum of care - terrycloth is almost enough by itself; third and most relevant to Cruel Delight, that anyone who had the insight to start these experiments could be cruel enough to do them. Some of it was good old clinical detachment, some the knowledge that only controlled experiments would convince experts to stop prescribing cruelty in real life, and some was probably related to his own deep and repeated unhappiness. How would that heart weigh against a feather?

ISBN: 0253343674 (Cruel Delight)
ISBN: 0738202789 (Love at Goon Park)

May 13, 2004

Darwin's Ghost, Steve Jones

Jones has kept the order of the argument in The Origin of Species but updated all the interior chapter matter with current biological and geological examples. He even keeps Darwin's descriptive sub-chapter headings and chapter summaries. It's about right for an ambitious hammock read, and suggests Further Reading (both books and papers) at the end.

P. 226:

Lungfish are living fossils: animals with an agile and creative past the nowadays have sunk into conservatism. Long ago, they slowed down, and they have stayed unchanged for hundreds of millions of years, while their relatives moved on.
Bone contains many cells, all with a nucleus. The hard material squeezes each one so that its size is a measure of how much DNA it once contained. Early in lungfish history, the size of the cell nuclei—and the amount of genetic material—began to creep up. Soon, the animals had hundreds of times as much as did their relatives. As it did, evolution slowed. Now, the lungfish are stuffed with DNA (most of it with no apparent function) and their evolution has stalled altogether. The fit between DNA content, a lethargic lifestyle and evolutionary sloth is widespread. To copy that chemical takes energy. Bacteria are speedy and have no excess genetic material, while salamanders, torpid as they are, are filled with DNA. Plants, too, have a close fit between habit and nucleic acid content. All weeds have small genomes, while more established plants are packed with DNA and can take a month to make a single egg cell. Whether an indolent life allows the amount of genetic material to build up, or whether the extra dose itself slows down evolution, nobody knows.

Spam is very expensive.

Or, if you want to haul around some lengthy archaic information yourself, you could have the Project Gutenberg edition of On The Origin Of Species By Means Of Natural Selection. Whether it will delay your reproduction by even a month, I wouldn't say.

ISBN: 0375501037

May 09, 2002

Self-Made Tapestry, Philip Ball

Kind of like On Growth & Form; many instances of nonbiological pattern generation. Cautious about what can be asserted by analoqy.

Experiments to do at home with plexiglass. No math.

So wrote clew.