Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

A Love Story – Pollination

Sunday, November 16th, 2014

It’s the most important relationship on Earth – everything in Nature depends on pollinators and flowers getting together.

Pollination is ‘a love story that feeds the Earth.’ – Louie Schwartzberg.

For a flower to make fruit and seeds, its pollen (male) must get to an egg (female), usually in another flower – and bees do 80% of the moving. The result is a cornucopia of foods from cherries to cashews, courgettes to coffee. Our relationship with the pollinators is equally vital so let’s provide bees with a variety of flowers, clean water and spray-free gardens.

Scenes from Louie Schwatzberg’s dazzling movie, Wings Of Life:

How Bees See Us

Saturday, October 11th, 2014

The honey bees’ ability to learn faces is unexpected. – ‘Good With Faces’, Scientific American

When I first started beekeeping, older beekeepers often said their bees recognised them – now we have proof it’s true. Honey bees’ brains are the size of a sesame seed with only a million neurons (we have 100 billion), but bees can learn patterns, navigate, communicate, count, tell time, measure, and memorize. Research now shows they can also recognise human faces. Bees were trained (with a sugar water reward) to identify a human face, front and side view – and after training they could instantly identify the same face rotated 30˚. Honey bees do not have distinctive facial markings, so why have they evolved this ability? It’s due to their pattern-recognition skills but I wonder if it also evolved as bees formed a close relationship with humans over the last 20,000 years. Here’s how I might look to a bee with it’s many-faceted compound eyes:

beeview2

 

The life of the bee is like a magic well: the more we draw from it, the more there is to draw.’ — Karl von Frisch

The Forces of Writing

Sunday, September 28th, 2014

Writing requires four fundamental steps:

Imagine: ‘Open your mind’ (P.D. James)

Write: ‘Put one word after another’ (Neil Gaiman)

Edit: ‘Omit needless words’ (William Strunk)

Hope: ‘Outrun the self-doubt’ (Stephen King)

The steps of writing harmonise nicely with the four forces of physics:

Electromagnetism holds our atoms and molecules together, and like imagination, it has infinite range.

The Weak Force is confined to the centre of atoms, as a writer must be confined with a story until it’s drafted.

The Strong Force holds atomic nuclei together, as editing gives the story strength.

Gravity is like hope, in that it keeps us anchored and has infinite range.

Read my essay, The Science of Writing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Origin of Bees

Saturday, September 13th, 2014

New genetic research suggests honey bees originated in Asia not Africa as previously thought. Bees have been around for a while: the oldest known bee is a 100 million year old bee suspended in a piece of amber (a tree resin), found in Myanmar (Burma). Ancient bees lived in trees or on cliffs – honey bees derived from cavity-nesting bees that spread out from Asia about 300,000 years ago. People discovered honey about 20,000 years ago; it must’ve seemed like a magical food in their diet of wild animals and plants. Early honey hunting was a dangerous job because bees lived in tall trees or on cliff faces. Cave paintings show hunters climbing cliffs to raid nests – imagine dangling from a vine, 150 metres up a cliff, while being stung by bees! People still do this kind of honey hunting today in India, Nepal, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Image: Rock painting of a honey hunter in Valencia, Spain (6000 to 8000BC)

honeyhunter

Science and Soul

Sunday, August 10th, 2014

Does the universe have a purpose or is it an accident? Scientists have divergent views on the significance of the universe. At one end of the spectrum is the iconoclast, Richard Dawkins, who sees an indifferent universe which has “precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom no design, no purpose.” At the other end is biologist Jane Goodall who believes the universe is both purposeful and meaningful. In between there are theories ranging from a ‘conscious universe’ to a ‘self-creating universe’. Whatever their beliefs, at least there’s usually a shared sense of wonder among scientists…

…Read the rest of my essay, Science and Soul, here.

puppisPhoto: The remnants of supernova explosions, Puppis and Vela, birthplace of some of our atoms. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

Deadly Pesticide

Sunday, August 3rd, 2014

The threat to nature is the same as that once posed by the notorious chemical DDT.– BBC News

A new study on ‘neonicotinoid’ pesticides says that they are a key factor in the decline of bees. The study combined 800 research papers from 20 years and concluded these nicotine-based nerve poisons are also damaging the wider environment. The pesticides are systemic – the whole plant remains toxic right through to flowering – so bees (and other critters) are poisoned by pollen, nectar, and drinking water. These pesticides are widely used in NZ and even sold in garden centres. The government has not yet responded to the new study, so meanwhile, avoid these products: Confidor, Advantage, Merit and Admire (what shameless names). And remember that there are ways to deal with pests without harming bees, including organic gardening and IPM:

It is high time we returned to Integrated Pest Management (IPM) – an approach focussed on minimising pesticide use, maximising the number of biological control agents, using cultural controls such as crop rotations, and monitoring pest numbers so that chemical controls only need be applied when there is a problem.– Prof David Goulson

Electric Bees

Saturday, July 19th, 2014

Honey bees and flowers have an electric relationship. A bee in flight becomes positively charged through friction with airborne particles. Fortuitously, flowers have a negative electric charge – and naturally, positive and negative attract each other. The bee (+) detects the tug of the flower charge (-) and lands on it. Immediately two things happen. Firstly, charged pollen leaps onto the bee’s body, a bit like your hair will leap onto a rubbed balloon. Secondly, the flower loses its negative charge – this tells nearby bees that this flower has just been visited. The flower has time to ‘recharge’ itself and refill its nectary. It’s a sweet friendship: bees get food (pollen, nectar) and flowers get pollinated.

LOTUS

Honeycomb

Sunday, December 15th, 2013

Honeycomb is one of the lightest, strongest, most efficient structures known. The comb isn’t just for honey, it’s the bee’s home: kitchen, nursery, pantry, bedroom and dance floor. Bees build these beautiful wax hexagons from flakes of wax (made in glands on their bellys) using their mouth and feet.  Each identical cell tilts back at an angle of exactly 13˚ (so honey doesn’t flow out) and cells are joined at precisely 120˚. Bees use hexagons (not squares or triangles) because they use the least wax for the most space – hexagons are found elsewhere in nature where an efficient shape is needed.

honeycomb

Neonicotinoids – A Word Everyone Should Know

Friday, November 1st, 2013

‘Neonicotinoids’ … a clunky word, but one that everybody should know. They (‘neonics’ for short) are the most widely used insecticides in the world – they’re now found in almost every managed landscape from farms to home gardens (and use is increasing rapidly). Neonics are non-targeted (ie.lazy) pest control: they’re usually coated on seeds and the poison stays in the plant as it grows. And the residue can remain in plant tissue, pollen, soil and water for years – it’s these residues that can kill beneficial wildlife: bees, birds, soil creatures and helper insects. That makes neonics a threat to our food supply because:

  • Bees and other pollinators directly provide much of our food
  • Soil creatures (worms, microbes) are vital for soil health
  • Helper insects (predatory and parasitic species) provide natural pest control

Why would we want to harm any of these? The EU has put a two year ban on neonics (because of damage to bees)but they are still used in NZ and are available to the public. Let’s ask garden and hardware shops to stop selling them (Placemakers and The Warehouse have recently withdrawn them) and the EPA to ban them.

Research: neonicotinoids harming honey bees

Report: effect of neonicotinoids on beneficial insects.

The larval stage of a ladybird (right) loves to eat aphids (left) – great natural pest control.

Animal Imagination

Thursday, September 19th, 2013

In the 1960s, Jane Goodall was criticised for saying chimpanzees have emotions. Today the evidence suggests she’s right although scientists remain wary of anthropomorphism – associating human traits with animals – often with good reason (eg. the gross inaccuracy of The Bee Movie in which boy bees did the work). Of course animals don’t see the world exactly we do, but we shouldn’t ignore what we have in common with them:

Anthropo-denial: A blindness to the humanlike characteristics of other animals, or the animal-like characteristics of ourselves. – F. de Waal

The weight of scientific evidence is that animal have thoughts, feelings and intelligence – animals are not mere ‘survival machines’. It’s now accepted that humans and animals share many traits (Marc Bekoff  (The Emotional Lives of Animals); this fits nicely with evolution which teaches us animals are our relatives and all life is connected. Forgetting  this relationship has led to the honey bee crisis, for example, as people have treated bees as tools rather than partners in pollination.

Acknowledged as individuals, those sparrows, salamanders and squirrels are not interchangeable parts of a species machine. They are beings with their own inner lives and experiences. – Brandon Keim (Animal Consciousness)

Using language that reflects our ‘common ground’ can help give children empathy with the natural world. When writing Flight of the Honey Bee I wanted accurate science yet also a sense of a bee’s experience. Should I use human concepts such as ‘know’, ‘remember’, captivate’, and ‘story’? Should I even call the bees ‘sisters’? The answer was yes. Honey bees have language, intelligence, and memory (and maybe something like emotions); and they’re more genetically sisters than humans.

droneeyes

They are not us, but to look into their eyes is to know that someone is in there. Imposing our own specific thoughts and feelings on that someone is in one sense too imaginative, in presuming he could receive the world in the way we do, and in another not imaginative enough, in not opening our minds to the full possibilities of his difference.- Caitrin Nicol (Do Elephants Have Souls?)

Bee Pesticide Ban

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013

This is a victory for the precautionary principle, which is supposed to underlie environmental regulation.– Dr Lynn Dicks

Bee PhotoThe EU has banned the nerve agent that has been contributing to honey bee decline around the world. The scientific evidence against these extremely toxic nicotine-based pesticides has grown steadily. Honey bees have contributed to our survival for the past 20,000 years and it’s time we showed them similar courtesy. These banned pesticides are still widely used on NZ crops (eg.corn) and sold to the public in garden centres (eg. the Confidor brand). Bee photo by Sophie Huber.

There are other way to deal with pests without harming bees:

It is high time we returned to Integrated Pest Management (IPM) – an approach focussed on minimising pesticide use, maximising the number of biological control agents, using cultural controls such as crop rotations, and monitoring pest numbers so that chemical controls only need be applied when there is a problem.– Prof David Goulson

Why Does The World Exist?

Sunday, January 6th, 2013

Why Does The World Exist? by Jim Holt is a fascinating book that asks the question, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’  Holt looks at all sides of the question, interviewing scientists, philosophers, atheists and believers (Richard Swinburne, John Irving, Roger Penrose, Adolf Grunbaum…). There are three types of theorist:

The “optimists” hold that there has to be a reason for the world’s existence and that we may well discover it. The “pessimists” believe that there might be a reason for the world’s existence but that we’ll never know for sure… Finally, the “rejectionists” persist in believing that there can’t be a reason for the world’s existence, and hence that the very question is meaningless.

Leibniz’s Principle of Sufficient Reason says that ‘For every thing there must be a reason for that thing’s existence‘, which is the basis of our scientific worldview. Holt does a good job of summarizing some knotty philosophy, physics and maths (understanding it is another matter!).  Although he offers no firm answers, the book left me feeling “optimistic”; and it’s oddly comforting that after picking the brains of the world’s greatest thinkers, Holt concludes,

No one can confidently claim intellectual superiority in the face of the mystery of existence.

sun

Photo: Solar eruption, Dec 31, 2012 – courtesy of NASA Images

Science Set Free

Monday, December 17th, 2012

sheldrakeThe Science Delusion by rebel scientist Rupert Sheldrake challenges the current scientific dogma that life is mechanical and purposeless. His chapters ask: “Are the laws of nature fixed? Is nature purposeless? Are minds confined to brains?” The title is a bit misleading but perhaps it’s a dig at Richard Dawkins (of ‘God Delusion’ fame), who describes living things as ‘machines’. The US edition title is Science Set Free, and it’s Sheldrake’s aim to break free from rigid materialistic science. Anyone who has ever had a pet, kept bees or grown a tree, knows that plants and animals are living organisms with a sense of purpose, not just an assembly of chemicals:

 All living organisms show goal-directed behaviour. Developing plants and animals are attracted towards developmental ends…Even the most ardent defenders of the mechanistic theory smuggle purposive organising principles into living organisms in the form of selfish genes and genetic programs.– Rupert Sheldrake

Even the smallest entities seem to have a form of consciousness. He describes remarkable single-celledStentor_roeseli swamp creatures, called Stentor (photo), which have a memory despite having no nerve endings (synapses). Sheldrake writes most lucidly about science and philosophy, and he’s not afraid to theorise about fringe science events (which he explains with his rather cryptic theory of ‘morphic fields’). Read a review.

The Universe is made of stories

Monday, June 11th, 2012

Nearly all of the atoms in your body were once cooked in the nuclear furnace of an ancient supernova. – Frances Collins

The story of our atoms began in the stars. As the universe expanded after the Big Bang, atoms of hydrogen and helium were formed first. These atoms gathered together in galaxies where they came in handy as fuel for burning stars. When stars died (in supernova explosions) new atoms were sent out into the universe – including carbon and oxygen atoms, happily for us. By and by, over eight billion years, planets were formed and Earth’s story unfolds from there.

Photo (NASA Images): Remnant of a star that exploded in a supernova long ago. This ring of gas is enriched with oxygen that was created by the star.

The /Xam San people of Southern Africa knew that humans were related to the stars in a mysterious way. The /Xan suffered a slow genocide to extinction in the 1800s but their words remain. Their stories say that stars are closely connected to the human heart and fall down when people’s hearts ‘fall over’.

“The stars know the time at which we die.” –Díä!kwain, 1876

Creativity, Google and Mad Men

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

The imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre, and bad things, but his judgment, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects… All great artists and thinkers [are] great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering. Nietzsche

Imagine, a new book by Jonah Lehrer – author of Proust was a Neuroscientist – is about creativity and the brain. Lehrer believes that creativity is our natural state and, like Neitzsche, he stresses the role of synthesising:

The synthesizing mind takes information from disparate sources, understands and evaluates that information objectively, and puts it together in ways that make sense… the capacity to synthesize becomes ever more crucial as information continues to mount at dizzying rates.

Perhaps synthesising is another word for the endless mulling, rewriting and editing that writers go through. David Ogilvy was one of the original 1960s ‘ad men’ referenced in TV’s Mad Men. He described the creative process of writing advertising copy as ‘a slow and laborious business’ of redrafting and editing (read his full letter here).

Does the ‘dizzying’ internet make us more creative? In a fascinating essay about the brain and computers, Jim Holt argues that while the internet sharpens many cognitive skills, it may be the enemy of creativity. The problem is that the web can be distracting (rather than reflective) for the brain and it barely engages with deeper levels of thought. Holt calls Google a ‘memory prosthesis’. That might be true but it does make synthesising a blog a lot of fun.

Talent develops in tranquility. Goethe

More: editing; and writing and computers

 

The Universe in 199 words

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

Dark matter is the missing link.Stuart Clark

Our universe exploded into being about 14 billion years ago, for motives which are unclear. Equal amounts of matter and anti-matter were made but most of the anti-matter mysteriously disappeared. And so the universe became biased towards life (matter). But only a ‘mere- smear’ of the universe is Normal Matter – that’s the atoms in stars, planets, you and me – the bulk is dark stuff.

This pie (Image: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss) shows the ingredients of the universe. Most of it is Dark Energy that hides in the vacuum of space. We don’t yet know what it is, but it’s made the universe expand. Dark Matter is made of particles that are also invisible to us but we can see galaxies being affected by its force. The smallest slice of the universe is Normal Matter. Matter is built up from extremely small bits to extremely big bits: from inner space to outer space. Sub-atomic particles are arranged into atoms,  atoms into molecules; molecules into cells and organisms; and so on up to galaxies and dark stuff. Everything belongs.

We exist only because of subtle connections between the very small and the very large. Charles Birch

5 Ways to Save the Bees

Sunday, January 22nd, 2012

The latest on the pesticide threat to bees (see Nicotine Bees) is a small victory: a garden supplier has removed the words ‘low toxic to beneficial insects’ from an advertisement for  Confidor. This pesticide is extremely toxic to the world’s most beneficial insect, the honey bee. These nicotine-based pesticides are banned in Europe because of links to bee deaths. They stay in the plant right through to flowering – so bees are poisoned by pollen, nectar, dust, and water. Latest research shows how the pesticides contribute to the bee crisis by exposing bees from multiple sources. Photo: Sarah Anderson.

5 Ways to Save the Bees:

  1. Avoid chemicals such as Confidor,  Poncho, Advantage, Marathon, Merit and Admire (grotesque names).
  2. Buy local honey.
  3. Grow bee-friendly plants, such as lavender.
  4. Let there be weeds; let the broccoli go to seed.
  5. Put out clean water in a shallow dish.

Happy Birthday, Ernest

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

Nga ra o mua is a Maori phrase for the past; translated as ‘what is in front’. The past is spread out in front of us – it’s what is known. It’s literally true when we look at the stars: the light we see left the stars perhaps millions of years ago. The past is spread out in the sky. Nga ra o mua also fits the physics concept of a universe in which all points of time exist together. For example, about now on August 30, 1871, Ernest Rutherford is being born. It also explains why it’s hard to leave the past behind.  Pam Morrison wrote eloquently about this in her blog. Photo: a million stars (NASA Images)

Pigling Brains

Monday, July 25th, 2011

‘Tell all the Truth but tell it slant. Emily Dickinson

There’s talk of compulsory laptops and iPads for primary schools, but evidence suggests that books should be the priority for children. A good novel is more likely to engage the brain than a screen. Reading is a ‘neuronally and intellectually circuitous act’ (Maryanne Wolf) – or to put it another way, a novel encourages the reader’s brain to be active in the construction of the story. Wolf also argues that more indirect the writing the more enriching it is for the brain.

Clive James comments on this (in Cultural Amnesia) in his essay celebrating the eloquence of Beatrix Potter. He recalls how his own children were fascinated by slant and mysterious phrases such as ‘eight conversation peppermints with appropriate moral sentiments’ and ‘Alexander was volatile’ in The Tale of Pigling Bland (one of the great character names). James concludes that

Children like to hear good things said a thousand times.

Finely Tuned

Sunday, March 27th, 2011

As we dig deeper and deeper using scientific methods, we continue to find rational and meaningful order Paul Davies

Still pondering the ‘mindful’ universe. It is ‘finely tuned’ to support life — indeed, it seems to be geared towards the creation of ‘mind’. Then there’s the question of meaning. Twelve leading scientists and thinkers were asked, Does the universe have a purpose? Five of them answered ‘Yes’, two said ‘No’, and the others were everywhere in-between (including one ‘I hope so’). Read their fascinating responses here. Jane Goodall’s personal response recalls a transcendent moment in a cathedral.

How could I believe that blind chance had led to that moment in time — the cathedral, the collective faith of those who had prayed and worshiped within, the genius of Bach, the emergence of a conscious mind that could, as mine did then, question the purpose of life on Earth Jane Goodall

I once heard the beautiful Monteverdi Choir in Pisa Cathedral (photo) – quite by chance, but hopefully not blind chance! It was a ‘moment in time’ for me, the voices lingering in the air long after the singing stopped…

The Case of the Mindful Universe

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

Photo: Mysterious cosmic egg (supernova): NASA Images

I love a good mystery: in my 20s it was the search for God; then family mysteriously absorbed 30 years; and now questions rise again: What is the purpose of life? What is quantum physics? Consciousness? And why am I always the one on the spot when the loo paper runs out?

I’ve cobbled together the following Great Mysteries (with much help from pop-science books):

Around 14 billion years ago (for motives which are unclear) matter gained an advantage over anti-matter and the universe became slightly biased towards life. But only a ‘mere- smear’ of the universe is ordinary matter – galaxies, elephants, us – the bulk is ‘dark stuff’ which is mysteriously connected to the rest. Matter is made of atoms, which are energetic, enigmatic little tykes. An electron inside an atom behaves like a two-year old – it seems to be everywhere at all times – but when humans give it some attention, its behaviour changes. Intriguing. The little grey cells (our brains) enfold another mystery: consciousness. So we’re able to find meaning in life: we can make up our own minds.

And now the story takes a twist, from science towards soul. Mystical biologist Charles Birch reckoned that the whole universe is made of ‘mind stuff’. He suggested that even electrons have a whiff of consciousness:

We exist only because of subtle connections between the very small and the very large.

It seems to be all about connection and meaning, and I admit I’m biased towards finding both – hopefully without scrambling the cosmic egg. But I’ll leave you with a more appealing metaphor, by poet Muriel Rukeyser (I’m off to buy loo paper).

The universe is made of stories, not atoms.