Sunday Sensational Science


Tangled Banks

Ravenna Park, Seattle, WA

“It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.”

-Charles Darwin

I’m about to annihilate you lot with science – The 113th Tangled Bank shall be hosted here in just a few short days – so we’re going to take a leisurely walk along the banks, enjoy the glories of the natural world, and explore to our hearts’ content by way of getting ourselves warmed up for the event.

The Tangled Bank is ostensibly themed around “the science of the natural world,” but like so many other arbitrary divisions in science, the neat categories break down upon further inspection. Physics, chemistry, astronomy, and even mathematics aren’t really separate from biology and nature science. It’s all interconnected – inextricably tangled. That was the thing that attracted me to science, so long ago: discovering that everything is joined, and that any division we see is just an arbitrary convenience, when you get right down to it.

This leads to some entertaining juxtapositions. And it’s the excuse I use to study absolutely everything.

Follow me through the Tangled Bank of an SF writer’s interests. And then you might want to take the opportunity to wander off all on your own.

Growing up in Arizona, I heard quite a bit about the mytical jackalope. Imagine how excited I was to discover the truth from Thinkevolution.net in Tangled Bank #84!

Shocking photos of an unusual hybrid-type animal confounded biologists today. Images of what zoo-goers agree look an awful lot like a baby jackalope were posted on the internet today, making evidence against the canonical view of evolution by common descent—which thoroughly rejects the existence of jackalopes, which would require the mating of two phylogenetically divergent and anatomically dissimilar organisms—available worldwide. Jackalopes, also known as “antelabbits” or “stagbunnies” according to Wikipedia, had long been rejected as imaginary joke animals that people from the southwest described to gullible roommates when they went away to college in the east. But the late-breaking images challenge all that.

See? We Arizonans weren’t having you on at all. And we’ve still got that beachfront house for sale in Yuma, incidentally. Fantastic ocean views!

As a writer, two of my great loves are art and language. The Scientific Activist reported in Tangled Bank #71 on a project that combined both of those loves with the fight against global warming:

One potentially effective way of tackling these particular issues, then, could be through art: specifically through large in-your-face, impossible-to-ignore, publicly-visible art projects designed to bring the issue to the forefront of the mind of the incidental viewer.

This is precisely the aim of the debut project of the Precipice Alliance, a non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness about global warming and environmental issues through public art. The project, entitled “Indestructible Language”, is the latest creation of artist Mary Ellen Carroll, and, as you might be able to tell, it could make quite an impression…

Indeed. Art can grab you attention in the way no amount of hand-wringing and dire studies ever could. And that’s why artists might end up saving the world.

With the help o’ some scientists, o’ course. We can’t do this all by ourselves.

Not that artists such as meself don’t have great big egos large enough to boast such superpowers – we create worlds, for fucks’ sake. That’s why articles like “Exotic Earths” from Dynamics of Cats, from Tangled Bank #62 , really grab my attention. It’s easier to facilitate the willing suspension of disbelief when you can point to science and say, “See? Perfectly plausible. There’s lots o’ earths. With oceans, even.”

More than one-third of the giant planet systems recently detected outside our solar system may harbor Earth-like planets, according to a new study by scientists associated with NASA’s Astrobiology Institute. Many of these planetsmay be covered in deep global oceans, with abundant potential for life.

There you have it. A Universe crowded with life. So shut up about the impossibility of my farflung space civilizations, already.

Another thing SF writers have to wrestle with is nothing less than the very structure of space-time itself. We’ve got to come up with somewhat reasonable ways for Bob the Bug-eyed Alien to get from Point A to Point B without spending generations doing it. And so it’s a little depressing when articles like “Building Space-Time” come along from Stochastic Scribbles in Tangled Bank #108 and throw cold water all over our FTL parade:

The July issue of Scientific American has an interesting article on how our four-dimensional space-time could arise from basic building blocks that self-organize in a quantum superposition. Their approach, called causal dynamical triangulations, is an extension of Euclidean quantum gravity. But instead of just seeing what a superposition of self-organized building blocks that assemble arbitrarily looks like, which turns out to be a bunched up and very messy space-time with plain Euclidean quantum gravity, they imposed causality on each building block so that they can only assemble in specific ways. Their computer simulations show that the result would be a space-time that looks much like our own on large scales.

[snip]

And if the theory is correct, then the built-in causality would imply that wormholes and time travel would not be possible. While it’s cool that ordinary space-time could be built from first principles, it would be a bummer in that faster-than-light travel or direct observation of historical events would not be possible.

D’oh, shit.

Well. Maybe if the buggers have big enough brains, they’ll figure out something clever. And speaking of brains… I remember being told as a child that when you stopped growing, the brain you had was It. Lose brain cells, and they’re lost forever. It wasn’t until I started researching neurology years later that I got the good news: we may grow new neurons after all. Sharp Brains had the latest on that for Tangled Bank #104:


In the last few years, researchers have discovered that new nerve cells (neurons) are born, presumably from residual stem cells that exist even in adults. That should be good news for all of us as we get older and fear mental decline. The bad news is that these new neurons die, unless our minds are active enough.


[snip]

A critical window of time determines whether or not the new neurons survive. In an experimental test of this time window, mice were housed for one week in an environmentally rich environment (toys, activity wheels, etc.), or for controls in regular cages, beginning one week after injection with a new-neuron DNA-synthesis marker. Results showed that lasting increase was restricted to new neurons that appeared between one and three weeks before living in an enriched environment. This corresponds to the time when new neurons are extending their neurons in search of targets and their dendrites are developing synaptic contacts to the neurotransmitters normally used in the hippocampus. The new neurons that developed during this time window survived up to the four months of monitoring, even when removed the enriched environment.

Ooo, before too much longer, I may be able to grow myself a better brain and keep it. That’s not just good for my characters, that’s good for me!

So many delights within the Tangled Bank, so little time. I haven’t even been able to touch on Salto Sobrius’s Tangled Bank #68 article on the Antikythera mechanism, which fascinated me as a child and may have led to my adoration of all things ancient Greek. I haven’t shared with you The Digital Cuttlefish’s delightful poem on the genetics of the spork from Tangled Bank #105, or PZ’s eminently useful explanation of historical contingency in the evolution of E-coli from Tangled Bank #107. I couldn’t even begin to delight you with genetic expression as explored by Tangled Up In Blue Guy in Tangled Bank #106.

So it goes.

I’ll leave you instead with this fragment of poetry from Denialism Blog’s beautiful Tangled Bank #111 edition. Says it all, really:

    You can’t go against nature
    Because when you do
    Go against nature
    It’s part of nature too.
Roadside Waterfall, Mount Rainier, Washington

If you have something science-related you’d like to submit for Tangled Bank #113, get it in to pzmyers@gmail.com by September 2nd. Or you’ll really wish you had.

As always, click on the pictures for their source. Except in the cases of those with actual captions, which are Dana Hunter originals. Are you impressed? I’m impressed. I’m a decent writer, but a piss-poor photographer, which makes these all the more special for being very nearly good.

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