Category Archives: Uncategorized

Science Caturday: Time Kitteh is Deep

timecat

Imagining Deep Time, an art exhibition at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC, tackles the profound theme of “deep time,” the timescale not of human life but of trees, rivers, mountain ranges, even stars.  The exhibition features works by 15 artists in a range of styles and media including painting, photography and sculpture. Curator JD Talasek says that the exhibition “explores the role of the artist in helping us imagine a concept outside the realm of human experience.”

The show runs until January 15. More information, including a downloadable catalog, is here.

 

The Art of Science: Pollination as Inspiration

Pollen Grains, Jo Golesworthy

Pollen Grains, Jo Golesworthy

To many people, pollen is a nuisance, coating cars and irritating nasal passages. For artists Jo Golesworthy and Wolfgang Laib, pollen is an inspiration.

Pollen grains are the tiny cases holding the male reproductive cells (gametophytes) of flowering plants. The grains come in a variety of shapes and sizes and have a wide range of surface markings and textures, making them useful for plant identification in fields such as paleoecology, paleontology, archeology, and forensics.

This variety marks the sculptures of Jo Golesworthy, a UK-based artist who creates massively scaled-up versions of many types of pollen from alder and birch to pussy willow and poppy. Her pieces, made by hand from a limestone compound, can be displayed outdoors, where the artist says they will “slowly grow a botanic patina of their own.”

Wofgang Laib, Pollen from Hazelnut, 2013

Wofgang Laib, Pollen from Hazelnut, 2013

German artist Wolfgang Laib creates his works out of real pollen, meticulously arranging it in lines, grids, mounds, or – for his largest work – a glowing golden carpet.  Laib’s spectacular 2013 installation, Pollen from Hazelnut, an 18 x 21 foot rectangle of pollen sifted onto the floor of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, required more than a decade’s worth of pollen that the artist himself collected from around his hometown. Laib says that his work, although almost entirely based on nature, refers to many other things, including devotional practices and ancient art.

But essentially, it’s all about the pollen.  As Laib told MoMA, “pollen is the potential beginning of the life of the plant. It is as simple, as beautiful, and as complex as this. And of course it has so many meanings. I think everybody who lives knows that pollen is important.”

Science Caturday: Welcome, Weird New Thingies

mushroomcat

Scientists have discovered a new kind of mushroomy, jellyfishy type thingie that nobody had ever studied before. A paper published this week in the journal PLOS ONE describes the discovery of the previously unknown creatures off the coast of Australia. Lead author Jean Just, of the Natural History Museum of Denmark, admitted “we don’t even know if they’re upside down.”

The animals are described as looking like floppy chanterelle mushrooms but feeling like dollops of gelatin.  The two new species described in the study were officially named Dendrogramma enigmatica and Dendrogramma discoides.  As yet, almost nothing is known about them, and only 18 specimens have been studied.

Mushroom Cat says “ohai” to his newly discovered cousins.

Science Caturday: Bring Your Own Bacteria

microcat

Big cool microbiologist Jack Gilbert (and a bunch of his smartest colleagues) just published a paper in Science which reveals that, like Pigpen, every human lives in a unique cloud of germs that we carry with us wherever we go.

This microbial profile, or “germ fingerprint”, is transferred to your living space remarkably quickly.  “No matter what you do to clean a hotel room,” Gilbert said, “your microbial signal has wiped out basically every trace of the previous resident within hours.”

The study, part of the Home Microbiome Project, sampled seven families, including 18 people, three dogs and a cat. Three of the families moved during the study, so the researchers tested two houses plus hotel rooms for each of them. The volunteers swabbed their hands, noses and feet, as well as floors, counters and other surfaces in their homes.

As nifty as this research is, we strongly disagree with one of Gilbert’s recommendations: he encourages people to get a dog. He told the Washington Post: “We saw dogs acting as a super-charged conduit,” he said, “transferring bacteria between one human and another, and bringing in outdoor bacteria. They just run around distributing microbes all willy-nilly.” Well, of course they do, as they slobber and shed. Science Caturday says:

44222-Grumpy-Cat-GOOD-and-NO-memes-runp

 You deserve better. Get a cat.

Getting grumpy about PMS paper

On 11 August 2014, Michael R. Gillings published a paper in Evolutionary Applications entitled “Were there evolutionary advantages to premenstrual syndrome?” There is a strain of thinking that is common in the general public, but is also frequently found among academic researchers that I call adaptionism. This line of thinking assumes that, if a biological phenomenon exists, it must be there as the result of natural selection – i.e., be adaptive. This makes things like PMS seem like a great, evolutionary mystery to be “solved”.

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) affects up to 80% of women, often leading to significant personal, social and economic costs. When apparently maladaptive states are widespread, they sometimes confer a hidden advantage, or did so in our evolutionary past. -from the abstract, Matthew R. Gillings (DOI: 10.1111/eva.12190)

I could spend pages on the problems with this approach to such a question. Fortunately for you and I, Kathryn Clancy, who is far more knowledgable on the relevant evolutionary anthropology than you and I, gutted this paper for The Daily Beast earlier this week:

…the fact that PMS is heritable and variable tells us nothing about whether women with PMS have more children than those who don’t, and this is the true test for adaptation. This crucial point—the third and most crucial condition for natural selection—is absent from the paper.
-Kathryn Clancy