Random stuff

i. Fire works a little differently than people imagine. A great ask-science comment. See also AugustusFink-nottle’s comment in the same thread.


iii. I was very conflicted about whether to link to this because I haven’t actually spent any time looking at it myself so I don’t know if it’s any good, but according to somebody (?) who linked to it on SSC the people behind this stuff have academic backgrounds in evolutionary biology, which is something at least (whether you think this is a good thing or not will probably depend greatly on your opinion of evolutionary biologists, but I’ve definitely learned a lot more about human mating patterns, partner interaction patterns, etc. from evolutionary biologists than I have from personal experience, so I’m probably in the ‘they-sometimes-have-interesting-ideas-about-these-topics-and-those-ideas-may-not-be-terrible’-camp). I figure these guys are much more application-oriented than were some of the previous sources I’ve read on related topics, such as e.g. Kappeler et al. I add the link mostly so that if I in five years time have a stroke that obliterates most of my decision-making skills, causing me to decide that entering the dating market might be a good idea, I’ll have some idea where it might make sense to start.

iv. Stereotype (In)Accuracy in Perceptions of Groups and Individuals.

“Are stereotypes accurate or inaccurate? We summarize evidence that stereotype accuracy is one of the largest and most replicable findings in social psychology. We address controversies in this literature, including the long-standing  and continuing but unjustified emphasis on stereotype inaccuracy, how to define and assess stereotype accuracy, and whether stereotypic (vs. individuating) information can be used rationally in person perception. We conclude with suggestions for building theory and for future directions of stereotype (in)accuracy research.”

A few quotes from the paper:

Demographic stereotypes are accurate. Research has consistently shown moderate to high levels of correspondence accuracy for demographic (e.g., race/ethnicity, gender) stereotypes […]. Nearly all accuracy correlations for consensual stereotypes about race/ethnicity and  gender exceed .50 (compared to only 5% of social psychological findings; Richard, Bond, & Stokes-Zoota, 2003).[…] Rather than being based in cultural myths, the shared component of stereotypes is often highly accurate. This pattern cannot be easily explained by motivational or social-constructionist theories of stereotypes and probably reflects a “wisdom of crowds” effect […] personal stereotypes are also quite accurate, with correspondence accuracy for roughly half exceeding r =.50.”

“We found 34 published studies of racial-, ethnic-, and gender-stereotype accuracy. Although not every study examined discrepancy scores, when they did, a plurality or majority of all consensual stereotype judgments were accurate. […] In these 34 studies, when stereotypes were inaccurate, there was more evidence of underestimating than overestimating actual demographic group differences […] Research assessing the accuracy of  miscellaneous other stereotypes (e.g., about occupations, college majors, sororities, etc.) has generally found accuracy levels comparable to those for demographic stereotypes”

“A common claim […] is that even though many stereotypes accurately capture group means, they are still not accurate because group means cannot describe every individual group member. […] If people were rational, they would use stereotypes to judge individual targets when they lack information about targets’ unique personal characteristics (i.e., individuating information), when the stereotype itself is highly diagnostic (i.e., highly informative regarding the judgment), and when available individuating information is ambiguous or incompletely useful. People’s judgments robustly conform to rational predictions. In the rare situations in which a stereotype is highly diagnostic, people rely on it (e.g., Crawford, Jussim, Madon, Cain, & Stevens, 2011). When highly diagnostic individuating information is available, people overwhelmingly rely on it (Kunda & Thagard, 1996; effect size averaging r = .70). Stereotype biases average no higher than r = .10 ( Jussim, 2012) but reach r = .25 in the absence of individuating information (Kunda & Thagard, 1996). The more diagnostic individuating information  people have, the less they stereotype (Crawford et al., 2011; Krueger & Rothbart, 1988). Thus, people do not indiscriminately apply their stereotypes to all individual  members of stereotyped groups.” (Funder incidentally talked about this stuff as well in his book Personality Judgment).

One thing worth mentioning in the context of stereotypes is that if you look at stuff like crime data – which sadly not many people do – and you stratify based on stuff like country of origin, then the sub-group differences you observe tend to be very large. Some of the differences you observe between subgroups are not in the order of something like 10%, which is probably the sort of difference which could easily be ignored without major consequences; some subgroup differences can easily be in the order of one or two orders of magnitude. The differences are in some contexts so large as to basically make it downright idiotic to assume there are no differences – it doesn’t make sense, it’s frankly a stupid thing to do. To give an example, in Germany the probability that a random person, about whom you know nothing, has been a suspect in a thievery case is 22% if that random person happens to be of Algerian extraction, whereas it’s only 0,27% if you’re dealing with an immigrant from China. Roughly one in 13 of those Algerians have also been involved in a case of ‘body (bodily?) harm’, which is the case for less than one in 400 of the Chinese immigrants.

v. Assessing Immigrant Integration in Sweden after the May 2013 Riots. Some data from the article:

“Today, about one-fifth of Sweden’s population has an immigrant background, defined as those who were either born abroad or born in Sweden to two immigrant parents. The foreign born comprised 15.4 percent of the Swedish population in 2012, up from 11.3 percent in 2000 and 9.2 percent in 1990 […] Of the estimated 331,975 asylum applicants registered in EU countries in 2012, 43,865 (or 13 percent) were in Sweden. […] More than half of these applications were from Syrians, Somalis, Afghanis, Serbians, and Eritreans. […] One town of about 80,000 people, Södertälje, since the mid-2000s has taken in more Iraqi refugees than the United States and Canada combined.”

“Coupled with […] macroeconomic changes, the largely humanitarian nature of immigrant arrivals since the 1970s has posed challenges of labor market integration for Sweden, as refugees often arrive with low levels of education and transferable skills […] high unemployment rates have disproportionately affected immigrant communities in Sweden. In 2009-10, Sweden had the highest gap between native and immigrant employment rates among OECD countries. Approximately 63 percent of immigrants were employed compared to 76 percent of the native-born population. This 13 percentage-point gap is significantly greater than the OECD average […] Explanations for the gap include less work experience and domestic formal qualifications such as language skills among immigrants […] Among recent immigrants, defined as those who have been in the country for less than five years, the employment rate differed from that of the native born by more than 27 percentage points. In 2011, the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter reported that 35 percent of the unemployed registered at the Swedish Public Employment Service were foreign born, up from 22 percent in 2005.”

“As immigrant populations have grown, Sweden has experienced a persistent level of segregation — among the highest in Western Europe. In 2008, 60 percent of native Swedes lived in areas where the majority of the population was also Swedish, and 20 percent lived in areas that were virtually 100 percent Swedish. In contrast, 20 percent of Sweden’s foreign born lived in areas where more than 40 percent of the population was also foreign born.”

vi. Book recommendations. Or rather, author recommendations. A while back I asked ‘the people of SSC’ if they knew of any fiction authors I hadn’t read yet which were both funny and easy to read. I got a lot of good suggestions, and the roughly 20 Dick Francis novels I’ve read during the fall I’ve read as a consequence of that thread.

vii. On the genetic structure of Denmark.

viii. Religious Fundamentalism and Hostility against Out-groups: A Comparison of Muslims and Christians in Western Europe.

“On the basis of an original survey among native Christians and Muslims of Turkish and Moroccan origin in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Sweden, this paper investigates four research questions comparing native Christians to Muslim immigrants: (1) the extent of religious fundamentalism; (2) its socio-economic determinants; (3) whether it can be distinguished from other indicators of religiosity; and (4) its relationship to hostility towards out-groups (homosexuals, Jews, the West, and Muslims). The results indicate that religious fundamentalist attitudes are much more widespread among Sunnite Muslims than among native Christians, even after controlling for the different demographic and socio-economic compositions of these groups. […] Fundamentalist believers […] show very high levels of out-group hostility, especially among Muslims.”

ix. Portal: Dinosaurs. It would have been so incredibly awesome to have had access to this kind of stuff back when I was a child. The portal includes links to articles with names like ‘Bone Wars‘ – what’s not to like? Again, awesome!

x. “you can’t determine if something is truly random from observations alone. You can only determine if something is not truly random.” (link) An important insight well expressed.

xi. Chessprogramming. If you’re interested in having a look at how chess programs work, this is a neat resource. The wiki contains lots of links with information on specific sub-topics of interest. Also chess-related: The World Championship match between Carlsen and Karjakin has started. To the extent that I’ll be following the live coverage, I’ll be following Svidler et al.’s coverage on chess24. Robin van Kampen and Eric Hansen – both 2600+ elo GMs – did quite well yesterday, in my opinion.

xii. Justified by More Than Logos Alone (Razib Khan).

“Very few are Roman Catholic because they have read Aquinas’ Five Ways. Rather, they are Roman Catholic, in order of necessity, because God aligns with their deep intuitions, basic cognitive needs in terms of cosmological coherency, and because the church serves as an avenue for socialization and repetitive ritual which binds individuals to the greater whole. People do not believe in Catholicism as often as they are born Catholics, and the Catholic religion is rather well fitted to a range of predispositions to the typical human.”

November 12, 2016 Posted by | books, Chemistry, Chess, data, dating, demographics, genetics, Geography, immigration, Paleontology, papers, Physics, Psychology, random stuff, religion | Leave a comment


i. “The combination of some data and an aching desire for an answer does not ensure that a reasonable answer can be extracted from a given body of data.” (John Tukey)

ii. “Far better an approximate answer to the right question, which is often vague, than an exact answer to the wrong question, which can always be made precise.” (-ll-)

iii. “They who can no longer unlearn have lost the power to learn.” (John Lancaster Spalding)

iv. “If there are but few who interest thee, why shouldst thou be disappointed if but few find thee interesting?” (-ll-)

v. “Since the mass of mankind are too ignorant or too indolent to think seriously, if majorities are right it is by accident.” (-ll-)

vi. “As they are the bravest who require no witnesses to their deeds of daring, so they are the best who do right without thinking whether or not it shall be known.” (-ll-)

vii. “Perfection is beyond our reach, but they who earnestly strive to become perfect, acquire excellences and virtues of which the multitude have no conception.” (-ll-)

viii. “We are made ridiculous less by our defects than by the affectation of qualities which are not ours.” (-ll-)

ix. “If thy words are wise, they will not seem so to the foolish: if they are deep the shallow will not appreciate them. Think not highly of thyself, then, when thou art praised by many.” (-ll-)

x. “Since all models are wrong the scientist cannot obtain a “correct” one by excessive elaboration. On the contrary following William of Occam he should seek an economical description of natural phenomena. Just as the ability to devise simple but evocative models is the signature of the great scientist so overelaboration and overparameterization is often the mark of mediocrity. ” (George E. P. Box)

xi. “Intense ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the young Sun acted on the atmosphere to form small amounts of very many gases. Most of these dissolved easily in water, and fell out in rain, making Earth’s surface water rich in carbon compounds. […] the most important chemical of all may have been cyanide (HCN). It would have formed easily in the upper atmosphere from solar radiation and meteorite impact, then dissolved in raindrops. Today it is broken down almost at once by oxygen, but early in Earth’s history it built up at low concentrations in lakes and oceans. Cyanide is a basic building block for more complex organic molecules such as amino acids and nucleic acid bases. Life probably evolved in chemical conditions that would kill us instantly!” (Richard Cowen, History of Life, p.8)

xii. “Dinosaurs dominated land communities for 100 million years, and it was only after dinosaurs disappeared that mammals became dominant. It’s difficult to avoid the suspicion that dinosaurs were in some way competitively superior to mammals and confined them to small body size and ecological insignificance. […] Dinosaurs dominated many guilds in the Cretaceous, including that of large browsers. […] in terms of their reconstructed behavior […] dinosaurs should be compared not with living reptiles, but with living mammals and birds. […] By the end of the Cretaceous there were mammals with varied sets of genes but muted variation in morphology. […] All Mesozoic mammals were small. Mammals with small bodies can play only a limited number of ecological roles, mainly insectivores and omnivores. But when dinosaurs disappeared at the end of the Cretaceous, some of the Paleocene mammals quickly evolved to take over many of their ecological roles” (ibid., pp. 145, 154, 222, 227-228)

xiii. “To consult the statistician after an experiment is finished is often merely to ask him to conduct a post mortem examination. He can perhaps say what the experiment died of.” (Ronald Fisher)

xiv. “Ideas are incestuous.” (Howard Raiffa)

xv. “Game theory […] deals only with the way in which ultrasmart, all knowing people should behave in competitive situations, and has little to say to Mr. X as he confronts the morass of his problem. ” (-ll-)

xvi. “One of the principal objects of theoretical research is to find the point of view from which the subject appears in the greatest simplicity.” (Josiah Williard Gibbs)

xvii. “Nothing is as dangerous as an ignorant friend; a wise enemy is to be preferred.” (Jean de La Fontaine)

xviii. “Humility is a virtue all preach, none practice; and yet everybody is content to hear.” (John Selden)

xix. “Few men make themselves masters of the things they write or speak.” (-ll-)

xx. “Wise men say nothing in dangerous times.” (-ll-)



January 15, 2016 Posted by | biology, books, Paleontology, quotes, statistics | Leave a comment

Mammoths, Sabertooths, and Hominids: 65 Million Years of Mammalian Evolution in Europe (3)

Here’s a previous post in the series. In this post I’ll pick up roughly where I left off in my last post, around the time of the ‘Grande Coupure‘ roughly 34 million years ago.

“The extinction of the arboreal primates and the reduction or extinction of several browsing groups […] are strong evidence for the retreat of the forests during the early Oligocene and their replacement by open woodlands or even drier biotopes. […] Among the most distinctive species to enter Europe after the “Grande Coupure” were the first true rhinoceroses [which] achieved a high diversity and were going to characterize the mammalian faunas of Europe for millions of years, until the extinction of the last woolly rhinos during the late Pleistocene. […] the evolution of this group produced the largest terrestrial mammals of any time. The giant Paraceratherium […] was 6 m tall at the shoulders and had a 1.5-m-long skull […]. The males of this animal weighed around 15 tons, while the females were somewhat smaller, about 10 tons.” [Wikipedia has a featured article about these things here].

“One of the most significant features of the early Oligocene small-mammal communities was the first entry of lagomorphs into Europe. The lagomorphs — that is, the order of mammals that includes today’s hares and rabbits — originated very early on the Asian continent and from there colonized North America. The presence of the Turgai Strait prevented this group from entering Europe during the Eocene. […] the most characteristic immigrants during the early Oligocene were the cricetids of the genus Atavocricetodon. The cricetids are today represented in Europe by hamsters, reduced to three or four species […] These cricetids are typical inhabitants of the cold steppes of eastern Europe and Central Asia, and their limited representation in today’s European ecosystems does not reflect their importance in the history of the Cenozoic mammalian faunas of Eurasia. After its first entry following the “Grande Coupure,” this group experienced extraordinary success, diversifying into several genera and species. Even more significantly, the cricetids gave rise to the rodent groups that were going to be dominant during the Pliocene and Pleistocene — that is, the murids (the family of mice and rats) and arvicolids (the family of voles). […] In addition, new carnivore families, like the nimravids, appeared […]. The nimravids were once regarded as true felids (the family that includes today’s big and small cats) because of their similar dental and cranial adaptations. […] one of the more distinctive attributes of the nimravids was their long, laterally flattened upper canines, which were similar to those of the Miocene and Pliocene saber-toothed cats […]. However, most of these features have proved to be the result of a similar adaptation to hypercarnivorism, and the nimravids are now placed in a separate family of early carnivores whose evolution paralleled that of the large saber-toothed felids.” [Actually some of the nimravids were in some sense ‘even more sabertoothed’ than the (‘true’) saber-toothed cats which came later: “Although [the nimravid] Eusmilus bidentatus was no larger than a modern lynx, the adaptations for gape seen on its skull and mandible are more advanced than in any of the felid sabertooths of the European Pliocene and Pleistocene.”]

“About 30 million years ago, a new glacial phase began, and for 4 million years Antarctica was subjected to multiple glaciation episodes. The global sea level experienced the largest lowering in the whole Cenozoic, dropping by about 150 m […]. A possible explanation for this new glacial event lies in the final opening of the Drake Passage between Antarctica and South America, which led to the completion of a fully circumpolar circulation and impeded any heat exchange between Antarctic waters and the warmer equatorial waters. A second, perhaps complementary cause for this glacial pulse is probably related to the final opening of the seaway between Greenland and Norway. The cold Arctic waters, largely isolated since the Mesozoic, spread at this time into the North Atlantic. The main effect of this cooling was a new extension of the dry landscapes on the European and western Asian lands. For instance, we know from pollen evidence that a desert vegetation was dominant in the Levant during the late Oligocene and earliest Miocene […] This glacial event led to the extinction of several forms that had persisted from the Eocene”.

“Among the carnivores, the late Oligocene saw the decline and local extinction of the large nimravids [Key word: local. They came back to Europe later during the early Miocene, and “the nimravids maintained a remarkable stability throughout the Miocene, probably in relation to a low speciation rate”]. In contrast, the group of archaic feloids that had arisen during the early Oligocene […] continued its evolution into the late Oligocene and diversified into a number of genera […] The other group of large carnivores that spread during the late Oligocene were the “bear-dog” amphicyonids, which from that time on became quite diverse, with many different ecological adaptations. […] The late Oligocene saw, in addition to the bearlike amphicyonids, the spread of the first true ursids […]. The members of this genus did not have the massive body dimensions of today’s bears but were medium-size omnivores […] Another group of carnivores that spread successfully during the late Oligocene were the mustelids, the family that includes today’s martens, badgers, skunks, and otters. […] In contrast to these successes, the creodonts of the genus Hyaenodon, which had survived all periods of crisis since the Eocene, declined during the late Oligocene. The last Hyaenodon in Europe was recorded at the end of the Oligocene […], and did not survive into the Miocene. This was the end in Europe of a long-lived group of successful carnivorans that had filled the large-predator guild for millions of years. However, as with other Oligocene groups, […] the hyaenodonts persisted in Africa and, from there, made a short incursion into Europe during the early Miocene”.

“After a gradual warming during the late Oligocene, global temperatures reached a climatic optimum during the early Miocene […] Shallow seas covered several nearshore areas in Europe […] as a consequence of a general sea-level rise. A broad connection was established between the Indian Ocean and both the Mediterranean and Paratethys Seas […] Widespread warm-water faunas including tropical fishes and nautiloids have been found, indicating conditions similar to those of the present-day Guinea Gulf, with mean surface-water temperatures around 25 to 27°C. Important reef formations bounded most of the shallow-water Mediterranean basins. […] Reef-building corals that today inhabit the Great Barrier Reef within a temperature range of 19 to 28°C became well established on North Island, New Zealand […] The early Miocene climate was warm and humid, indicating tropical conditions […]. Rich, extensive woodlands with varied kinds of plants developed in different parts of southern Europe […] The climatic optimum of the early Miocene also led to a maximum development of mangroves. These subtropical floras extended as far north as eastern Siberia and Kamchatka”.

“Despite the climatic stability of the early Miocene, an important tectonic event disrupted the evolution of the Eurasian faunas during this epoch. About 19 million years ago, the graben system along the Red Sea Fault, active in the south since the late Oligocene, opened further […] Consequently, the Arabian plate rotated counterclockwise and collided with the Anatolian plate. The marine gateway from the Mediterranean toward the Indo-Pacific closed, and a continental migration bridge (known as the Gomphothere Bridge) between Eurasia and Africa came into existence. This event had enormous consequences for the further evolution of the terrestrial faunas of Eurasia and Africa. Since the late Eocene, Africa had evolved in isolation, developing its own autochthonous fauna. Part of this fauna consisted of a number of endemic Oligocene survivors, such as anthracotheres, hyaenodonts, and primates, for which Africa had acted as a refuge […] The first evidence of an African–Eurasian exchange was the presence of the anthracothere Brachyodus in a number of early Miocene sites in Europe […] a second dispersal event from Africa, that of the gomphothere and deinothere proboscideans, had much more lasting effects. […] Today we can easily identify any proboscidean by its long proboscis and tusks. However, the primitive proboscideans from the African Eocene had a completely different appearance and are hardly recognizable as the ancestors of today’s elephants. Instead, they were hippolike semiamphibious ungulates with massive, elongated bodies supported by rather short legs. […] The first proboscideans entering Europe were the so-called gomphotheres […] which dispersed worldwide during the early Miocene from Africa to Europe, Asia, and North America […]. Gomphotherium was the size of an Indian elephant, about 2.5 m high at the withers. Its skull and dentition, however, were different from those of modern elephants. Gomphotherium’s skull was long […] and displayed not two but four tusks, one pair in the upper jaw and the other pair at the end of the lower jaw. […] Shortly after the entry of Gomphotherium and Zygolophodon [a second group of mastodons], a third proboscidean group, the deinotheres, successfully settled in Eurasia. Unlike the previous genera, the deinotheres were not elephantoids but represented a different, now totally extinct kind of proboscidean.”

“The dispersal of not only the African proboscideans but also many eastern immigrants contributed to a significant increase in the diversity of the impoverished early Miocene terrestrial biotas. The entry of this set of immigrants probably led to the extinction of a number of late Oligocene and early Miocene survivors, such as tapirids, anthracotherids, and primitive suids [pigs] and moschoids. In addition to the events that affected the Middle East area, sea-level fluctuations enabled short-lived mammal exchanges across the Bering Strait between Eurasia and North America, permitting the arrival of the browsing horse Anchitherium in Eurasia […] Widely used for biostragraphic purposes, the dispersal of Anchitherium was the first of a number of similar isolated events undergone by North American equids that entered Eurasia and rapidly spread on this continental area.”

“A new marine transgression, known as the Langhian Transgression, characterized the beginning of the middle Miocene, affecting the circum-Mediterranean area. Consequently, the seaway to the Indo-Pacific reopened for a short time, restoring the circum-equatorial warm-water circulation. […] tropical conditions became established as far north as Poland in marine coastal and open-sea waters. After the optimal conditions of the early Miocene, the middle Miocene was a period of global oceanic reorganization, representing a major change in the climatic evolution of the Cenozoic. Before this process began, high-latitude paleoclimatic conditions were generally warm although oscillating, but they rapidly cooled thereafter, leading to an abrupt high-latitude cooling event at about 14.5 million years ago […] Increased production of cold, deep Antarctic waters caused the extinction of several oceanic benthic foraminifers that had persisted from the late Oligocene–early Miocene and promoted a significant evolutionary turnover of the oceanic assemblages from about 16 to 14 million years ago […] This middle Miocene cooling was associated with a major growth of the Eastern Antarctic Ice Sheets (EAIS) […] Middle Miocene polar cooling and east Antarctic ice growth had severe effects on middle- to low-latitude terrestrial environments. There was a climatic trend to cooler winters and decreased summer rainfall. Seasonal, summer-drought-adapted schlerophyllous vegetation progressively evolved and spread geographically during the Miocene, replacing the laurophyllous evergreen forests that were adapted to moist, subtropical and tropical conditions with temperate winters and abundant summer rainfalls […] These effects were clearly seen in a wide area to the south of the Paratethys Sea, extending from eastern Europe to western Asia. According to the ideas of the American paleontologist Ray Bernor, this region, known as the Greek-Iranian (or sub-Paratethyan) Province, acted as a woodland environmental “hub” for a corridor of open habitats that extended from northwestern Africa eastward across Arabia into Afghanistan, north into the eastern Mediterranean area, and northeast into northern China. The Greek-Iranian Province records the first evidence of open woodlands in which a number of large, progressive open-country mammals—such as hyaenids, thick-enameled hominoids, bovids, and giraffids — diversified and dispersed into eastern Africa and southwestern Asia […] the peculiar biotope developed in the Greek-Iranian Province acted as the background from which the African savannas evolved during the Pliocene and Pleistocene.”

“The most outstanding effect of the Middle Miocene Event is seen among the herbivorous community, which showed a trend toward developing larger body sizes, more-hypsodont teeth, and more-elongated distal limb segments […]. Increasing body size in herbivores is related to a higher ingestion of fibrous and low-quality vegetation. Browsers and grazers have to be large because they need long stomachs and intestines to process a large quantity of low-energy food (this is why they have to eat almost continuously). Because of the mechanism of rumination, ruminants are the only herbivores that can escape this rule and subsist at small sizes. Increasing hypsodonty and high-crowned teeth are directly related to the ingestion of more-abrasive vegetation […] Finally, the elongation of the distal limb segments is related to increasing cursoriality. The origin of cursoriality can be linked to the expansion of the home range in open, low-productive habitats. […] At the taxonomic level, this habitat change in the low latitudes involved the rapid adaptive radiation of woodland ruminants (bovids and giraffids). […] Gazelles dispersed into Europe at this time from their possible Afro-Arabian origins […] Not only gazelles but also the giraffids experienced a wide adaptive radiation into Africa after their dispersal from Asia. […] Among the suids [pigs], the listriodontines evolved in a peculiar way in northern Africa, leading to giant forms such as Kubanochoerus, with a weight of about 500 kg, which in some species may have reached 800 kg.”

March 8, 2015 Posted by | biology, books, climate, Geology, Paleontology, Zoology | Leave a comment

Wikipedia articles of interest

i. Invasion of Poland. I recently realized I had no idea e.g. how long it took for the Germans and Soviets to defeat Poland during WW2 (the answer is 1 month and five days). The Germans attacked more than two weeks before the Soviets did. The article has lots of links, like most articles about such topics on wikipedia. Incidentally the question of why France and Britain applied a double standard and only declared war on Germany, and not the Soviet Union, is discussed in much detail in the links provided by u/OldWorldGlory here.

ii. Huaynaputina. From the article:

“A few days before the eruption, someone reported booming noise from the volcano and fog-like gas being emitted from its crater. The locals scrambled to appease the volcano, preparing girls, pets, and flowers for sacrifice.”

This makes sense – what else would one do in a situation like that? Finding a few virgins, dogs and flowers seems like the sensible approach – yes, you have to love humans and how they always react in sensible ways to such crises.

I’m not really sure the rest of the article is really all that interesting, but I found the above sentence both amusing and depressing enough to link to it here.

iii. Albert Pierrepoint. This guy killed hundreds of people.

On the other hand people were fine with it – it was his job. Well, sort of, this is actually slightly complicated. (“Pierrepoint was often dubbed the Official Executioner, despite there being no such job or title”).

Anyway this article is clearly the story of a guy who achieved his childhood dream – though unlike other children, he did not dream of becoming a fireman or a pilot, but rather of becoming the Official Executioner of the country. I’m currently thinking of using Pierrepoint as the main character in the motivational story I plan to tell my nephew when he’s a bit older.

iv. Second Crusade (featured). Considering how many different ‘states’ and ‘kingdoms’ were involved, a surprisingly small amount of people were actually fighting; the article notes that “[t]here were perhaps 50,000 troops in total” on the Christian side when the attack on Damascus was initiated. It wasn’t enough, as the outcome of the crusade was a decisive Muslim victory in the ‘Holy Land’ (Middle East).

v. 0.999… (featured). This thing is equal to one, but it can sometimes be really hard to get even very smart people to accept this fact. Lots of details and some proofs presented in the article.

vi. Shapley–Folkman lemma (‘good article’ – but also a somewhat technical article).

vii. Multituberculata. This article is not that special, but I add it here also because I think it ought to be and I’m actually sort of angry that it’s not; sometimes the coverage provided on wikipedia simply strikes me as grossly unfair, even if this is perhaps a slightly odd way to think about stuff. As pointed out in the article (Agustí points this out in his book as well), “The multituberculates existed for about 120 million years, and are often considered the most successful, diversified, and long-lasting mammals in natural history.” Yet notice how much (/little) coverage the article provides. Now compare the article with this article, or this.

February 25, 2015 Posted by | biology, economics, history, mathematics, Paleontology, wikipedia, Zoology | 2 Comments

Mammoths, Sabertooths, and Hominids: 65 Million Years of Mammalian Evolution in Europe (2)

Here’s my first post about the book.

I wasn’t quite sure how to rate the book, but I ended up at four stars on goodreads. The main thing holding me back from giving it a higher rating is that the book is actually quite hard to read and there’s a lot of talk about teeth; one general point I learned from this book is that the teeth animals who lived in the past have left behind for us to find are sometimes really useful, because they can help us to make/support various inferences about other things, from animal behaviours to climatic developments. As for the ‘hard to read’-part, I (mostly) don’t blame the author for this because a book like this would have to be a bit hard to read to provide the level of coverage that is provided; that’s part of why I give it four stars in spite of this. If you have a look at the links in the first post, you’ll notice the many Latin names. You’ll find a lot of those in the text as well. This is perfectly natural as there were a lot of e.g. horse-like and rhino-like species living in the past and you need to be clear about which one of them you’re talking about now because they were all different, lived in different time periods, etc. For obvious reasons the book has a lot of talk about species/genera with no corresponding ‘familiar/popular’ names (like ‘cat’ or ‘dog’), and you need to keep track of the Latin names to make sense of the stuff; as well as keeping track of the various other Latin terms used e.g. in osteometry. So you’ll encounter some passages where there’s some talk about the differences between two groups whose names look pretty similar, and you’re told about how one group had two teeth which were a bit longer than they were in the other group and the teeth also looked slightly different (and you’ll be told exactly which teeth we’re talking about, described in a language you’d probably have to be a dentist to understand without looking up a lot of stuff along the way). Problems keeping track of the animals/groups encountered also stem from the fact that whereas some species encountered in the book do have modern counterparts, others don’t. The coverage helps you to figure out which ecological niche which group may have inhabited, but if you’re completely unfamiliar with the field of ecology I’m not sure how easy it is to get into this mindset. The text does provide some help navigating this weird landscape of the past, and the many fascinating illustrations in the book make it easier to visualize what the animals encountered along the way might have looked like, but reading the book takes some work.

That said, it’s totally worth it because this stuff’s just plain fascinating! The book isn’t quite ‘up there’ with Herrera et al. (it reminded me a bit more of van der Geer et al., not only because of the slight coverage overlap), but some of the stuff in there’s pretty damn awesome – and it’s stuff you ought to know, because it’ll probably change how you think about the world. The really neat thing about reading a book like this is that it exposes a lot of unwarranted assumptions you’ve been making without knowing it, about what the past used to be like. I’m almost certain anyone reading a book like this will encounter ideas which are very surprising to them. We look at the world through the eyes of the present, and it can be difficult to imagine just how many things used to be different. Vague and tentative ideas you might have had about how the world used to look like and how it used to work can through reading books like this one be replaced with a much more clear, and much better supported, picture of the past. Even though there’s still a lot of stuff we don’t know, and will never know. I could mention almost countless examples of things I was very surprised to learn while reading this book, and I’m sure many people reading the book would encounter even more of these, as I actually was somewhat familiar with parts of the related literature already before reading the book.

I’ve added a few sample quotes and observations from the book below.

“Europe, although just an appendage of the Eurasian supercontinent, acted during most of its history as a crossroad where Asian, African, and American faunas passed one another, throughout successive dispersal and extinction events. But these events did not happen in an isolated context, since they were the response to climatic and environmental events of a higher order. Thus this book pays special attention to the abundant literature that for the past few decades has dedicated itself to the climatic evolution of our planet.”

“A common scenario tends to posit the early evolutionary radiation of placental mammals as occurring only after the extinction of the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period. The same scenario assumes a sudden explosion of forms immediately after the End Cretaceous Mass Extinction, filling the vacancies left by the vanished reptilian faunas. But a close inspection of the first epoch of the Cenozoic provides quite a different picture: the “explosion” began well before the end of the Cretaceous period and was not sudden, but lasted millions of years throughout the first division of the Cenozoic era, the Paleocene epoch. […] our knowledge of this remote time of mammalian evolution is much more obscure and incomplete than our understanding of the other periods of the Cenozoic. […] compared with our present world, and in contrast to the succeeding epochs, the Paleocene appears to us as a strange time, in which the present orders of mammals were absent or can hardly be distinguished: no rodents, no perissodactyls, no artiodactyls, bizarre noncarnivorous carnivorans. […] although the Paleocene was mammalian in character, we do not recognize it as a clear part of our own world; it looks more like an impoverished extension of the late Cretaceous world than the seed of the present Age of Mammals.”

“The diatrymas were human-size — up to 2 m tall — ground-running birds that inhabited the terrestrial ecosystems of Europe and North America in the Paleocene and the early to middle Eocene […] Besides the large diatrymas, a large variety of crocodiles — mainly terrestrial and amphibious eusuchian crocodiles — populated the marshes of the Paleocene rainforests. […] The high diversification of the crocodile fauna throughout the Paleocene and Eocene represents a significant ecological datum, since crocodiles do not tolerate temperatures below 10 to 15°C (exceptionally, they could survive in temperatures of about 5 or 6°C). Their existence in Europe indicates that during the first part of the Cenozoic the average temperature of the coldest month never fell below these values and that these mild conditions persisted at least until the middle Miocene.”

“At the end of the Paleocene, approximately 55.5 million years ago, there was a sudden, short-term warming known as the Latest Paleocene Thermal Maximum. Over a period of tens of thousands of years or less, the temperature of all the oceans increased by around 4°C. This was the highest warming during the entire Cenozoic, reaching global mean temperatures of around 20°C. There is some evidence that the Latest Paleocene Thermal Maximum resulted from a sudden increase in atmospheric CO2. Intense volcanic activity developed at the Paleocene–Eocene boundary, associated with the rifting process in the North Atlantic and the opening of the Norwegian-Greenland Sea. […] According to some analyses, atmospheric CO2 during the early Eocene may have been eight times its present concentration. […] The high temperatures and increasing humidity favored the extension of tropical rainforests over the middle and higher latitudes, as far north as Ellesmere Island, now in the Canadian arctic north. There, an abundant fauna — including crocodiles, monitor lizards, primates, rodents, multituberculates, early perissodactyls, and the pantodont Coryphodon — and a flora composed of tropical elements indicates the extension of the forests as far north as 78 degrees north latitude. […] The global oceanic level at the beginning of the Eocene was high, and extensive areas of Eurasia were still under the sea. In this context, Europe consisted of a number of emerged islands forming a kind of archipelago. A central European island consisted of parts of present-day England, France, and Germany, although it was placed in a much more southerly position, approximately at the present latitude of Naples. […] To the east, the growing Mediterranean opened into a wide sea, since the landmasses of Turkey, Iraq, and Iran were still below sea level. To the east of the Urals, the Turgai Strait still connected the warm waters of the Tethys Sea with the Polar Sea. […] Despite the opening of the Greenland-Norwegian Sea, Europe and North America were still connected during most of the early and middle Eocene across two main land bridges […] the De Geer Corridor [and] the Thule Bridge […] these corridors must have been effective, since the European fossil record shows a massive entry of American elements […] The ischyromyid and ailuravid rodents, as well as the miacid carnivores, were among the oldest representatives of the modern orders of mammals to appear in Europe during the early Eocene. However, they were not the only ones, since the “modernization” of the mammalian communities at this time went even further, and groups such as the first true primates, bats (Chiroptera), flying lemurs (Dermoptera), and oddtoed (Perissodactyla) and even-toed (Artiodactyla) ungulates entered onto the scene, in both Europe and North America.”

“Although it was the first member of the horse lineage, Pliolophus certainly did not look like a horse. As classically stated, it had the dimensions of a medium dog (“a fox-terrier”), bearing four hooves on the front legs and three on the hind legs. […] the first rhino-related forms included Hyrachius, a small rhino about the size of a wolf that during the Eocene inhabited a wide geographic range, from North America to Europe and Asia.” (Yep, in case you didn’t know Europe had rhinos for millions and millions of years…) “The artiodactyls are among the most successful orders of mammals, having diversified in the past 10 million years into a wide array of families, subfamilies, tribes, and genera all around the world, including pigs, peccaries, hippos, chevrotains, camels, giraffes, deer, antelopes, gazelles, goats, and cattle. They are easily distinguished from the perissodactyls because each extremity is supported on the two central toes, instead of on the middle strengthened toe. […] The oldest member of the order is Diacodexis, […] a rabbit-size ungulate”

“Although the number of middle Eocene localities in Europe is quite restricted, we have excellent knowledge of the terrestrial communities of this time thanks to the extraordinary fossiliferous site of Messel, Germany. […] several specimens from Messel retain in their gut their last meal, providing a rare opportunity for testing the teeth-inferred dietary requirements of a number of extinct mammalian groups. […] A dense canopy forest surrounded Messel lake, formed of several tropical and paratropical taxa that today live in Southeast Asia”.

“At the end of the middle Eocene, things began to change in the European archipelago. Several late Paleocene and early Eocene survivors had become extinct […] The last part of the middle Eocene saw a clear change in the structure of the herbivore community as specialized browsing herbivores […] replaced the small to medium-size omnivorous/ frugivorous archaic ungulates of the early Eocene and became the dominant species. […] These changes among the mammalian faunas were most probably a response to the major tectonic transformations occurring at that time and the associated environmental changes. During the middle Eocene, the Indian plate collided with Asia, closing the Tethys Sea north of India. The collision of India and the compression between Africa and Europe formed an active alpine mountain belt along the southern border of Eurasia. In the western Mediterranean, strong compression occurred during the late Eocene, […] leading to the final emergence of the Pyrenees. To the south of the Pyrenees, the sea branch between the Iberian plate and Europe retreated”

“The European terrestrial ecosystems at the end of the Eocene were quite different from those inherited from the Paleocene, which were dominated by archaic, unspecialized groups. In contrast, a diversified fauna of specialized small and large browsing herbivores […] characterized the late Eocene. From our perspective, they looked much more “modern” than those of the early and early-middle Eocene and perfectly adapted to the new late Eocene environmental conditions characterized by the spread of more open habitats.”

“during the Eocene […] Australia and South America were still attached to Antarctica, as the last remnants of the ancient Gondwanan supercontinent. Today’s circumpolar current did not yet exist, and the equatorial South Atlantic and South Pacific waters went closer to the Antarctic coasts, thus transporting heat from the low latitudes to the high southern latitudes. However, this changed during the late Eocene, when a rifting process began to separate Australia from Antarctica. At the beginning of the Oligocene, between 34 and 33 million years ago, the spread between the two continents was large enough to allow a first phase of circumpolar circulation, which restricted the thermal exchange between the low-latitude equatorial waters and the Antarctic waters. A sudden and massive cooling took place, and mean global temperatures fell by about 5°C. […] During a few hundred thousand years (the estimated duration of this early Oligocene glacial episode), the ice sheets expanded and covered extensive areas of Antarctica, particularly in its western regions. […] The onset of Antarctic glaciation and the growing of the ice sheets in western Antarctica provoked an important global sea-level lowering of about 30 m. Several shallow epicontinental seas became continental areas, including those that surrounded the European Archipelago. The Turgai Strait, which during millions of years had isolated the European lands from Asia, vanished and opened a migration pathway for Asian and American mammals to the west. […] The tectonic movements led to the final split of the Tethys Sea into two main seas, the Mediterranean Sea to the south and the Paratethys Sea, the latter covering the formerly open ocean areas of central and eastern Europe. […] After the retreat of the Turgai Strait and the emergence of the Paratethys province, the European Archipelago ceased to exist, and Europe approached its present configuration. The ancient barriers that had prevented Asian faunas from settling in this continental area no longer existed, and a wave of new immigrants entered from the east. This coincided with the trend toward more temperate conditions and the spread of open environments initiated during the late Eocene. Consequently, most of the species that had characterized the middle and late Eocene declined or became completely extinct, replaced by herds of Asian newcomers.”


February 23, 2015 Posted by | biology, books, Geology, Paleontology, Zoology | Leave a comment

Mammoths, Sabertooths, and Hominids: 65 Million Years of Mammalian Evolution in Europe

I’m currently reading this book. It’s quite nice so far, though the title is slightly misleading (I’ve read 82 pages so far and I’ve yet to come across any mammoths, sabertooths or hominids…). I mentioned yesterday that I wanted to cover the systems analysis text in more detail today, but that turned out to be really difficult to do without actually rewriting the book (or at the very least quoting very extensively), something I really don’t want to do. I decided to cover this book instead, though it’s admittedly slightly ‘lazy coverage’. Below I have added some links to stuff he talks about in the book. It’s the sort of book which is reasonably easy to blog, so I’m quite sure I’ll add more detail and context later, especially considering how most people presumably know far more (…okay, well, more) about the lives of the dinosaurs than they do about the lives of their much more recent ancestors, which lived during the Cenozoic.

The book frequently has more information about a given species/genus than does wikipedia’s corresponding article (and there’s stuff in here which wikipedia does not have articles about at all…), and/but I’ve tried to avoid linking to stubs below. Some articles below have decent coverage, but these are in general topics not well covered on wikipedia – I don’t think there’s a single featured article among the articles included. Even so, it’s probably worth having a look at some of the articles below if you’re curious to know which kind of stuff’s covered in this book. Aside from the links, I decided to also include a few pictures from the articles.

Late Paleocene Thermal Maximum.
Turgai Strait.
Messel site.


Alpine orogeny.


February 13, 2015 Posted by | biology, books, evolution, Paleontology, Zoology | Leave a comment

Wikipedia articles of interest

(A minor note: These days when I’m randomly browsing wikipedia and not just looking up concepts or terms found in the books I read, I’m mostly browsing the featured content on wikipedia. There’s a lot of featured stuff, and on average such articles more interesting than random articles. As a result of this approach, all articles covered in the post below are featured articles. A related consequence of this shift may be that I may cover fewer articles in future wikipedia posts than I have in the past; this post only contains five articles, which I believe is slightly less than usual for these posts – a big reason for this being that it sometimes takes a lot of time to read a featured article.)

i. Woolly mammoth.


“The woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) was a species of mammoth, the common name for the extinct elephant genus Mammuthus. The woolly mammoth was one of the last in a line of mammoth species, beginning with Mammuthus subplanifrons in the early Pliocene. M. primigenius diverged from the steppe mammoth, M. trogontherii, about 200,000 years ago in eastern Asia. Its closest extant relative is the Asian elephant. […] The earliest known proboscideans, the clade which contains elephants, existed about 55 million years ago around the Tethys Sea. […] The family Elephantidae existed six million years ago in Africa and includes the modern elephants and the mammoths. Among many now extinct clades, the mastodon is only a distant relative of the mammoths, and part of the separate Mammutidae family, which diverged 25 million years before the mammoths evolved.[12] […] The woolly mammoth coexisted with early humans, who used its bones and tusks for making art, tools, and dwellings, and the species was also hunted for food.[1] It disappeared from its mainland range at the end of the Pleistocene 10,000 years ago, most likely through a combination of climate change, consequent disappearance of its habitat, and hunting by humans, though the significance of these factors is disputed. Isolated populations survived on Wrangel Island until 4,000 years ago, and on St. Paul Island until 6,400 years ago.”

“The appearance and behaviour of this species are among the best studied of any prehistoric animal due to the discovery of frozen carcasses in Siberia and Alaska, as well as skeletons, teeth, stomach contents, dung, and depiction from life in prehistoric cave paintings. […] Fully grown males reached shoulder heights between 2.7 and 3.4 m (9 and 11 ft) and weighed up to 6 tonnes (6.6 short tons). This is almost as large as extant male African elephants, which commonly reach 3–3.4 m (9.8–11.2 ft), and is less than the size of the earlier mammoth species M. meridionalis and M. trogontherii, and the contemporary M. columbi. […] Woolly mammoths had several adaptations to the cold, most noticeably the layer of fur covering all parts of the body. Other adaptations to cold weather include ears that are far smaller than those of modern elephants […] The small ears reduced heat loss and frostbite, and the tail was short for the same reason […] They had a layer of fat up to 10 cm (3.9 in) thick under the skin, which helped to keep them warm. […] The coat consisted of an outer layer of long, coarse “guard hair”, which was 30 cm (12 in) on the upper part of the body, up to 90 cm (35 in) in length on the flanks and underside, and 0.5 mm (0.020 in) in diameter, and a denser inner layer of shorter, slightly curly under-wool, up to 8 cm (3.1 in) long and 0.05 mm (0.0020 in) in diameter. The hairs on the upper leg were up to 38 cm (15 in) long, and those of the feet were 15 cm (5.9 in) long, reaching the toes. The hairs on the head were relatively short, but longer on the underside and the sides of the trunk. The tail was extended by coarse hairs up to 60 cm (24 in) long, which were thicker than the guard hairs. It is likely that the woolly mammoth moulted seasonally, and that the heaviest fur was shed during spring.”

“Woolly mammoths had very long tusks, which were more curved than those of modern elephants. The largest known male tusk is 4.2 m (14 ft) long and weighs 91 kg (201 lb), but 2.4–2.7 m (7.9–8.9 ft) and 45 kg (99 lb) was a more typical size. Female tusks averaged at 1.5–1.8 m (4.9–5.9 ft) and weighed 9 kg (20 lb). About a quarter of the length was inside the sockets. The tusks grew spirally in opposite directions from the base and continued in a curve until the tips pointed towards each other. In this way, most of the weight would have been close to the skull, and there would be less torque than with straight tusks. The tusks were usually asymmetrical and showed considerable variation, with some tusks curving down instead of outwards and some being shorter due to breakage.”

“Woolly mammoths needed a varied diet to support their growth, like modern elephants. An adult of six tonnes would need to eat 180 kg (397 lb) daily, and may have foraged as long as twenty hours every day. […] Woolly mammoths continued growing past adulthood, like other elephants. Unfused limb bones show that males grew until they reached the age of 40, and females grew until they were 25. The frozen calf “Dima” was 90 cm (35 in) tall when it died at the age of 6–12 months. At this age, the second set of molars would be in the process of erupting, and the first set would be worn out at 18 months of age. The third set of molars lasted for ten years, and this process was repeated until the final, sixth set emerged when the animal was 30 years old. A woolly mammoth could probably reach the age of 60, like modern elephants of the same size. By then the last set of molars would be worn out, the animal would be unable to chew and feed, and it would die of starvation.[53]

“The habitat of the woolly mammoth is known as “mammoth steppe” or “tundra steppe”. This environment stretched across northern Asia, many parts of Europe, and the northern part of North America during the last ice age. It was similar to the grassy steppes of modern Russia, but the flora was more diverse, abundant, and grew faster. Grasses, sedges, shrubs, and herbaceous plants were present, and scattered trees were mainly found in southern regions. This habitat was not dominated by ice and snow, as is popularly believed, since these regions are thought to have been high-pressure areas at the time. The habitat of the woolly mammoth also supported other grazing herbivores such as the woolly rhinoceros, wild horses and bison. […] A 2008 study estimated that changes in climate shrank suitable mammoth habitat from 7,700,000 km2 (3,000,000 sq mi) 42,000 years ago to 800,000 km2 (310,000 sq mi) 6,000 years ago.[81][82] Woolly mammoths survived an even greater loss of habitat at the end of the Saale glaciation 125,000 years ago, and it is likely that humans hunted the remaining populations to extinction at the end of the last glacial period.[83][84] […] Several woolly mammoth specimens show evidence of being butchered by humans, which is indicated by breaks, cut-marks, and associated stone tools. It is not known how much prehistoric humans relied on woolly mammoth meat, since there were many other large herbivores available. Many mammoth carcasses may have been scavenged by humans rather than hunted. Some cave paintings show woolly mammoths in structures interpreted as pitfall traps. Few specimens show direct, unambiguous evidence of having been hunted by humans.”

“While frozen woolly mammoth carcasses had been excavated by Europeans as early as 1728, the first fully documented specimen was discovered near the delta of the Lena River in 1799 by Ossip Schumachov, a Siberian hunter.[90] Schumachov let it thaw until he could retrieve the tusks for sale to the ivory trade. [Aargh!] […] The 1901 excavation of the “Berezovka mammoth” is the best documented of the early finds. It was discovered by the Berezovka River, and the Russian authorities financed its excavation. Its head was exposed, and the flesh had been scavenged. The animal still had grass between its teeth and on the tongue, showing that it had died suddenly. […] By 1929, the remains of 34 mammoths with frozen soft tissues (skin, flesh, or organs) had been documented. Only four of them were relatively complete. Since then, about that many more have been found.”

ii. Daniel Lambert.

Daniel Lambert (13 March 1770 – 21 June 1809) was a gaol keeper[n 1] and animal breeder from Leicester, England, famous for his unusually large size. After serving four years as an apprentice at an engraving and die casting works in Birmingham, he returned to Leicester around 1788 and succeeded his father as keeper of Leicester’s gaol. […] At the time of Lambert’s return to Leicester, his weight began to increase steadily, even though he was athletically active and, by his own account, abstained from drinking alcohol and did not eat unusual amounts of food. In 1805, Lambert’s gaol closed. By this time, he weighed 50 stone (700 lb; 318 kg), and had become the heaviest authenticated person up to that point in recorded history. Unemployable and sensitive about his bulk, Lambert became a recluse.

In 1806, poverty forced Lambert to put himself on exhibition to raise money. In April 1806, he took up residence in London, charging spectators to enter his apartments to meet him. Visitors were impressed by his intelligence and personality, and visiting him became highly fashionable. After some months on public display, Lambert grew tired of exhibiting himself, and in September 1806, he returned, wealthy, to Leicester, where he bred sporting dogs and regularly attended sporting events. Between 1806 and 1809, he made a further series of short fundraising tours.

In June 1809, he died suddenly in Stamford. At the time of his death, he weighed 52 stone 11 lb (739 lb; 335 kg), and his coffin required 112 square feet (10.4 m2) of wood. Despite the coffin being built with wheels to allow easy transport, and a sloping approach being dug to the grave, it took 20 men almost half an hour to drag his casket into the trench, in a newly opened burial ground to the rear of St Martin’s Church.”

“Sensitive about his weight, Daniel Lambert refused to allow himself to be weighed, but sometime around 1805, some friends persuaded him to come with them to a cock fight in Loughborough. Once he had squeezed his way into their carriage, the rest of the party drove the carriage onto a large scale and jumped out. After deducting the weight of the (previously weighed) empty carriage, they calculated that Lambert’s weight was now 50 stone (700 lb; 318 kg), and that he had thus overtaken Edward Bright, the 616-pound (279 kg) “Fat Man of Maldon”,[23] as the heaviest authenticated person in recorded history.[20][24]

Despite his shyness, Lambert badly needed to earn money, and saw no alternative to putting himself on display, and charging his spectators.[20] On 4 April 1806, he boarded a specially built carriage and travelled from Leicester[26] to his new home at 53 Piccadilly, then near the western edge of London.[20] For five hours each day, he welcomed visitors into his home, charging each a shilling (about £3.5 as of 2014).[18][25] […] Lambert shared his interests and knowledge of sports, dogs and animal husbandry with London’s middle and upper classes,[27] and it soon became highly fashionable to visit him, or become his friend.[27] Many called repeatedly; one banker made 20 visits, paying the admission fee on each occasion.[17] […] His business venture was immediately successful, drawing around 400 paying visitors per day. […] People would travel long distances to see him (on one occasion, a party of 14 travelled to London from Guernsey),[n 5] and many would spend hours speaking with him on animal breeding.”

“After some months in London, Lambert was visited by Józef Boruwłaski, a 3-foot 3-inch (99 cm) dwarf then in his seventies.[44] Born in 1739 to a poor family in rural Pokuttya,[45] Boruwłaski was generally considered to be the last of Europe’s court dwarfs.[46] He was introduced to the Empress Maria Theresa in 1754,[47] and after a short time residing with deposed Polish king Stanisław Leszczyński,[44] he exhibited himself around Europe, thus becoming a wealthy man.[48] At age 60, he retired to Durham,[49] where he became such a popular figure that the City of Durham paid him to live there[50] and he became one of its most prominent citizens […] The meeting of Lambert and Boruwłaski, the largest and smallest men in the country,[51] was the subject of enormous public interest”

“There was no autopsy, and the cause of Lambert’s death is unknown.[65] While many sources say that he died of a fatty degeneration of the heart or of stress on his heart caused by his bulk, his behaviour in the period leading to his death does not match that of someone suffering from cardiac insufficiency; witnesses agree that on the morning of his death he appeared well, before he became short of breath and collapsed.[65] Bondeson (2006) speculates that the most consistent explanation of his death, given his symptoms and medical history, is that he had a sudden pulmonary embolism.[65]

iii. Geology of the Capitol Reef area.


“The exposed geology of the Capitol Reef area presents a record of mostly Mesozoic-aged sedimentation in an area of North America in and around Capitol Reef National Park, on the Colorado Plateau in southeastern Utah.

Nearly 10,000 feet (3,000 m) of sedimentary strata are found in the Capitol Reef area, representing nearly 200 million years of geologic history of the south-central part of the U.S. state of Utah. These rocks range in age from Permian (as old as 270 million years old) to Cretaceous (as young as 80 million years old.)[1] Rock layers in the area reveal ancient climates as varied as rivers and swamps (Chinle Formation), Sahara-like deserts (Navajo Sandstone), and shallow ocean (Mancos Shale).

The area’s first known sediments were laid down as a shallow sea invaded the land in the Permian. At first sandstone was deposited but limestone followed as the sea deepened. After the sea retreated in the Triassic, streams deposited silt before the area was uplifted and underwent erosion. Conglomerate followed by logs, sand, mud and wind-transported volcanic ash were later added. Mid to Late Triassic time saw increasing aridity, during which vast amounts of sandstone were laid down along with some deposits from slow-moving streams. As another sea started to return it periodically flooded the area and left evaporite deposits. Barrier islands, sand bars and later, tidal flats, contributed sand for sandstone, followed by cobbles for conglomerate and mud for shale. The sea retreated, leaving streams, lakes and swampy plains to become the resting place for sediments. Another sea, the Western Interior Seaway, returned in the Cretaceous and left more sandstone and shale only to disappear in the early Cenozoic.”

“The Laramide orogeny compacted the region from about 70 million to 50 million years ago and in the process created the Rocky Mountains. Many monoclines (a type of gentle upward fold in rock strata) were also formed by the deep compressive forces of the Laramide. One of those monoclines, called the Waterpocket Fold, is the major geographic feature of the park. The 100 mile (160 km) long fold has a north-south alignment with a steeply east-dipping side. The rock layers on the west side of the Waterpocket Fold have been lifted more than 7,000 feet (2,100 m) higher than the layers on the east.[23] Thus older rocks are exposed on the western part of the fold and younger rocks on the eastern part. This particular fold may have been created due to movement along a fault in the Precambrian basement rocks hidden well below any exposed formations. Small earthquakes centered below the fold in 1979 may be from such a fault.[24] […] Ten to fifteen million years ago the entire region was uplifted several thousand feet (well over a kilometer) by the creation of the Colorado Plateaus. This time the uplift was more even, leaving the overall orientation of the formations mostly intact. Most of the erosion that carved today’s landscape occurred after the uplift of the Colorado Plateau with much of the major canyon cutting probably occurring between 1 and 6 million years ago.”

iv. Problem of Apollonius.

“In Euclidean plane geometry, Apollonius’s problem is to construct circles that are tangent to three given circles in a plane (Figure 1).


Apollonius of Perga (ca. 262 BC – ca. 190 BC) posed and solved this famous problem in his work Ἐπαφαί (Epaphaí, “Tangencies”); this work has been lost, but a 4th-century report of his results by Pappus of Alexandria has survived. Three given circles generically have eight different circles that are tangent to them […] and each solution circle encloses or excludes the three given circles in a different way […] The general statement of Apollonius’ problem is to construct one or more circles that are tangent to three given objects in a plane, where an object may be a line, a point or a circle of any size.[1][2][3][4] These objects may be arranged in any way and may cross one another; however, they are usually taken to be distinct, meaning that they do not coincide. Solutions to Apollonius’ problem are sometimes called Apollonius circles, although the term is also used for other types of circles associated with Apollonius. […] A rich repertoire of geometrical and algebraic methods have been developed to solve Apollonius’ problem,[9][10] which has been called “the most famous of all” geometry problems.[3]

v. Globular cluster.

“A globular cluster is a spherical collection of stars that orbits a galactic core as a satellite. Globular clusters are very tightly bound by gravity, which gives them their spherical shapes and relatively high stellar densities toward their centers. The name of this category of star cluster is derived from the Latin globulus—a small sphere. A globular cluster is sometimes known more simply as a globular.

Globular clusters, which are found in the halo of a galaxy, contain considerably more stars and are much older than the less dense galactic, or open clusters, which are found in the disk. Globular clusters are fairly common; there are about 150[2] to 158[3] currently known globular clusters in the Milky Way, with perhaps 10 to 20 more still undiscovered.[4] Large galaxies can have more: Andromeda, for instance, may have as many as 500. […]

Every galaxy of sufficient mass in the Local Group has an associated group of globular clusters, and almost every large galaxy surveyed has been found to possess a system of globular clusters.[8] The Sagittarius Dwarf galaxy and the disputed Canis Major Dwarf galaxy appear to be in the process of donating their associated globular clusters (such as Palomar 12) to the Milky Way.[9] This demonstrates how many of this galaxy’s globular clusters might have been acquired in the past.

Although it appears that globular clusters contain some of the first stars to be produced in the galaxy, their origins and their role in galactic evolution are still unclear.”

October 23, 2014 Posted by | astronomy, biology, Geography, Geology, history, mathematics, Paleontology, wikipedia, Zoology | Leave a comment

An Introduction to Tropical Rain Forests (I)

This will just be a brief introductory post to the book, which I gave two stars on goodreads – I have internet and the computer seems to not give me too much trouble right now, so I thought I should post something while I have the chance. The book was hard to rate, in a way. Some parts were highly informative and really quite nice. In other parts the author was ‘out of line’, and he goes completely overboard towards the end – the last couple of chapters contain a lot of political stuff. I have included below a couple of examples of some passages the inclusion of which I had issues with:

“It is also fair comment that human-induced extinction today is as great as any of the five previous extinction spasms life on earth has experienced.”

I have read about the human impact on species diversity before, e.g. in Wilson or van der Geer et al.. I have also read about those other extinction events he talks about. I mention this because if you have not read about both, it may be natural to not feel perfectly confident judging on the matter – but I have, and I do. My conclusion is that saying that the human-induced extinction occuring today is “as great as” the Permian extinction event in my mind makes you look really stupid. Either the author doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or he had stopped thinking when he wrote that, which is something that often happens when people get emotional and start going into tribal defence mode and making political points. Which is why I try to avoid political books. Here’s a funny combination of quotes:

i. “The failure of silviculture follows from working beyond the limits of the inherent dynamic capabilities of the forest ecosystem. This is commonly because rules drawn up by silviculturalists are not enforced, often because of political intervention. It may also be because economists, eager to enrich a nation, enforce their dismal pseudoscience to override basic logical principles and dictate the removal of a larger harvest than the forest can sustain without degradation.”

ii. “There have been attempts by campaigning groups in recent years to turn the clock back, sometimes claiming forests have a greater cash value for minor forest products than for timber.[324] A review of 24 studies found that the median annual value per hectare of sustainably produced, marketable non-timber forest products was $50 year−1.[325] As a natural rain forest grows commercial timber at 1-2 m3 year−1 ha−1 or more, and this is worth over $100 m−3, sustainable production of timber is of greater value by a factor of at least two to four.”

The word ‘hypocrite’ sprang to mind when I read the second quote. Who does he think conducts such review studies – soil scientists? If economics is pseudo-science, as he himself indicated that he thought earlier in the book, then why should we trust those estimates? On a related note, should evolutionary biologists stop using game theory as well – where does he think core concepts in evolutionary biology like ESS come from? Good luck analyzing equilibrium dynamics of any kind without using tools also used in economics and/or developed by economists.

It actually seems to me to be a general problem in some fields of biology that lots of researchers have a problem separating politics and science – the social sciences really aren’t the only parts of academia where this kind of stuff is a problem. I have a strong preference for not encountering emotional/political arguments in academic publications, and so I tend to notice them when they’re there, whether or not I agree with them. There’s a lot of good stuff in this book and I’ll talk about this later here on the blog, but there’s a lot of problematic stuff as well, and I punish that kind of stuff hard regardless of where I find it. The quotes above are not unique but to me seem to illustrate the mindset reasonably well.

The book covers stuff also covered in Herrera et al., Wilson, and van der Geer et al., and concepts I knew about from McMenamin & McMenamin also popped up along the way. Herrera et al. of course contains entire chapters about stuff only covered in a paragraph or two in this book. The book deals with aspects of ecological dynamics as well through the coverage of the forest growth cycle and gap-phase dynamics as well as related stuff like nutrient cycles, but the coverage in here is much less technical than is Gurney and Nisbet’s coverage – this book is easy to read compared to their text. I mention these things because although I think the book was quite readable I have seen a lot of coverage of related stuff already at this point, so I may not be the best person to ask. My overall impression is however that people reading along here should not have great difficulties reading and understanding this book.

September 18, 2014 Posted by | biology, books, Botany, Paleontology | Leave a comment

The Emergence of Animals: The Cambrian Breakthrough (II)

I decided to write one more post (this one) about the book and leave it at that. Go here for my first post about the book, which has some general remarks about the book, as well as a lot of relevant links to articles from wikipedia which cover topics also covered in the book. Below I have added some observations from the second half of the book.

“Use of bedrock geology to reconstruct ancient continental positions relies on the idea that if two separated continents were once joined to form a single, larger continent, then there ought to be distinctive geological terranes (such as mineral belts, mountain chains, bodies of igneous rock of similar age, and other roughly linear to irregularly-shaped large-scale geologic features) that were once contiguous but are now separated. Matching of these features can provide clues to the positions of continents that were once together. […] The main problem with using bedrock geology features to match continental puzzle pieces together is that many of the potentially most useful linear geologic features on the continents (such as volcanic arcs or chains of volcanoes, and continental margin fold belts or parallel mountain chains formed by compression of strata) are parallel to the edge of the continent. Therefore, these features generally run parallel to rift fractures, and are less likely to continue and be recognizable on any continent that was once connected to the continent in question.

Paleomagnetic evidence is an important tool for the determination of ancient continent positions and for the reconstruction of supercontinents. Nearly all rock types, be they sedimentary or igneous, contain minerals that contain the elements iron or titanium. Many of these iron- and titanium-bearing minerals are magnetic. […] The magnetization of a crystal of a magnetic mineral (such as magnetite) is established immediately after the mineral crystallizes from a volcanic melt (lava) but before it cools below the Curie point temperature. Each magnetic mineral has its own specific Curie point. […] As the mineral grain passes through the Curie point, the ambient magnetic field is “frozen” into the crystal and will remain unchanged until the crystal is destroyed by weathering or once again heated above the Curie point. This “locking in” of the magnetic signal in igneous rock crystals is the crucial event for paleomagnetism, for it indicates the direction of magnetic north at the time the crystal cooled (sometime in the distant geologic past for most igneous rocks). The ancient latitudinal position of the rock (and the continent of which it is a part) can be determined by measuring the direction of the crystal’s magnetization. For ancient rocks, this direction can be quite different from the direction of present day magnetic north. […] Paleomagnetic reconstruction is a form of geological analysis that is, unfortunately, fraught with uncertainties. The original magnetization is easily altered by weathering and metamorphism, and can confuse or obliterate the original magnetic signal. An inherent limitation of paleomagnetic reconstruction of ancient continental positions is that the magnetic remanence only gives information concerning the rocks’ latitudinal position, and gives no clue as to the original longitudinal position of the rocks in question. For example, southern Mexico and central India, although nearly half a world apart, are both at about 20 degrees North latitude, and, therefore, lavas cooling in either country would have essentially the same primary magnetic remanence. One of the few ways to get information about the ancient longitudinal positions of continents is to use comparison of life forms on different continents. The study of ancient distributions of organisms is called paleobiogeography.”

“Photosynthesis is generally considered to be a characteristic of plants in the traditional usage of the term “plant.” Nonbiologists are sometimes surprised to learn that [some] animals are photosynthetic […] One might argue that marine animals with zooxanthellae (symbiotic protists) are not truly photosynthetic because it is the protists that do the photosynthesis, not the animal. The protists just happen to be inside the animal. We would argue that this is not an important consideration, since photosynthesis in all eukaryotic (nucleated) cells is accomplished by chloroplasts, tiny organelles that are the cell’s photosynthesis factories. Chloroplasts are now thought by many biologists to have arisen by a symbiosis event in which a small, photosynthetic moneran took up symbiotic residence within a larger microbe […]. The symbiotic relationship eventually became so well established that it became an obligatory relationship for both the host microbe and the smaller symbiont moneran. Reproductive provisions were made to pass the genetic material of the symbiont, as well as the host, on to succeeding generations. It would sound strange to describe an oak as a “multicellular alga invaded by photosynthetic moneran symbionts,” but that is — in essence — what a tree is. Animals with photosynthetic protists in their bodies are able to create food internally, in the same way that an oak tree can, so we feel that these animals can be correctly called photosynthetic. […] Many of the most primitive types of living metazoa contain photosymbiotic
microbes or chloroplasts derived from microbes.”

“The most obvious reason for any organism, regardless of what kingdom it belongs to, to evolve a leaf-shaped body is to maximize its surface area. Leaf shape evolves in response to factors in addition to surface area requirement, but the surface area requirement, in all cases we are aware of, is the most important factor. […] Leaves of modern plants and Ediacaran animals probably evolved similar shapes for the same reason, namely, maximization of surface area. […] Photosymbiosis is not the only possible departure from heterotrophic feeding, the usual method of food acquisition for modern animals. Seilacher (1984) notes that flat bodies are good for absorption of simple compounds such as hydrogen sulfide, needed for one type of chemosymbiosis. In chemosymbiosis as in photosymbiosis, microbes (in this case bacteria) are held within an animal’s tissues as paying guests. The bacteria are able to use the energy stored in hydrogen sulphide molecules that diffuse into the host animal’s tissues. The bacteria use the hydrogen sulfide to create food, using biochemical reactions that would be impossible for animals to do by themselves. The bacteria use some of the food for themselves, but great excesses are produced and passed on to the host animal’s tissues. […] There may be important similarities between the ecologies of
[…] flattened Ediacaran creatures and the modern deep sea vent faunas. […] A form of chemotrophy (feeding on chemicals) that does not involve symbiosis is simple absorption of nutrients dissolved in sea water. Although this might not seem a particularly efficient way of obtaining food, there are tremendous amounts of “unclaimed” organic material dissolved in sea water. Monerans allow these nutrients to diffuse into their cells, a fact well known to microbiologists. Less well known is the fact that larger organisms can feed in this way also. Benthic foraminifera up to 38 millimeters long from McMurdo Sound, Antarctica, take up dissolved organic matter largely as a function of the surface area of their branched bodies”

“Although there is as of yet no unequivocal proof, it seems reasonable to infer from their shapes that members of the Ediacaran fauna used photosymbiosis, chemosymbiosis, and direct nutrient absorption to satisfy their food needs. Since these methods do not involve killing, eating, and digesting other living things, we will refer to them as “soft path” feeding strategies. Heterotrophic organisms use “hard path” feeding strategies because they need to use up the bodies of other organisms for energy. The higher in the food pyramid, the “harder” the feeding strategy, on up to the keystone predator (top carnivore) at the top of any particular ecosystem’s trophic pyramid. It is important to note that the term “hard,” as used here, does not necessarily imply that autotrophic organisms have any easier a time obtaining their food than do heterotrophic organisms. Green plants are not very efficient at converting sunlight to food; sunlight can be thought of as an elusive prey because it is not a concentrated energy source […]. Low food concentrations are a major difficulty encountered by organisms employing soft path feeding strategies. Deposit feeding is intermediate between hard and soft paths. […] Filter feeding, or capturing food suspended in the water, also has components of both hard and soft paths because suspension feeders can take both living and nonliving food from the water.”

“Probing deposit feeders […] began to excavate sediments to depths of several centimeters at the beginning of the Cambrian. Dwelling burrows several centimeters in length, such as Skolithos, first appeared in the Cambrian, and provided protection for filter-feeding animals. If a skeleton is broadly defined as a rigid body support, a burrow is in essence a skeleton formed of sediment […] Movement of metazoans into the substrate had profound implications for sea floor marine ecology. One aspect of the environment that controls the number and types of organisms living in the environment is called its dimensionality […]. Two-dimensional (or Dimension 2) environments tend to be flat, whereas three-dimensional environments (Dimension 3) have, to a greater or lesser degree, a third dimension. This third dimension can be either in an upward or a downward direction, or a combination of both directions. The Vendian sea floor was essentially a two-dimensional environment. […] With the probable exception of some of the stalked frond fossils, most Vendian soft-bodied forms hugged the sea floor. Deep burrowers added a third dimension to the benthos (sea floor communities), creating a three-dimensional environment where a two-dimensional situation had prevailed. The greater the dimensionality in any given environment, the longer the food chain and the taller the trophic pyramid can be […]. If the appearance of abundant predators is any indication, lengthening of the food chain seems to be an important aspect of the Cambrian explosion. Changes in animal anatomy and intelligence can be linked to this lengthening of the food chain. Most Cambrian animals are three-dimensional creatures, not flattened like many of their Vendian predecessors. Animals like mollusks and worms, even if they lack mineralized skeletons, are able to rigidify their bodies with the use of a water-filled internal skeleton called a coelom […] This fluid-filled cavity gives an animal’s body stiffness, and acts much like a turgid, internal, water balloon. A coelom allows animals to burrow in sediment in ways that a flattened animal (such as, for instance, a flatworm) cannot. It is most likely that a coelom first evolved in those Vendian shallow scribble-trail makers that were contemporaries of the large soft-bodied fossils. Some of these Ediacaran burrows show evidence of peristaltic burrowing. Inefficient peristaltic burrowing can be done without a coelom, but with a coelom it becomes dramatically more effective.”

Bilateral symmetry is important when considering the behavior of […] early coelomate animals. The most likely animal to evolve a brain is one with bilateral symmetry. Concomitant with the emergence of animals during the Vendian was the origin of brains. The Cambrian explosion was the first cerebralization or encephalization event. As part of the increase in the length of the food chain discussed above, higher-level consumers such as top or keystone predators established a mode of life that requires the seeking out and attacking of prey. These activities are greatly aided by having a brain able to organize and control complex behavior. […] Specialized light receptors seem to be a characteristic of all animals and many other types of organisms; […] photoreceptors have originated independently in at least forty and perhaps as many as sixty groups. Most animal phyla have at a minimum several pigmented eye spots. But advanced vision (i. e., compound or image-forming eyes) tied directly into a centralized brain is not common or well developed until the Cambrian. The tendency to have eyes is more pronounced for bilateral than for radial animals. […] some of the earliest trilobites had large compound eyes. Trilobites were probably not particularly smart by modern standards, but chances are that their behavioral capabilities far outstripped any that had existed during the early Vendian. […] Actively moving or vagile predators are, as a rule, smarter than their prey, because of the more rigorous requirements of information processing in a predatory life mode. Anomalocaris as a seek-and-destroy top predator may have been the brainiest Early Cambrian animal.”

“why didn’t brains and advanced predation develop much earlier that they did? A simple, thought experiment may help address this problem. Consider a jellyfish 1 mm in length and a cylindrical worm 1 mm in length. Increase the size (linear dimension) of each (by growth of the individual or by evolutionary change over thousands of generations) one hundred times. […] The worm will need internal plumbing because of its cylindrical body. The jellyfish won’t be as dependent on plumbing because its body has a higher surface area. […] Our enlarged, 10 cm long worm will possess a brain which has a volume one million times greater than the brain of its 1 mm predecessor (assuming that the shape of the brain remains constant). The jellyfish will also get more nerve tissue as it enlarges. But its nervous system is spread out in a netlike fashion; at most, its nerve tissue will be concentrated at a few radially symmetric points. The potential for complex and easily reprogrammed behavior, as well as sophisticated processing of sensory input data, is much greater in the animal with the million times larger brain (containing at least a million times as many brain cells as its tiny predecessor). Complex neural pathways are more likely to form in the larger brain. This implies no mysterious tendency for animals to grow larger brains; perfectly successful, advanced animals (echinoderms) and even slow-moving predators (sea spiders) get along fine without much brain. But centralized nerve tissue can process information better than a nerve net and control more complex responses to stimuli. Once brains were used to locate food, the world would never again be the same. This can be thought of as a “brain revolution” that permanently changed the world a half billion years ago.”

“There is little doubt that organisms produced oxygen before 2 billion years ago, but this oxygen was unable to accumulate as a gas because iron dissolved in seawater combined with the oxygen to form rust (iron oxide), a precipitate that sank, chemically inactive, to accumulate on the sea floor. Just as salt has accumulated in the oceans over billions of years, unoxidized (or reduced) iron was abundant in the seas before 2 billion years ago, and was available to “neutralize” the waste oxygen. Thus, dissolved iron performed an important oxygen disposal service; oxygen is a deadly toxin to organisms that do not have special enzymes to limit its reactivity. Once the reduced iron was removed from sea water (and precipitated on the sea floor as Precambrian iron formations; much of the iron mined for our automobiles is derived from these formations), oxygen began to accumulate in water and air. Life in the seas was either restricted to environments where oxygen remained rare, or was forced to develop enzymes […] capable of detoxifying oxygen. Oxygen could also be used by heterotrophic organisms to “burn” the biologic fuel captured in the form of the bodies of their prey. […] Much research has focused on lowered levels of atmospheric oxygen during the Precambrian. The other alternative, that oxygen levels were higher at times during the Precambrian than at present has not been much discussed. Once the “sinks” for free oxygen, such as dissolved iron, were saturated, there is little that would have prevented oxygen levels in the Precambrian from getting much higher than they are today. This is particularly so since there is no evidence for the presence of Precambrian land plants which could have acted as a negative feedback for continued increases in oxygen levels” [Here’s a recent-ish paper on the topicdo note that there’s an important distinction to be made between atmospheric oxygen levels and the oxygen levels of the oceans].

August 4, 2014 Posted by | biology, books, Geology, Paleontology, Zoology | Leave a comment

The Emergence of Animals: The Cambrian Breakthrough (I)

Here’s what I wrote about the book on goodreads:

This book is almost 25 years old, and this is one of the main reasons why I did not give it five stars. Parts of this book is just amazing, but the fact that I felt that it was necessary to continually look up terms and ideas covered in the book made it slightly less fun to read than it could have been. Some parts of the scientific vocabulary applied throughout the book are frankly outdated, and this aspect reflects not only a change in which words are used but also, more importantly, a change in how people think about these things. That progress has been made since the book was written is a good thing, but it did subtract a little from the overall reading experience that I very often felt that I had to be quite careful about which specific conclusions to accept and which to question. It does not help that some of the main conclusions towards the end of the book seem to have been proven, for lack of a better word, wrong.

But all in all it’s really a very nice book – there’s a lot of fascinating stuff in there.”

A few sample quotes from the book:

“a distinction needs to be made between the two major types of animal fossils — body fossils and trace fossils. Body fossils are either actual parts of the organism’s body (such as a shell or a bone), or impressions of body parts (even if the parts themselves have been dissolved away or otherwise destroyed). The imprint of a feather or leaf or the external surface of a shell are examples of body fossils. […] Trace fossils are markings in the sediment (usually made while the sediment was still soft) left by the feeding, traveling, or burrowing activities of animals. Familiar examples of trace fossils include tracks and trails made by worms as they plow through sediment looking for food and ingesting sediment. […] Completely unrelated organisms can make trace fossils which are indistinguishable to paleontologists. Trace fossils are part of the fabric of the sediment, and therefore can be very resistant to destruction by metamorphism of the surrounding rock. Body fossils, on the other hand, are often destroyed by chemical reactions with the surrounding sediment. But body fossils are the only fossil type that can consistently give reliable information about the identity of the organism which left the remains. […] The worst problem in the search for the oldest animal fossils is mistaken identity. Sedimentary rocks are replete with irregular structures and small scale disturbances or interruptions of the horizontal bedding or layering. Some of these disturbances are caused by organisms, but many are not. […] Usually a well-preserved and well-formed trace fossil is unquestionably biologic in origin, and all paleontologists would agree that the trace was formed by an animal. Yet it can be difficult to define precisely what it is about a trace fossil that makes it convincingly biogenic (formed by life). […] A sedimentary structure that resembles, but is in fact not, a trace fossil (or a body fossil, for that matter) is called a pseudofossil. Pseudofossils have plagued the study of Precambrian paleontology because many inorganic sediment disturbances look deceptively like fossils.”

“Convincing trace fossils are known from the late Precambrian, sometimes in association with the soft bodied Ediacaran fossils (Glaessner 1969). These trace fossils are generally simpler, less common, and less diverse than Cambrian trace fossils. There is a significant difference in the complexity and depth of burrowing between Cambrian and Precambrian trace fossils, and it has been argued that the changeover from simple trace fossils to more complex types of traces occurred at more or less the same time as the Cambrian explosion, the first appearance of abundant Cambrian shelly fossils. […] Even shallow, sediment surface burrows in the Cambrian show a marked change in character over their Precambrian predecessors. […] something outstanding happened to the abilities of trace-fossil makers across the Precambrian-Cambrian boundary. Animals discovered a large number of ways to effectively use the sediment as a food resource, and also began to move deeper into the substrate for deposit feeding and homebuilding.”

“Seilacher (1984, 1985) recognizes that flattened body shapes maximize surface area for the takeup of oxygen and food dissolved in seawater, and perhaps also for the absorption of light. “Normal” metazoan animals generally have plump, more or less cylindrical, bodies. For very small, thin skinned animals, cells near the body surface can get oxygen and expel waste by simple diffusion across the cell surface membranes. Waste products such as carbon dioxide will be supersaturated inside of the animal’s body, and will tend to migrate out of its cells and into the open environment. The reverse is true for oxygen; it will tend to migrate into the cells because its concentration is greater on the outside than on the inside of an oxygen-respiring animal. Animals such as frogs and salamanders are able to respire (at least in part) in this way. But for most large, cylindrical animals, diffusion respiration will not work because diffusion is ineffective for cells buried deep within the animal’s body. This is a consequence of the fact that as an animal increases its size, its total volume outstrips its surface area by a large margin. […] metazoans have developed intricate systems of pipework and tubing to deliver nutrient and waste removal services to interior cells. Circulatory systems, digestive tracts, gills, and lungs are all solutions to the problems associated with volume increase.”

Monoplacophorans […] are cap-shaped shells distinguished by two rows of muscle scars on the interior of the shell. They were thought extinct until living specimens were dredged from the deep sea and described in the late 1950s. Monoplacophorans have had an unusual history of discovery. They are the only group of animals that has been: (a) described hypothetically before being discovered; (b) found as fossils before being found alive,- and (c) dredged from the depths of the oceans before being collected from shallower marine waters (Pojeta et al. 1987). […] Rostroconchs are a major, extinct, order of mollusks that first appeared in the earliest Cambrian. Rostroconchs have a shell that is shaped like a clam shell, except that instead of having an organic ligament connecting the two valves, the two halves of a rostroconch shell are fused together to form a single valve. Despite this fusion, larger rostroconchs look very much like clam fossils with valves still articulated, which partly explains why rostroconchs were not recognized as a major, distinct, group until the 1970s. […] Slightly after the first appearance of rostroconchs, the first true clams or bivalves appear. Clams probably had the same ancestor as the rostroconchs […]. Instead of keeping the two valves fused as in rostroconchs, clams hinged the valves with articulating teeth and a tough, organic ligament. This evidently proved to be the more successful approach, since bivalve shells now litter the beaches all over the earth, whereas rostroconchs dwindled to extinction in the Permian.”

“Of the earliest Cambrian shelly fossils, many groups are truly problematic in the sense that not only do we have no idea what kind of animal made them, but also we have no clear conception of the function or functions of the skeletal remains. […] there is an anomalously high proportion of small shelly fossils that do not belong to later phyla. “Living fossils” are creatures alive today that have undergone very little morphologic change for long stretches (sometimes 100 million years or more) of geologic time. Few living fossils remain from the earliest Paleozoic fauna. […] Many of the groups that were most important in the Cambrian are unimportant or extinct today, for example, the trilobites, the inarticulate brachiopods, hyoliths, monoplacophorans, eocrinoids, the sclerite-bearers, and phosphatic tube-formers. True metazoans were undoubtedly present before the Cambrian, but they were all, with [few] exception[s] […], soft-bodied. New types of soft-bodied animals appear in the Cambrian as well, but our understanding of these forms is restricted to rare finds of Cambrian soft-bodied fossils, which are even rarer than finds of the Ediacaran fauna.”

I’ll just quote that last part again: “our understanding of these forms is restricted to rare finds of Cambrian soft-bodied fossils”.

They’re talking about the findings of soft-bodied organisms who did not make shells or anything like that which lived more than 500 million years ago. To get a sense of perspective in terms of how long ago this is, have a look at this picture – that’s one guess at what we think the Earth might have looked like back then. In my mind, the fact that we know anything at all about soft-bodied animals living back then is pretty amazing to think about.

I could easily write perhaps four posts about this book, but I’m not going to do that. Instead I have decided for now to limit my coverage here to the stuff above and some links to relevant stuff I looked up while reading the book, which I have posted below – I was surprised how much relevant stuff wikipedia has on related matters, and if you’re curious you should really go have a look at some of those links. I should note that I will probably add another post about the book later on with some more observations from the book – it seems wrong to me to limit coverage of this great book to one post, but there’s no way I can cover all the good stuff in there anyway.

Here are as mentioned some relevant wiki links to the kinds of stuff they talk about in this book – most of the links are in my opinion links to articles of what I’d consider to be a ‘reasonable’ length/quality, and although I have not read all of them I’d note that some of them are quite good:

Cambrian explosion.
Ediacara biota (featured).
Trace fossil.
Cloudinid (‘good article’).
Brachiopod (‘good article’).
Bivalvia (featured).
Bryozoa (‘good article’).
Adam Sedgwick.
Roderick Murchison.
Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point (noteworthy in this context is that the Precambrian/Cambrian boundary GSSP at Fortune Head had not been decided upon when this book was written – they have a whole chapter about these and related things).
Manorian glaciation (this is not what it’s called in the book, but that is what they’re talking about anyway).
Snowball Earth.
Timeline of glaciation.
Curie temperature.
Microbial mat.
Great Oxygenation Event.
Methane clathrate.



July 29, 2014 Posted by | biology, books, Geology, Paleontology, Zoology | Leave a comment

Plant-Animal Interactions: An Evolutionary Approach (1)

This book, aimed at upper-division undergraduate students and those starting graduate studies, attempts to provide a manageable synthesis of recent developments in the field of terrestrial plant-animal interactions”, they write in the introduction. One of the amazon reviewers claimed that “This is a VERY easy read” – which was actually, in combination with the high ratings it’s got, a large factor leading me to give this book a try; I figured that I shouldn’t be too worried about the fact that this book is written for advanced undergraduates/graduate students in a field I’m not super familiar with.

The book is actually not terribly difficult to read – in the sense that most concepts/terms applied throughout the book are defined along the way, meaning that you’re unlikely to have major issues understanding what’s going on even if you’re not an evolutionary biologist (I’m not, so I should know). It also helps that many of the terms which are not defined along the way will be sort of obvious to you from the context (they never really tell you what coprolite is, but I should think a picture of a dinosaur turd would help… I incidentally read about those things last year, so that particular word did not cause me problems). Although not all ‘potentially problematic terms’ are defined in the book most of them are, and there are a lot of definitions in this book. It’s quite dense; it’s a book where my average reading speed will be around 10 pages per hour, when measured over multiple hours and including necessary reading breaks and so on – perhaps 13-15 when things are going really well. I recently started reading Christie’s Peril at End House, and I’m reasonably sure it’ll take me less time to read that entire book than it took me reading chapter 2 of this book (chapter 2 was, I should perhaps add, significantly longer than the average chapter). I’m well aware that some textbooks are worse than 10-15 pages/hour and I have my eyes on another text dealing with related stuff which I’m reasonably sure will be a bit more work than this one was, and I’m also aware that some books catering to a more advanced audience will presumably take familiarity with many of the terms defined in this book for granted; but even so, calling this ‘a very easy read’ is perhaps a bit much. I should note that although I don’t want to delude anyone into thinking this book is easier to read than it is, I also really don’t want to give people reading along here more excuses not to read this book than is strictly necessary, because I think it’s just a great book.

I have decided to give the book a couple of posts here on the blog, perhaps 3, but I don’t know when I’ll post the others – I have finished the book, and I’ve started reading Kuhn. I’m somewhat behind on the book blogging at the moment, which tends to happen when I’m reading stuff offline; in part because blogging books I’ve read offline is in general a lot more work, among other things because I can’t copy/paste relevant segments when quoting from the books.

I’ve given the book five stars on goodreads simply because as mentioned it’s a really great book – it’s the sort of book which does all those things I’ve been consistently annoyed about popular science books dealing with topics related to the ones covered in this book not doing, and it’s on the other hand also the sort of book which does none of those annoying things the other type of books tend to do. The book doesn’t spend a page talking about how butterflies look nice, ‘you could see the sun setting in the distance…’, or some anecdote about the uncle of the author or crap like that; you have definitions, functional relationships and dynamics explored in detail – a thoroughly analytical approach, without all the infuriating crud. Occasional appreciation, yes, but mainly just the data, the dynamics, the science.

In biology you have two major fields called zoology (dealing with animals) and botany (dealing with plants), but “the knowledge of these two groups of organisms has traditionally progressed along separate lanes, under the leadership of different researchers and independently of each other” (a quote from the introduction). What this means is that there haven’t been a lot of people who’ve done work on ‘the stuff in the middle’ – which is a shame, as “we will never fully understand the evolution of the morphology, behaviour and life history of plants and animals unless we understand in sufficient detail their reciprocal influences in ecological and evolutionary time” (another quote from the introduction). So they’ve written down some of the things they know about these things. The book has nine chapters written by 13 different contributors. The first two chapters are sort of ‘general’ chapters; the first one is about: ‘Species interactions and the evolution of biodiversity’, and the second (much longer) one is about: ‘The history of associations between plants and animals’. In part 2 of the book, dealing with ‘mostly antagonisms’, they talk about plant-insect interactions (chapter 3), mammalian herbivory (chapter 4) and granivory (chapter 5 – “Granivory describes the interaction between plants and the animals (termed granivores or seed-predators) that feed mainly or exclusively on seeds.”). In part 3, dealing with ‘mostly mutualisms’, they talk about pollination by animals (chapter 6) and seed dispersal by vertebrates (chapter 7). In the last part, ‘synthesis’, they talk about ant-plant interactions (chapter 8) and a little bit about ‘future directions’ in research on these matters (chapter 9). In my opinion there were no bad chapters in this book – this is a ‘pure’ five star rating, without any kind of ‘compensatory stuff’ going on. Other people may disagree, but my opinion is that the book is well written, deals with super interesting stuff, and that this stuff is just plain fascinating!

It would be easy to write one post dealing with each of the chapters but I’m not going to do that, and so my posts about this book are going to be another set of those posts where you’ll spend perhaps 10-15 minutes on perhaps 10 hours of material. The book has a lot of stuff I simply cannot cover here, and I highly recommend that you read it if you find the stuff I cover here interesting. It’s been hard to blog this book because it’s in general really difficult to know what to exclude, and very easy to find new things to add. The stuff below covers some of the material from the first two chapters, corresponding to roughly 75 pages.

“The majority of terrestrial organisms fly. […] The evolution of propelled and passive flight, and their consequences, may well be regarded as the most creative force in the development of biodiversity. Most plants fly at one stage of their life cycle or another, as pollen or as seeds or both. Spores of ferns and fungi fly. Pollen, spores and seeds are carried on the wind by a multitude of winged animals: insects, birds, bats and perhaps pterosaurs in their day. […] the vast majority of terrestrial organisms exist in trophic systems based on plants, be they the plant themselves, herbivores, carnivores, pollinators, frugivores or granivores […] as we climb the trophic ladder, species richness increases by orders of magnitude. A plant species, such as an oak, birch or willow, may be host to 200-300 insect herbivore species. Each herbivorous insect may be utilized by 10-20 carnivores, either predators or parasites. The plant provides both food and habitat for the associated fauna and many microhabitats are available for colonization […] Including undescribed species, there may be 10-100 million species of all kinds living today, over half of them insects, of which 99,5% can fly in the adult stage. […] Add to the insects about 9000 species of birds and 1000 bat species, together making up 80% of the warm-blooded vertebrates, and we see that conquest of the air has been an evolutionary ‘success’ of extreme proportions.”

“The basis for the spectacular radiations of animals on earth today is clearly the resources provided by the plants. They are the major primary producers, autotrophically energizing planet Earth. […] Well over 90% of energy in terrestrial systems is fixed by autotrophic plants (the remainder by algae and bacteria), and almost all terrestrial animals depend on autotrophic production, either directly as herbivores or saprophages, or for shelter and microhabitats, or indirectly as predators and parasites utilizing the second trophic level of herbivores. […] plant-animal interactions are both direct and indirect and ramify throughout the trophic system. […] multitrophic-level interactions are ubiquitous and important both for the understanding of natural interactions and for effective management of landscapes dominated by humans […] while plant hosts and their varied insect herbivores evolve and are constantly replaced in time and space, their associations nonetheless remain constant. A Paleozoic palaeodictyopterid insect imbibing vascular tissue sap from a marattialean tree fern is functionally playing the same role as an aphic today feeding on the same tissues in an angiosperm […] Given the taxonomic turnover of vascular plants and herbivorous insects and yet the survival of persistent ecological associations, the phenomenon of ecological convergence is an important long-term pattern […] multidisciplinary evidence from various geological disciplines, particularly those applied to the earlier part of the fossil record, indicate that the more ancient the ecosystem, the less it resembles the present.”

“Three hypotheses have been proposed for assessing how ecological units, such as functional feeding groups, dietary guilds and mouthpart classes, expand in macroevolutionary time […] The first hypothesis, the ecological saturation hypothesis (ESH), advocated by palaeobiologists, maintains that the total number of ecological positions, or roles, has remained approximately constant through time after an initial exponential rise […] Thus taxa enter and exit the ecological arena of the biological community […], but their associations or roles remain virtually level. By contrast, the expanding resource hypothesis (ERH) is favoured by biologists and states that there is a gradual increase in food resources and availability of niches through time […] the intrinsic trend of diversification hypothesis (ITDH) […] holds that the long-term patterns of ESH and ERH vary among groups of organisms […] This view would imply that the proportion of occupied ecological roles has a globally disjunct pattern according to group, time and space. Of these, the current data favors ESH, if one assumes that the ecological clock was set during the Pennsylvanian and the previous fossil record is too poor for analysis.”

“Taphonomy is the study of the physical, chemical and biotic events that affect organisms after death, including pre-burial processes that transform the original living community into an entombed death assemblage that may be encountered by paleobiologists many aeons later. The fidelity to which the preserved assemblage actually resembles the source community is an issue in dicussions of the quality of the fossil record […] A full appreciation of the fossil associational record [between insects and plants] requires an evaluation of the five major types of qualitative evidence: plant reproductive biology, plant damage, dispersed coprolites, gut contents, and insect mouthparts. […] Collectively, these five types of evidence range from the direct, ‘smoking gun’ of gut contents, where the consumer and consumed are typically identifiable, to the more remote and circumstantial evidence of floral reproductive biology and mouthparts, where inferences are based on functional understanding, usually from modern analogues. […] Of all types of evidence for plant-arthropod associations, plant damage has the most extensive fossil record […] gut contents are the rarest type of evidence for plant-animal associations”

“Functional feeding groups can be sorted into 14 basic ways that insects access food” [I had no idea! And yes, they talk about all of these in the book. Note that you can easily split up those ‘basic ways’ into more subcategories if you like:] “In well-preserved Cretaceous and Caenozoic angiosperm-dominated floras, there are approximately 30 distinct types of external foliage-feeding, ranging from generalized bite-marks on margins to highly stereotyped and often intricate patterns of slot-hole feeding: earlier floras have fewer recognizable types of damage. […] The history of arthropod feeding on plants began during the Late Silurian to early Devonian […] by the close of the Pennsylvanian, the expansion of arthropod herbivory had invaded all plant organisms and virtually all plant tissues […] This expansion of dietary breadth provided a modern cast to the spectrum of insect diets. […] while the overwhelming bulk of the 14 plant-associated diet types was in place during the late Pennsylvanian, it was followed by the addition of 4 novel diet types during the Mesozoic in conjunction with the establishment of freshwater ecosystems and the diversification of advanced seed plants. […] When expressed as a diversity curve spanning the past 400 million years, there is a linear but stepped rise in mouthpart class diversity from the Early Devonian to the Early Jurassic, where it reached a plateau, followed by only a few subsequent additions […] Thus virtually all basic mouthpart innovation, including plant-associated mouthpart classes, was established prior to the angiosperm ecological expansion during the Middle Cretaceous [this was when flowering plants really took off, US], suggesting that mouthpart classes are attributable to basic associations with seed plants, or vascular plants of the more remote past, rather than the relatively late-appearing angiosperms […] Arthropods have used plants extensively for shelter probably since the Early Devonian”

“The amount of live plant tissue assimilated by arthropods is significantly greater than that of vertebrates in virtually all biomes except grasslands […] The fossil evidence indicates that this arthropod dominance has probably been the case since the establishment of the earliest terrestrial ecosystems. In fact, it was not until the latest Devonian that vertebrates emerged on land […], for which evidence indicates obligate carnivory. […] Direct evidence for vertebrate herbivory does not occur until the latest Pennsylvanian to earliest Permian […], about 100 million years after it appeared among mid-Paleozoic arthropods. […] A consequence of large vertebrate size is that consumption of plant organs is frequently complete and not partial as it is among arthropods, leaving minimal evidence from leaves, seeds and other wholly-consumed items. Also, the rarity of vertebrates when compared to arthropods may result in an underestimate of vertebrate importance in their interactions with plants. […] An interesting aspect of Paleozoic tetrapod herbivores is that they were uniformly short-necked and short-limbed browsers that cropped plant material within a metre to perhaps two metres of the ground surface. This trend continued […] into the Late Triassic, at which time basal dinosaur lineages began their diversification into virtually all major terrestrial feeding niches […] While Paleocene to middle Eocene mammalian herbivores were dominated by small to medium-sized forms consuming fruit, seeds and leaves, later herbivores were much larger, and invaded the browsing and eventually grazing adaptive zones […] This shift is related to the mid-Caenozoic origin of savanna and grassland biomes concomitant with the ecological spread of grasses. The oldest grasses reliably documented in the fossil record occur at the Palaeocene/Eocene boundary [~56 mya, US] […], although the earliest evidence for a grassland-adapted mammalian fauna is from the middle Oligocene [~28 mya, US] of Mongolia […] During the Pleistocene (2.65 Ma to 10 000 yr BP), much of the Planet underwent severe climactic pertubations from five major episodes of continental and associated alpine glaciation. Continental faunas were considerably reorganized during and after this interval in terms of dominance and composition of species […] Much evidence now supports a view that continental species did not respond as cohesive assemblages to these major environmental shifts, but rather individualistically […] An important exception to this trend are insects with high host specificity, which responded differently, retaining ancestral plant associations to the present […] or becoming extinct. Herbivorous mammals have less obligate dependence on plant species […] and thus exhibit greater dietary flexibility during times of major environmental stress.”

June 12, 2014 Posted by | biology, books, Botany, evolution, Paleontology, Zoology | 4 Comments


i. Troubadour, gainsay, sordid, repast, calumniate, skinflint, gentile, enjoin, prestidigitation, compunction, madrigal, bacchanalian, reify, effete, seamy, betoken, codicil, peripatetic, reactionary, mendicant, osculate, expiation, propitiation, viand, panegyric, fulsome, paean, rarefied, vitiate, bibulous, delineate, wistful, hirsute, staid, bandy, mettle, saturnine, prorogue, legerdemain, caesura, dilatory, prolix, din, hoary, obsequious, spoonerism, gratuitous, diverting, contrite, grouse, preen, poignant, roil, aver, importune, lampoon, flagitious, expedient, parlous, obdurate, piebald, dolorous, parsimony, mawkish, natty, blithely, fractious, pique, bathos, cant, recreant, plumb, diaphanous, argot, ursine, frisson, insouciant, meretricious, upbraid, pugnacious, curate, plaintively, spate, cabal, slake, odium, encomium, mulct, turgid, disport, ply, cavort, cloying, sable, svelte, idempotent, teleological, inchoate, comity, bucolic.

The above is a list of the first 100 words I’ve ‘mastered’ on the site. Of course I knew some of them already, but I’ve also learned quite a few new words here along the way and it’d be incorrect to say that I haven’t also gotten a better grasp of some of the words with which I was already familiar. Here’s how it works. A few of the assessment questions so far have been in my opinion really poor (allowing for multiple correct answers, only one of which is accepted as correct), but in general this seems like an extremely useful site and the site does allow you to provide feedback if you think a question is poorly worded.

Do note that average vocabulary sizes are really rather small, all things considered: “Most adult native test-takers range from 20,000-35,000 words”. I think that you can probably progress rather rapidly with a tool like this, if you use it consistently. Note that the site doesn’t completely stop asking you questions about the words you’ve ‘mastered’; brush-up questions are added occasionally to aid retention. The starting point is as far as I can remember based on educational background, so if you’re a graduate student you shouldn’t worry that the site will start out by asking you if you know the word ‘house’ or ‘cat’. I’m pretty sure even walking dictionaries will find plenty of words along the way that they are unfamiliar with.

I’ll probably stop going on about the site now, but I really like it at this point and so I figured I should post at least a few posts about it before letting it go. It’s a very neat tool.

ii. For the last two years I have been involved in a medical trial aimed at figuring out if a specific drug might be used to delay the development of retinopathy in diabetics. My participation in the trial ended this week. The trial was more or less a direct result of a smaller trial in which I also participated, which showed some promising initial results – here’s the relevant paper. The researcher conducting the trial I just participated in will publish a paper about it later on, and I’ll naturally blog that when it’s published. There has been talk about continuing the project (/…that is, starting a new project) for the participants who got the active drug – half of the people in this trial got placebo – in order to increase the follow-up period. If I got the active drug (whether or not I did is not clear at this point, but I’ll be told relatively soon) I’ll probably participate in the new trial as well. No, the person who’s going to analyze the data will not be told whether or not I got the active drug – I asked about this part, but the study design is such that the double blind aspect is not compromised; the researcher who’ll figure out whether or not I got the active drug is not involved in the data analysis at all.

Medical trials often have trouble finding participants and selection into such trials is far from random. If you live in Denmark, you should check out this site. I assume similar resources exist in other countries…

A couple more 60 symbols videos below. I’ve now watched most of the videos they’ve posted, and I really like this stuff:

“He was a very strange man. And yet he’s absolutely wonderful!” – I could easily have said something similar about him. I’d much, much rather spend time with someone like that than with a ‘normal’ (boring) person. (Here’s a related link. Also, this.)

iv. The Relationship between Anxiety and the Social Judgements of Approachability And Trustworthiness:

“The aim of the current study was to examine the relationship between individual differences in anxiety and the social judgements of trustworthiness and approachability. We assessed levels of state and trait anxiety in eighty-two participants who rated the trustworthiness and approachability of a series of unexpressive faces. Higher levels of trait anxiety (controlling for age, sex and state anxiety) were associated with the judgement of faces as less trustworthy. In contrast, there was no significant association between trait anxiety and judgements of approachability. These findings indicate that trait anxiety is a significant predictor of trustworthiness evaluations and illustrate the importance of considering the role of individual differences in the evaluation of trustworthiness. We propose that trait anxiety may be an important variable to control for in future studies assessing the cognitive and neural mechanisms underlying trustworthiness. This is likely to be particularly important for studies involving clinical populations who often experience atypical levels of anxiety.”

v. Mass extinction of lizards and snakes at the Cretaceous – Paleogene boundary:

“The Cretaceous–Paleogene (K-Pg) boundary is marked by a major mass extinction, yet this event is thought to have had little effect on the diversity of lizards and snakes (Squamata). A revision of fossil squamates from the Maastrichtian and Paleocene of North America shows that lizards and snakes suffered a devastating mass extinction coinciding with the Chicxulub asteroid impact. Species-level extinction was 83%, and the K-Pg event resulted in the elimination of many lizard groups and a dramatic decrease in morphological disparity. Survival was associated with small body size and perhaps large geographic range. The recovery was prolonged; diversity did not approach Cretaceous levels until 10 My after the extinction, and resulted in a dramatic change in faunal composition. The squamate fossil record shows that the end-Cretaceous mass extinction was far more severe than previously believed, and underscores the role played by mass extinctions in driving diversification.”

A little more:

“Survival at the K-Pg boundary is highly nonrandom. Small size has been identified as a determinant of survival (36), yet size selectivity is evident even among the squamates. The most striking pattern is the extinction of all large lizards and snakes. […] The largest known early Paleocene lizard is Provaranosaurus acutus. Comparisons with varanids suggest an SVL [snout-vent length, US] of 305 mm and a mass of 415 g (Dataset S1), compared with an estimated SVL of 850 mm and mass of 6 kg for the largest Maastrichtian lizard, Palaeosaniwa. The largest early Paleocene snake is Helagras prisciformis, with an estimated SVL >950 mm and a mass >520 g, compared with >1,700 mm and 2.9 kg for the largest Maastrichtian snake, Cerberophis. […]

Size selectivity may help explain why nonavian dinosaurs became extinct, suggesting that it was nonavian dinosaurs’ failure to evolve a diverse fauna of small-bodied species, rather than a decrease in the diversity of large-bodied forms, that ultimately sealed their fate. A number of small, nonavian dinosaurs are now known from the Late Cretaceous, including alvarezsaurids (37) and microraptorine dromaeosaurids (38), and taphonomic biases almost certainly obscure the true diversity of small dinosaurs (38, 39). However, the fact remains that during the late Maastrichtian, small dinosaurs were vastly outnumbered by other small vertebrates, including a minimum of 30 squamates, 18 birds (15), and 50 mammal species (40). Strikingly, birds—the only dinosaurs to survive— were the only dinosaurs with a high diversity of smallbodied (<5 kg) forms (15). In this context, a discussion of a decline in large dinosaur diversity in the Maastrichtian (9) is perhaps beside the point. A high diversity of large herbivores and carnivores in the latest Maastrichtian would have been unlikely to change the fate of the nonavian dinosaurs, because no animals occupying these niches survived. Instead, the rarity of small dinosaurs—resulting perhaps from being outcompeted by squamates and mammals for these niches —led to their downfall. […]

Extinction at the K-Pg boundary was followed by recovery in the Paleocene and Eocene. A number of new lizard lineages occur in the basal Paleocene, notably the stem varanoid Provaranosaurus, xantusiids, and amphisbaenians (27). These may represent opportunistic invaders that colonized the area in the aftermath to exploit niches left vacant by the extinction, as seen among mammals (10, 44). Despite this, early Paleocene diversity is considerably lower than late Maastrichtian diversity (Fig. 3). Subsequently, ecological release provided by the extinction allowed the survivors to stage an adaptive radiation, paralleling the adaptive radiations staged by mammals (6, 45, 46), birds (46, 47), and fish (48). The community that emerges in the early Eocene is dominated by groups that are either minor components of the Cretaceous fauna or unknown from the Cretaceous […] diversity does not approach Cretaceous levels until the early Eocene, 10 My later […] Unlike mammals, […] squamates appear to have simply reoccupied the niches they occupied before the extinction. This reoccupation of niches was […] delayed; by the middle Paleocene, lizards had yet to recover the range of body sizes and morphotypes found in the Maastrichtian (Fig. 5).”

October 4, 2013 Posted by | biology, medicine, Paleontology, personal, Physics, Psychology, studies | Leave a comment

Dinosaurs past and present (2)

You can read my first post about the book here. I ended up giving it three stars on goodreads. I’m closer to two stars than four. It’s an old book, and although this ads to the reading experience at some points (see also some of the quotes below) it subtracts elsewhere. I wouldn’t recommend it, but it was okay and at times somewhat interesting. Some quotes from the last half of the book:

“Failure to recognize the full potential of trackways and track sites has frequently been a contributing factor in the proliferation of incorrect reconstructions of dinosaur activity. Even where good trackway evidence existed and was well known the interpretation rarely was adequate. For example, the Texan track sites reviewed here tell us that sauropods did not drag their tails, yet probably ninety-nine percent of all sauropod reconstructions made in the last fifty years have suggested that they did.”

“The widely debated issue of dinosaur endothermy and ectothermy has a direct bearing on the question of whether smaller dinosaurs like dromacosaurids or hypsilophodontids should be shown with an outer insulating fur or featherlike pelt. To date no direct evidence exists that any known dinosaur had such a covering…” (As many of you would probably know, we do have such evidence today. See e.g. this and this.)

“Until recently most restored dinosaurs were either drab gray, drab brown, or drab green. The assumption was that since the actual colors were unknown, these were “safe” colors. […] At present there is no proof for pattern or colors in dinosaurs. Considering the likelihood that their lives were governed by the same behavioral principles as modern vertebrates, it seems probable that most of these animals may have had patterns and colors of almost any kind rather than being drab and patternless. […] most baby dinosaurs would almost certainly have needed cryptic markings to help them hide from predators.”

“[A] fascinating possibility would be to re-create as a computer-animated simulation an event like the Glen Rose Sauropod Migration or Lark Quarry Dinosaur Stampede from Australia described by Thulborn and Wade (1979). To do so a map of the trackway assemblage would be recorded on a data tablet and programmed as a perspective view on a computer screen. Since the size, depth, and angle of the tracks can often furnish information about the size, weight, and approximate speed of an animal, the data from a single indivdual’s footprints, if these could be isolated, could be used to construct and program dinosaur images that would fit the size of each set of tracks. Combined with texture mapping and shading techniques, these images could be animated to show the sauropod herd migrating from a moving “camera-eye” vantage point in a simulated Jurassic landscape.” (…just 6 years later people could watch Jurassic Park in movie theatres around the world – I know this was not what the author had in mind, but…)

“During the Mesozoic era herbaceous plants were less abundant than they are now. Larger plants produce less new growth in proportion to their weight than do herbs. Plant biomass must therefore have been more highly visible in dinosaurian landscapes and imparted much “character” to ancient terrestrial ecosystems. Complete plants are seldom found in the fossil record, and whole-plant restorations are rarely made. It is thus very difficult to estimate the appearance of ancient plantscapes.”

“Relative to six other international groups (Hoffman and Nitecki 1985), vertebrate paleontologists are the least supportive of the asteroid-impact hypothesis and the most confident that there was not a Cretaceous mass extinction. In a survey taken during the annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meetings in the fall of 1985 (Browne 1985), twenty-seven percent of the respondents saw no evidence for a mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous and forty-three percent believed that the approximately coincidental impact of an asteroid did not cause the extinctions. […] The point of view I hold cannot have been popular, for only four percent of the respondents at the 1985 meeting (I was unable to attend) felt that an asteroid impact resulted in the extinction of the dinosaurs.”

In case some of you have a desire to read a little more about ‘this kind of stuff’, I’ve posted a few links below:

Petrified Forest National Park (featured wikipedia article).

September 29, 2013 Posted by | biology, books, Paleontology | Leave a comment

Dinosaurs past and present (1)

It’s a neat little book.

Some quotes from the first half:

“most trackways of extant mammal species seen in the wild record leisurely paces made during the slow, unhurried daily and seasonal routine […] Top-speed runs are very important in the evolution of limb structure, but maximum speed accounts for only a tiny fraction of the total footsteps taken by an individual animal during its lifetime. Fossil footprints should be viewed as the documentation of an average daily cruising speed, not of top speed.  […] dinosaurs had cruising speeds as high or higher than that of mammals with comparable body size and feeding habits. Mammoths cruised at speeds no higher than that of nodosaurid and sauropod dinosaurs. Moa cruising speed was no higher than that of duck-billed dinosaurs. Theropod dinosaurs cruised at higher speeds than that of modern mammals. Therefore we can conclude that the average everyday pace of dinosaurian locomotor activity was as quick as or quicker than that of the present-day Mammalia.

In addition, the footprint survey showed that the primitive reptiles and amphibians of the Paleozoic cruised at speeds far slower than that of dinosaurs and mammals. Life in the Carboniferous and early Permian must have been played out at a toad’s pace. A sudden and dramatic increase in average cruising speed coincided with the rise of the advanced mammallike reptiles (therapsids) and thecodonts at the beginning of the Triassic. And the Triassic acceleration of cruising speed coincides precisely with change in bone histology, documented by Ricqlès (1974)”

“MacArthur and Wilson (1967) argue that on a continuous scale of reproductive strategies there are two extreme kinds. One is “r selection” (r stands for rate of increase by reproduction) in which an individual has many offspring either by having a few offspring at frequent intervals or by having large numbers of offspring at one time. One characteristic of organisms that exhibit r selection is that they are small. A good example among mammals is mice versus elephants; mice show r selection, elephants do not. A pair of mice will produce many generations in a short time, while a pair of elephants have few young and each generation takes more than ten years. Elephants show “K selection” (K stands for the carrying capacity of the environment, which becomes the limiting factor for these animals). Two features of animals that exhibit K selection are large size and long generation time.
K and r selections are the two extremes of a range of reproductive strategies. K selection is especially suited to stable climates in which the full resources of the environment can be exploited safely. The tropics are a good example. […] In contrast, r selection is best suited to unpredictable environments, such as temperate and subpolar regions where the production of large numbers of offspring insures against environmental catastrophe, freeze, flood, or drought. Clutch sizes correlate inversely with body size (Calder 1983).” [To me this was just review of stuff I already knew, but I figured some of you didn’t know about r/K selection theory, and the tradeoff between quality and quantity of offspring is an important concept one should know about so I decided to include the quote in the post. Some of the stuff below is review as well, but again – it’s important stuff you should know and it doesn’t hurt to go over it again.]

“The larger the animal, the lower the metabolic rate per unit body weight. Although metabolic rate seems to be related to surface area, it is not. (Not all mammals are constantly warm; those that are not will lose heat to the air when the air is cooler than they are and gain heat when the air temperature exceeds their own. Yet, in heterotherms the larger the animal, the lower the metabolic rate and their metabolic rates also correlate with their surface areas.) Coulson (1984) theorizes that metabolic rate is determined principally by the distance blood has to travel from the heart to the capillary, and the greater the distance, the greater the resistance and the slower the flow through the capillaries and veins and return to the heart.”

“Stepping frequency is inversely related to body size or limb length (Calder 1984). Stridelength increases with size (Maloiy et al. 1979). The total energy cost of travel increases with size but is cheaper per kilogram (Bennett 1982, for reptiles; Taylor, Heglund, and Maloiy, 1982, for mammals).”

“For mammals, at least, size is a significant factor in determining a sense of hearing. Mice can hear more than two octaves higher than elephants at an intensity level of sixty decibels. A strong inverse relationship can be recorded between the high-frequency cutoff (at sixty decibels) and the time difference between the arrival of sounds at the two ears in mammals (Heffner and Masterton 1980; Heffner and Heffner 1980). Birds do not seem to exhibit such a relationship with the high-frequency cutoff, but extremely large birds have not been examined (Knudsen 1980; Dooling 1980).”

Volume is proportional to length cubed; surface area is proportional to length squared. If a simple geometric shape such as a cube doubles in length, it will acquire four times the original surface area and eight times the original volume. When we think of tiny dinosaurs, it is helpful to think of the converse of the consequences such scaling where volume is dramatically reduced relative to surface area […] The result is a tiny individual with a high surface to volume ratio. […] this most profoundly affects heat exchange and other exchange phenomena […] Tiny animals are more likely to seek shelter when stressed by temperature change.”

September 26, 2013 Posted by | biology, books, Paleontology | 3 Comments


i. I’ve played some good chess over the last few weeks. I’m currently participating in an unrated chess tournament –  the format is two games per evening (one with the white pieces and one with the black), with 45 minutes per person per game. The time control means that although the games aren’t rated, they’re at least long enough to be what I’d consider ‘semi-serious’.

Here’s a recent game I played, from that tournament – I was white. It wasn’t without flaws on my part but it was ‘good enough’ as he was basically lost out of the opening. I wasn’t actually sure if 7.Qd4 could be played (this should tell you all you need to know about how much I know about the Pirc…) but I was told after the game that it was playable – my opponent had seen it in a book before, but he’d forgotten how the theory went and so he made a blunder. It was the second game that evening, played shortly after I’d held my opponent, a ca. 2000 FIDE rated player, to a draw in the first game. I mention the first game also because I think it’s quite likely that the outcome of that game played a role in the mistake he made in the second game. The average rating of my opponents so far has been 1908 (I’ve also drawn a 2173 FIDE guy along the way, though the chess in that case was not that great), and I’m at +1 after six games. I’ve beaten FMs before in bullet and blitz, but as mentioned these games are a tad more serious than, say, random 3 minute games online, and this is one of the first times I’ve encountered opponents as strong as this in a ‘semi-serious’ setting. And I’m doing quite well. It probably can’t go on, but I’m enjoying it while it lasts.

ii. An interesting medical lecture about vaccines:

iii. Estimating Gender Disparities in Federal Criminal Cases.

“This paper assesses gender disparities in federal criminal cases. It finds large gender gaps favoring women throughout the sentence length distribution (averaging over 60%), conditional on arrest offense, criminal history, and other pre-charge observables. Female arrestees are also significantly likelier to avoid charges and convictions entirely, and twice as likely to avoid incarceration if convicted. Prior studies have reported much smaller sentence gaps because they have ignored the role of charging, plea-bargaining, and sentencing fact-finding in producing sentences. Most studies control for endogenous severity measures that result from these earlier discretionary processes and use samples that have been winnowed by them. I avoid these problems by using a linked dataset tracing cases from arrest through sentencing. Using decomposition methods, I show that most sentence disparity arises from decisions at the earlier stages, and use the rich data to investigate causal theories for these gender gaps.”

Here’s what she’s trying to figure out: “In short, I ask: do otherwise-similar men and women who are arrested for the same crimes end up with the same punishments, and if not, at what points do their fates diverge?”

Some stuff from the paper:

“The estimated gender disparities are strikingly large, conditional on observables. Most notably, treatment as male is associated with a 63% average increase in sentence length, with substantial unexplained gaps throughout the sentence distribution. These gaps are much larger than those estimated by previous research. This is because, as the sequential decomposition demonstrates, the gender gap in sentences is mostly driven by decisions earlier in the justice process—most importantly sentencing fact-finding, a prosecutor-driven process that other literature has ignored.

But why do these disparities exist? Despite the rich set of covariates, unobservable gender differences are still possible, so I cannot definitively answer the causal question. However, several plausible theories have testable implications, and I take advantage of the unusually rich dataset to explore them. I find substantial support for some theories (particularly accommodation of childcare responsibilities and perceived role differences in group crimes), but that these appear only to partially explain the observed disparities.” […]

“Columns 11-12 of Table 5 show that the gender gap is substantially larger among black than non-black defendants (74% versus 51%). The race-gender interaction adds to our understanding of racial disparity: racial disparities among men significantly favor whites,29 but among women, the race gap in this sample is insignificant (and reversed in sign). The interaction also offers another theory for the gender gap: it might partly reflect a “black male effect”—a special harshness toward black men, who are by far the most incarcerated group in the U.S. […] This theory only goes so far, however — the gender gap even among non-blacks is over 50%, far larger than the race gap among men.”

iv. Low glycaemic index, or low glycaemic load, diets for diabetes mellitus?

“Nutritional factors affect blood glucose levels, however there is currently no universal approach to the optimal dietary strategy for diabetes. Different carbohydrate foods have different effects on blood glucose and can be ranked by the overall effect on the blood glucose levels using the so-called glycaemic index. By contributing a gradual supply of glucose to the bloodstream and hence stimulating lower insulin release, low glycaemic index foods, such as lentils, beans and oats, may contribute to improved glycaemic control, compared to high glycaemic index foods, such as white bread. The so-called glycaemic load represents the overall glycaemic effect of the diet and is calculated by multiplying the glycaemic index by the grammes of carbohydrates.

We identified eleven relevant randomised controlled trials, lasting 1 to 12 months, involving 402 participants. Metabolic control (measured by glycated haemoglobin A1c (HbA1c), a long-term measure of blood glucose levels) decreased by 0.5% HbA1c with low glycaemic index diet, which is both statistically and clinically significant. Hypoglycaemic episodes significantly decreased with low glycaemic index diet compared to high glycaemic index diet. No study reported on mortality, morbidity or costs.”

v. I started reading Dinosaurs Past and Present a few days ago. It’s actually a quite short and neat book, but I haven’t gotten very far as other things have gotten in the way. I just noticed that a recently published PlosOne study deals with some of the same topics covered in the book – I haven’t read it yet but if you’re curious you can read the article on Forearm Posture and Mobility in Quadrupedal Dinosaurs here.

September 25, 2013 Posted by | Chess, data, diabetes, Lectures, medicine, Paleontology, personal, studies | Leave a comment

Wikipedia articles of interest

i. Introduction to general relativity.


For anybody who does not know, there’s a simple version of wikipedia available, which tries to keep things as simple as possible so as many people as possible can understand what’s going on in those articles. The article I link to here is not from the simple wikipedia, but it is an in some sense ‘corresponding’ attempt by the wikipedia community to make general relativity more accessible to ‘the masses’. It’s a featured article, and there are lots of links. I read the main article on the subject matter (also featured) first, which is probably the wrong reading order if you plan on reading both.

ii. Transcendental number.

“In mathematics, a transcendental number is a (possibly complex) number that is not algebraic—that is, it is not a root of a non-zero polynomial equation with rational coefficients. The most prominent examples of transcendental numbers are π and e. Though only a few classes of transcendental numbers are known (in part because it can be extremely difficult to show that a given number is transcendental), transcendental numbers are not rare. Indeed, almost all real and complex numbers are transcendental, since the algebraic numbers are countable while the sets of real and complex numbers are both uncountable. All real transcendental numbers are irrational, since all rational numbers are algebraic. The converse is not true: not all irrational numbers are transcendental; e.g., the square root of 2 is irrational but not a transcendental number, since it is a solution of the polynomial equation x2 − 2 = 0. […]

The set of transcendental numbers is uncountably infinite. […] Any non-constant algebraic function of a single variable yields a transcendental value when applied to a transcendental argument. […] The non-computable numbers are a strict subset of the transcendental numbers.

All Liouville numbers are transcendental, but not vice versa.”

The article has more. Here’s a (very technical!) related article about the Lindemann-Weierstrass theorem.

iii. Diamond (featured).


“In mineralogy, diamond (from the ancient Greek αδάμας – adámas “unbreakable”) is a metastable allotrope of carbon, where the carbon atoms are arranged in a variation of the face-centered cubic crystal structure called a diamond lattice. Diamond is less stable than graphite, but the conversion rate from diamond to graphite is negligible at ambient conditions. Diamond is renowned as a material with superlative physical qualities, most of which originate from the strong covalent bonding between its atoms. In particular, diamond has the highest hardness and thermal conductivity of any bulk material. Those properties determine the major industrial application of diamond in cutting and polishing tools and the scientific applications in diamond knives and diamond anvil cells.

Diamond has remarkable optical characteristics. Because of its extremely rigid lattice, it can be contaminated by very few types of impurities, such as boron and nitrogen. Combined with wide transparency, this results in the clear, colorless appearance of most natural diamonds. Small amounts of defects or impurities (about one per million of lattice atoms) color diamond blue (boron), yellow (nitrogen), brown (lattice defects), green (radiation exposure), purple, pink, orange or red. Diamond also has relatively high optical dispersion (ability to disperse light of different colors), which results in its characteristic luster. Excellent optical and mechanical properties, notably unparalleled hardness and durability, make diamond the most popular gemstone.

Most natural diamonds are formed at high temperature and pressure at depths of 140 to 190 kilometers (87 to 120 mi) in the Earth’s mantle. Carbon-containing minerals provide the carbon source, and the growth occurs over periods from 1 billion to 3.3 billion years (25% to 75% of the age of the Earth). Diamonds are brought close to the Earth′s surface through deep volcanic eruptions by a magma, which cools into igneous rocks known as kimberlites and lamproites. Diamonds can also be produced synthetically in a high-pressure high-temperature process which approximately simulates the conditions in the Earth mantle. […] The rate at which temperature changes with increasing depth into the Earth varies greatly in different parts of the Earth. In particular, under oceanic plates the temperature rises more quickly with depth, beyond the range required for diamond formation at the depth required. The correct combination of temperature and pressure is only found in the thick, ancient, and stable parts of continental plates where regions of lithosphere known as cratons exist. Long residence in the cratonic lithosphere allows diamond crystals to grow larger.[11] […]

Diamond-bearing rock is carried from the mantle to the Earth’s surface by deep-origin volcanic eruptions. The magma for such a volcano must originate at a depth where diamonds can be formed[11] […] (three times or more the depth of source magma for most volcanoes). This is a relatively rare occurrence. These typically small surface volcanic craters extend downward in formations known as volcanic pipes.[11] […] The magma in volcanic pipes is usually one of two characteristic types, which cool into igneous rock known as either kimberlite or lamproite.[11] The magma itself does not contain diamond; instead, it acts as an elevator that carries deep-formed rocks (xenoliths), minerals (xenocrysts), and fluids upward. […]

Diamond is the hardest known natural material on the Mohs scale of mineral hardness, where hardness is defined as resistance to scratching and is graded between 1 (softest) and 10 (hardest). Diamond has a hardness of 10 (hardest) on this scale.[25] Diamond’s hardness has been known since antiquity, and is the source of its name.

Diamond hardness depends on its purity, crystalline perfection and orientation: hardness is higher for flawless, pure crystals oriented to the <111> direction (along the longest diagonal of the cubic diamond lattice). [….] Somewhat related to hardness is another mechanical property toughness, which is a material’s ability to resist breakage from forceful impact. The toughness of natural diamond has been measured as 7.5–10 MPa·m1/2.[27][28] This value is good compared to other gemstones, but poor compared to most engineering materials. […]

The production and distribution of diamonds is largely consolidated in the hands of a few key players, and concentrated in traditional diamond trading centers, the most important being Antwerp, where 80% of all rough diamonds, 50% of all cut diamonds and more than 50% of all rough, cut and industrial diamonds combined are handled.[46] This makes Antwerp a de facto “world diamond capital”.[47] Another important diamond center is New York City, where almost 80% of the world’s diamonds are sold, including auction sales.[46] […]

De Beers and its subsidiaries own mines that produce some 40% of annual world diamond production. For most of the 20th century over 80% of the world’s rough diamonds passed through De Beers,[48] but in the period 2001–2009 the figure has decreased to around 45%.[49] De Beers sold off the vast majority of its diamond stockpile in the late 1990s – early 2000s[50] and the remainder largely represents working stock (diamonds that are being sorted before sale).[51]  […]

80% of mined diamonds (equal to about 135,000,000 carats (27,000 kg) annually), unsuitable for use as gemstones, are destined for industrial use. In addition to mined diamonds, synthetic diamonds found industrial applications almost immediately after their invention in the 1950s; another 570,000,000 carats (110,000 kg) of synthetic diamond is produced annually for industrial use. Approximately 90% of diamond grinding grit is currently of synthetic origin.[74] […] Roughly 49% of diamonds originate from Central and Southern Africa, although significant sources of the mineral have been discovered in Canada, India, Russia, Brazil, and Australia.[74]

iv. Gropecunt Lane (featured – NSFW?).

Gropecunt Lane /ˈɡrpkʌnt ˈln/ was a street name found in English towns and cities during the Middle Ages, believed to be a reference to the prostitution centred on those areas; it was normal practice for a medieval street name to reflect the street’s function or the economic activity taking place within it. Gropecunt, the earliest known use of which is in about 1230, appears to have been derived as a compound of the words grope and cunt. Streets with that name were often in the busiest parts of medieval towns and cities, and at least one appears to have been an important thoroughfare. […]

Although some medieval street names such as Addle Street (stinking urine, or other liquid filth; mire[15]) and Fetter Lane (once Fewterer, meaning “idle and disorderly person”) have survived, others have been changed in deference to contemporary attitudes. Sherborne Lane in London was in 1272–73 known as Shitteborwelane, later Shite-burn lane and Shite-buruelane (possibly due to nearby cesspits).[16][17] Pissing Alley, one of several identically named streets whose names survived the Great Fire of London,[18] was called Little Friday Street in 1848, before being absorbed into Cannon Street in 1853–54.[19] Petticoat Lane, the meaning of which is sometimes misinterpreted as related to prostitution, was in 1830 renamed as Middlesex Street, following complaints about the street being named after an item of underwear.[20] […] As the most ubiquitous and explicit example of such street names, with the exception of Shrewsbury and possibly Newcastle (where a Grapecuntlane was mentioned in 1588) the use of Gropecunt seems to have fallen out of favour by the 14th century.[22] Its steady disappearance from the English vernacular may have been the result of a gradual cleaning-up of the name; Gropecuntelane in 13th-century Wells became Grope Lane, and then in the 19th century, Grove Lane.[23]

v. Mary Toft (featured).

Mary Toft (née Denyer; c. 1701–1763), also spelled Tofts, was an English woman from Godalming, Surrey, who in 1726 became the subject of considerable controversy when she tricked doctors into believing that she had given birth to rabbits.”

If that introduction doesn’t make you want to read this article, we probably can’t be friends… Here’s the rest of the introduction:

“In 1726 Toft became pregnant, but following her reported fascination with the sighting of a rabbit, she miscarried. Her claim to have given birth to various animal parts prompted the arrival of John Howard, a local surgeon, who investigated the matter. He delivered several pieces of animal flesh and duly notified other prominent physicians, which brought the case to the attention of Nathaniel St. André, surgeon to the Royal Household of King George I. St. André concluded that Toft’s case was genuine but the king also sent surgeon Cyriacus Ahlers, who remained sceptical. By then quite famous, Toft was brought to London and studied at length, where under intense scrutiny and producing no more rabbits she confessed to the hoax, and was subsequently imprisoned as a fraud.

The resultant public mockery created panic within the medical profession and ruined the careers of several prominent surgeons. The affair was satirised on many occasions, not least by the pictorial satirist and social critic William Hogarth, who was notably critical of the medical profession’s gullibility. Toft was eventually released without charge and returned home.”

The story is completely absurd, but also quite funny. I laughed out loud when I read this part, “The timing of Toft’s confession [7 December] proved awkward for St. André, who on 3 December had published his forty-page pamphlet A Short Narrative of an Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbets.[44]” Naturally this article is yet another gem from the wikipedia list of unusual articles.

vi. Small shelly fauna (‘good article’).

“The small shelly fauna or small shelly fossils, abbreviated to SSF, are mineralized fossils, many only a few millimetres long, with a nearly continuous record from the latest stages of the Ediacaran to the end of the Early Cambrian period. They are very diverse, and there is no formal definition of “small shelly fauna” or “small shelly fossils”. Almost all are from earlier rocks than more familiar fossils such as trilobites. Since most SSFs were preserved by being covered quickly with phosphate and this method of preservation is mainly limited to the Late Ediacaran and Early Cambrian periods, the animals that made them may actually have arisen earlier and persisted after this time span.

Some of the fossils represent the entire skeletons of small organisms, including the mysterious Cloudina and some snail-like molluscs. However, the bulk of the fossils are fragments or disarticulated remains of larger organisms, including sponges, molluscs, slug-like halkieriids, brachiopods, echinoderms, and onychophoran-like organisms that may have been close to the ancestors of arthropods.

One of the early explanations for the appearance of the SSFs – and therefore the evolution of mineralized skeletons – suggested a sudden increase in the ocean’s concentration of calcium. However, many SSFs are constructed of other minerals, such as silica. Because the first SSFs appear around the same time as organisms first started burrowing to avoid predation, it is more likely that they represent early steps in an evolutionary arms race between predators and increasingly well-defended prey. On the other hand mineralized skeletons may have evolved simply because they are stronger and cheaper to produce than all-organic skeletons like those of insects. Nevertheless it is still true that the animals used minerals that were most easily accessible.

Although the small size and often fragmentary nature of SSFs makes it difficult to identify and classify them, they provide very important evidence for how the main groups of marine invertebrates evolved, and particularly for the pace and pattern of evolution in the Cambrian explosion. Besides including the earliest known representatives of some modern phyla, they have the great advantage of presenting a nearly continuous record of Early Cambrian organisms whose bodies include hard parts. […]

Small shelly fossils are typically, although not always, preserved in phosphate. Whilst some shellies were originally phosphatic, in most cases the phosphate represents a replacement of the original calcite.[15] They are usually extracted from limestone by placing the limestone in a weak acid, typically acetic acid; the phosphatized fossils remain after the rock is dissolved away.[16] Preservation of microfossils by phosphate seems to have become less common after the early Cambrian, perhaps as a result of increased disturbance of sea-floors by burrowing animals.[15] Without this fossil-forming mode, many small shelly fossils may not have been preserved – or been impossible to extract from the rock; hence the animals that produced these fossils may have lived beyond the Early Cambrian – the apparent extinction of most SSFs by the end of the Cambrian may be an illusion.[16][3][4] For decades it was thought that halkieriids, whose “armor plates” are a common type of SSF, perished in the end-Botomian mass extinction; but in 2004 halkieriid armor plates were reported from Mid Cambrian rocks in Australia, a good 10 million years more recent than that.[17] […]

Biomineralization is the production of mineralized parts by organisms. Hypotheses to explain the evolution of biomineralization include physiological adaptation to changing chemistry of the oceans, defense against predators and the opportunity to grow larger. The functions of biomineralization in SSFs vary: some SSFs are not yet understood; some are components of armor; and some are skeletons. A skeleton is any fairly rigid structure of an animal, irrespective of whether it has joints and irrespective of whether it is biomineralized. Although some SSFs may not be skeletons, SSFs are biomineralized by definition, being shelly. Skeletons provide a wide range of possible advantages, including : protection, support, attachment to a surface, a platform or set of levers for muscles to act on, traction when moving on a surface, food handling, provision of filtration chambers and storage of essential substances.[2]

Incidentally I’ve now read the first half of George Martin’s A Clash of Kings – I’ll probably blog it tomorrow.

June 15, 2013 Posted by | Geology, history, mathematics, Paleontology, Physics, wikipedia | 2 Comments

Wikipedia articles of interest

i. Alternation of generations. It’s a bit technical, but I thought the article was interesting:

Alternation of generations (also known as alternation of phases or metagenesis) is a term primarily used to describe the life cycle of plants (taken here to mean the Archaeplastida). A multicellular sporophyte, which is diploid with 2N paired chromosomes (i.e. N pairs), alternates with a multicellular gametophyte, which is haploid with N unpaired chromosomes. A mature sporophyte produces spores by meiosis, a process which results in a reduction of the number of chromosomes by a half. Spores germinate and grow into a gametophyte. At maturity, the gametophyte produces gametes by mitosis, which does not alter the number of chromosomes. Two gametes (originating from different organisms of the same species or from the same organism) fuse to produce a zygote, which develops into a diploid sporophyte. This cycle, from sporophyte to sporophyte (or equally from gametophyte to gametophyte), is the way in which all land plants and many algae undergo sexual reproduction.

The relationship between the sporophyte and gametophyte varies among different groups of plants. In those algae which have alternation of generations, the sporophyte and gametophyte are separate independent organisms, which may or may not have a similar appearance. In liverworts, mosses and hornworts, the sporophyte is less well developed than the gametophyte, being entirely dependent on it in the first two groups. By contrast, the fern gametophyte is less well developed than the sporophyte, forming a small flattened thallus. In flowering plants, the reduction of the gametophyte is even more extreme; it consists of just a few cells which grow entirely inside the sporophyte.

All animals develop differently. A mature animal is diploid and so is, in one sense, equivalent to a sporophyte. However, an animal directly produces haploid gametes by meiosis. No haploid spores capable of dividing are produced, so neither is a haploid gametophyte. There is no alternation between diploid and haploid forms. […] Life cycles, such as those of plants, with alternating haploid and diploid phases can be referred to as diplohaplontic (the equivalent terms haplodiplontic, diplobiontic or dibiontic are also in use). Life cycles, such as those of animals, in which there is only a diploid phase are referred to as diplontic. (Life cycles in which there is only a haploid phase are referred to as haplontic.)

ii. Lightning. Long article, lots of stuff and links:

Lightning is an atmospheric electrical discharge (spark) accompanied by thunder, usually associated with and produced by cumulonimbus clouds, but also occurring during volcanic eruptions or in dust storms.[1] From this discharge of atmospheric electricity, a leader of a bolt of lightning can travel at speeds of 220,000 km/h (140,000 mph), and can reach temperatures approaching 30,000 °C (54,000 °F), hot enough to fuse silica sand into glass channels known as fulgurites, which are normally hollow and can extend as much as several meters into the ground.[2][3]

There are some 16 million lightning storms in the world every year.[4] Lightning causes ionisation in the air through which it travels, leading to the formation of nitric oxide and ultimately, nitric acid, of benefit to plant life below.

Lightning can also occur within the ash clouds from volcanic eruptions,[5] or can be caused by violent forest fires which generate sufficient dust to create a static charge.[1][6]

How lightning initially forms is still a matter of debate.[7] Scientists have studied root causes ranging from atmospheric perturbations (wind, humidity, friction, and atmospheric pressure) to the impact of solar wind and accumulation of charged solar particles.[4] Ice inside a cloud is thought to be a key element in lightning development, and may cause a forcible separation of positive and negative charges within the cloud, thus assisting in the formation of lightning.[4]

The irrational fear of lightning (and thunder) is astraphobia. The study or science of lightning is called fulminology, and someone who studies lightning is referred to as a fulminologist.[8] [I had no idea there was a name for this!] […]

An old estimate of the frequency of lightning on Earth was 100 times a second. Now that there are satellites that can detect lightning, including in places where there is nobody to observe it, it is known to occur on average 44 ± 5 times a second, for a total of nearly 1.4 billion flashes per year;[101][102] 75% of these flashes are either cloud-to-cloud or intra-cloud and 25% are cloud-to-ground.[103]

Approximately 70% of lightning occurs in the tropics where the majority of thunderstorms occur. The place where lightning occurs most often (according to the data from 2004–2005) is near the small village of Kifuka in the mountains of eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo,[105] where the elevation is around 975 metres (3,200 ft). On average this region receives 158 lightning strikes per 1 square kilometer (0.39 sq mi) a year.[102]

Above the Catatumbo river, which feeds Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela, Catatumbo lightning flashes several times per minute, 140 to 160 nights per year, accounting for 25% of the world’s production of upper-atmospheric ozone. Singapore has one of the highest rates of lightning activity in the world.[106] The city of Teresina in northern Brazil has the third-highest rate of occurrences of lightning strikes in the world.”

iii. Dreadnought (featured).

“The dreadnought was the predominant type of battleship in the early 20th-century. The first of the kind, the Royal Navy‘s Dreadnought, had such an impact when launched in 1906 that similar battleships built after her were referred to as “dreadnoughts”, and earlier battleships became known as pre-dreadnoughts. Her design had two revolutionary features: an “all-big-gun” armament scheme and steam turbine propulsion. The arrival of the dreadnoughts renewed the naval arms race, principally between the United Kingdom and Germany but reflected worldwide, as the new class of warships became a crucial symbol of national power. […]

While dreadnought-building consumed vast resources in the early 20th century, there was only one battle between large dreadnought fleets. At the Battle of Jutland, the British and German navies clashed with no decisive result. The term “dreadnought” gradually dropped from use after World War I, especially after the Washington Naval Treaty, as all remaining battleships shared dreadnought characteristics; it can also be used to describe battlecruisers, the other type of ship resulting from the dreadnought revolution.[1] […]

The building of Dreadnought coincided with increasing tension between the United Kingdom and Germany. Germany had begun to build a large battlefleet in the 1890s, as part of a deliberate policy to challenge British naval supremacy. With the conclusion of the Entente Cordiale between the United Kingdom and France in April 1904, it became increasingly clear that the United Kingdom’s principal naval enemy would be Germany, which was building up a large, modern fleet under the ‘Tirpitz’ laws. This rivalry gave rise to the two largest dreadnought fleets of the pre-war period.[93]

The first German response to Dreadnought came with the Nassau class, laid down in 1907. This was followed by the Helgoland class in 1909. Together with two battlecruisers—a type for which the Germans had less admiration than Fisher, but which could be built under authorization for armored cruisers, rather than capital ships—these classes gave Germany a total of ten modern capital ships built or building in 1909. While the British ships were somewhat faster and more powerful than their German equivalents, a 12:10 ratio fell far short of the 2:1 ratio that the Royal Navy wanted to maintain.[94]

In 1909, the British Parliament authorized an additional four capital ships, holding out hope Germany would be willing to negotiate a treaty about battleship numbers. If no such solution could be found, an additional four ships would be laid down in 1910. Even this compromise solution meant (when taken together with some social reforms) raising taxes enough to prompt a constitutional crisis in the United Kingdom in 1909–10. In 1910, the British eight-ship construction plan went ahead, including four Orion (1910)-class super-dreadnoughts, and augmented by battlecruisers purchased by Australia and New Zealand. In the same period of time, Germany laid down only three ships, giving the United Kingdom a superiority of 22 ships to 13. […]

The dreadnought race stepped up in 1910 and 1911, with Germany laying down four capital ships each year and the United Kingdom five. Tension came to a head following the German Naval Law of 1912. This proposed a fleet of 33 German battleships and battlecruisers, outnumbering the Royal Navy in home waters. To make matters worse for the United Kingdom, the Imperial Austro-Hungarian Navy was building four dreadnoughts, while the Italians had four and were building two more. Against such threats, the Royal Navy could no longer guarantee vital British interests. The United Kingdom was faced with a choice of building more battleships, withdrawing from the Mediterranean, or seeking an alliance with France. Further naval construction was unacceptably expensive at a time when social welfare provision was making calls on the budget. Withdrawing from the Mediterranean would mean a huge loss of influence, weakening British diplomacy in the Mediterranean and shaking the stability of the British Empire. The only acceptable option, and the one recommended by First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, was to break with the policies of the past and make an arrangement with France. The French would assume responsibility for checking Italy and Austria-Hungary in the Mediterranean, while the British would protect the north coast of France. In spite of some opposition from British politicians, the Royal Navy organised itself on this basis in 1912.[96]

In spite of these important strategic consequences, the 1912 Naval Law had little bearing on the battleship force ratios. The United Kingdom responded by laying down ten new super-dreadnoughts in her 1912 and 1913 budgets—ships of the Queen Elizabeth and Revenge classes, which introduced a further step change in armament, speed and protection—while Germany laid down only five, focusing resources on the Army.[97]

iv. Travelling salesman problem.

“The travelling salesman problem (TSP) is an NP-hard problem in combinatorial optimization studied in operations research and theoretical computer science. Given a list of cities and their pairwise distances, the task is to find the shortest possible route that visits each city exactly once and returns to the origin city. It is a special case of the travelling purchaser problem.

The problem was first formulated as a mathematical problem in 1930 and is one of the most intensively studied problems in optimization. It is used as a benchmark for many optimization methods. Even though the problem is computationally difficult, a large number of heuristics and exact methods are known, so that some instances with tens of thousands of cities can be solved.

The TSP has several applications even in its purest formulation, such as planning, logistics, and the manufacture of microchips. Slightly modified, it appears as a sub-problem in many areas, such as DNA sequencing. In these applications, the concept city represents, for example, customers, soldering points, or DNA fragments, and the concept distance represents travelling times or cost, or a similarity measure between DNA fragments. In many applications, additional constraints such as limited resources or time windows make the problem considerably harder. […]

The most direct solution would be to try all permutations (ordered combinations) and see which one is cheapest (using brute force search). The running time for this approach lies within a polynomial factor of O(n!), the factorial of the number of cities, so this solution becomes impractical even for only 20 cities. One of the earliest applications of dynamic programming is the Held–Karp algorithm that solves the problem in time O(n22n).[13] […]

An exact solution for 15,112 German towns from TSPLIB was found in 2001 using the cutting-plane method proposed by George Dantzig, Ray Fulkerson, and Selmer M. Johnson in 1954, based on linear programming. The computations were performed on a network of 110 processors located at Rice University and Princeton University (see the Princeton external link). The total computation time was equivalent to 22.6 years on a single 500 MHz Alpha processor. In May 2004, the travelling salesman problem of visiting all 24,978 towns in Sweden was solved: a tour of length approximately 72,500 kilometers was found and it was proven that no shorter tour exists.[16]

In March 2005, the travelling salesman problem of visiting all 33,810 points in a circuit board was solved using Concorde TSP Solver: a tour of length 66,048,945 units was found and it was proven that no shorter tour exists. The computation took approximately 15.7 CPU-years (Cook et al. 2006). In April 2006 an instance with 85,900 points was solved using Concorde TSP Solver, taking over 136 CPU-years […]

Various heuristics and approximation algorithms, which quickly yield good solutions have been devised. Modern methods can find solutions for extremely large problems (millions of cities) within a reasonable time which are with a high probability just 2–3% away from the optimal solution.”

v. Ediacara biota (featured).

“The Ediacara (play /ˌdiˈækərə/; formerly Vendian) biota consisted of enigmatic tubular and frond-shaped, mostly sessile organisms which lived during the Ediacaran Period (ca. 635–542 Ma). Trace fossils of these organisms have been found worldwide, and represent the earliest known complex multicellular organisms.[note 1] The Ediacara biota radiated in an event called the Avalon Explosion, 575 million years ago,[1][2] after the Earth had thawed from the Cryogenian period’s extensive glaciation, and largely disappeared contemporaneously with the rapid appearance of biodiversity known as the Cambrian explosion. Most of the currently existing body-plans of animals first appeared only in the fossil record of the Cambrian rather than the Ediacaran. For macroorganisms, the Cambrian biota completely replaced the organisms that populated the Ediacaran fossil record.

The organisms of the Ediacaran Period first appeared around 585 million years ago and flourished until the cusp of the Cambrian 542 million years ago when the characteristic communities of fossils vanished. The earliest reasonably diverse Ediacaran community was discovered in 1995 in Sonora, Mexico, and is approximately 585 million years in age, roughly synchronous with the Gaskiers glaciation.[3] While rare fossils that may represent survivors have been found as late as the Middle Cambrian (510 to 500 million years ago) the earlier fossil communities disappear from the record at the end of the Ediacaran leaving only curious fragments of once-thriving ecosystems.[4] Multiple hypotheses exist to explain the disappearance of this biota, including preservation bias, a changing environment, the advent of predators and competition from other life-forms.

Determining where Ediacaran organisms fit in the tree of life has proven challenging; it is not even established that they were animals, with suggestions that they were lichens (fungus-alga symbionts), algae, protists known as foraminifera, fungi or microbial colonies, to hypothetical intermediates between plants and animals. The morphology and habit of some taxa (e.g. Funisia dorothea) suggest relationships to Porifera or Cnidaria.[5] Kimberella may show a similarity to molluscs, and other organisms have been thought to possess bilateral symmetry, although this is controversial. Most macroscopic fossils are morphologically distinct from later life-forms: they resemble discs, tubes, mud-filled bags or quilted mattresses. Due to the difficulty of deducing evolutionary relationships among these organisms some paleontologists have suggested that these represent completely extinct lineages that do not resemble any living organism. One paleontologist proposed a separate kingdom level category Vendozoa (now renamed Vendobionta)[6] in the Linnaean hierarchy for the Ediacaran biota. If these enigmatic organisms left no descendants their strange forms might be seen as a “failed experiment” in multicellular life with later multicellular life independently evolving from unrelated single-celled organisms.[7]

Terms like ‘may have’ (9), ‘perhaps’ (3) and ‘probably’ (3) are abundant in the article, but think about how long time ago this was. I think it’s frankly just incredibly awesome that we even know anything at all.

vi. Three Emperors Dinner. Yes, there’s a Wikipedia article about a dinner that happened more than 100 years ago. Wikipedia is awesome!

“The Dîner des trois empereurs or Three Emperors Dinner was a banquet held at Café Anglais in Paris, France on 7 June 1867.

It was prepared by chef Adolphe Dugléré at the request of King William I of Prussia who frequented the cafe during the Exposition Universelle. He requested a meal to be remembered and at which no expense was to be spared for himself and his guests, Tsar Alexander II of Russia, plus his son the tsarevitch (who later became Tsar Alexander III), and Prince Otto von Bismarck. The cellar master, Claudius Burdel, was instructed to accompany the dishes with the greatest wines in the world, including a Roederer champagne in a special lead glass bottle, so Tsar Alexander could admire the bubbles and golden colour.[1]

The banquet consisted of 16 courses with eight wines served over eight hours. The cost of the meal was 400 francs per person[2] (about 8,800 in 2012 prices).”

June 17, 2012 Posted by | biology, genetics, history, mathematics, Paleontology, wikipedia | Leave a comment

Wikipedia articles of interest

Mostly just links and mostly just to at least post something (I know it’s been a while). I’ll try to post something a little more substantive later this week.

i. Thomas Blood. A “noted bravo and desperado” who tried to steal the Crown Jewels of England. Unsuccesfully. He didn’t get the death penalty for that, which is perhaps even more remarkable. During his life he also tried to kidnap and later on -murder one of his enemies, the Duke of Ormonde.

ii. Timeline of the far future.

iii. Polish–Soviet War.

iv. Iguanodon (featured).

v. Linear momentum. (the first stuff isn’t too hard and it’s quite instructive. But if all you have is HS math you should probably skip some of it, for example the section with the ‘more general derivation using tensors’ where Gauss’s divergence theorem is applied…)

vi. Shoaling and schooling. “In biology, any group of fish that stay together for social reasons are said to be shoaling […] and if, in addition, the group is swimming in the same direction in a coordinated manner, they are said to be schooling.” (it’s not a ‘good article’ according to the wikipedia community, but I thought it was. Lots of good stuff, good links at the bottom.)

vii. Indonesia.

Incidentally, this is post number 1500 ever published on this blog.

May 9, 2012 Posted by | astronomy, Geography, history, mathematics, Paleontology, Physics, wikipedia | 2 Comments

Wikipedia articles of interest

i. Ironclad warship.

“An ironclad was a steam-propelled warship in the early part of the second half of the 19th century, protected by iron or steel armor plates.[1] The ironclad was developed as a result of the vulnerability of wooden warships to explosive or incendiary shells. The first ironclad battleship, La Gloire, was launched by the French Navy in November 1859.[2] […]

The rapid evolution of warship design in the late 19th century transformed the ironclad from a wooden-hulled vessel that carried sails to supplement its steam engines into the steel-built, turreted battleships and cruisers familiar in the 20th century. This change was pushed forward by the development of heavier naval guns (the ironclads of the 1880s carried some of the heaviest guns ever mounted at sea), more sophisticated steam engines, and advances in metallurgy which made steel shipbuilding possible.

The rapid pace of change in the ironclad period meant that many ships were obsolete as soon as they were complete, and that naval tactics were in a state of flux. Many ironclads were built to make use of the ram or the torpedo, which a number of naval designers considered the crucial weapons of naval combat. There is no clear end to the ironclad period, but towards the end of the 1890s the term ironclad dropped out of use. New ships were increasingly constructed to a standard pattern and designated battleships or armored cruisers. […]

From the 1860s to the 1880s many naval designers believed that the development of the ironclad meant that the ram was again the most important weapon in naval warfare. With steam power freeing ships from the wind, and armor making them invulnerable to shellfire, the ram seemed to offer the opportunity to strike a decisive blow.

The scant damage inflicted by the guns of Monitor and Virginia at Battle of Hampton Roads and the spectacular but lucky success of the Austrian flagship Ferdinand Max sinking the Italian Re d’Italia at Lissa gave strength to the ramming craze.[30] From the early 1870s to early 1880s most British naval officers thought that guns were about to be replaced as the main naval armament by the ram. Those who noted the tiny number of ships that had actually been sunk by ramming struggled to be heard.[31]

The revival of ramming had a significant effect on naval tactics. Since the 17th century the predominant tactic of naval warfare had been the line of battle, where a fleet formed a long line to give it the best fire from its broadside guns. This tactic was totally unsuited to ramming, and the ram threw fleet tactics into disarray. The question of how an ironclad fleet should deploy in battle to make best use of the ram was never tested in battle, and if it had been, combat might have shown that rams could only be used against ships which were already stopped dead in the water.[32]”

This is how one of them looked like, click to view full size*:

ii. Allometry. John Hawks talked about this a bit in one of his lectures, I decided to look it up:

“Allometry is the study of the relationship of body size to shape,[1] anatomy, physiology and finally behaviour […] Allometry often studies shape differences in terms of ratios of the objects’ dimensions. Two objects of different size but common shape will have their dimensions in the same ratio. Take, for example, a biological object that grows as it matures. Its size changes with age but the shapes are similar. […]

In addition to studies that focus on growth, allometry also examines shape variation among individuals of a given age (and sex), which is referred to as static allometry. Comparisons of species are used to examine interspecific or evolutionary allometry […]

Isometric scaling occurs when changes in size (during growth or over evolutionary time) do not lead to changes in proportion. […] Isometric scaling is governed by the square-cube law. An organism which doubles in length isometrically will find that the surface area available to it will increase fourfold, while its volume and mass will increase by a factor of eight. This can present problems for organisms. In the case of above, the animal now has eight times the biologically active tissue to support, but the surface area of its respiratory organs has only increased fourfold, creating a mismatch between scaling and physical demands. Similarly, the organism in the above example now has eight times the mass to support on its legs, but the strength of its bones and muscles is dependent upon their cross-sectional area, which has only increased fourfold. Therefore, this hypothetical organism would experience twice the bone and muscle loads of its smaller version. This mismatch can be avoided either by being “overbuilt” when small or by changing proportions during growth […] Allometric scaling is any change that deviates from isometry. […]

In plotting an animal’s basal metabolic rate (BMR) against the animal’s own body mass, a logarithmic straight line is obtained. Overall metabolic rate in animals is generally accepted to show negative allometry, scaling to mass to a power ≈ 0.75, known as Kleiber’s law, 1932. This means that larger-bodied species (e.g., elephants) have lower mass-specific metabolic rates and lower heart rates, as compared with smaller-bodied species (e.g., mice), this straight line is known as the “mouse to elephant curve”.

iii. Arthropod.

“An arthropod is an invertebrate animal having an exoskeleton (external skeleton), a segmented body, and jointed appendages. Arthropods are members of the phylum Arthropoda (from Greek ἄρθρον árthron, “joint”, and ποδός podós “leg”, which together mean “jointed leg”), and include the insects, arachnids, crustaceans, and others. Arthropods are characterized by their jointed limbs and cuticles, which are mainly made of α-chitin; the cuticles of crustaceans are also biomineralized with calcium carbonate. The rigid cuticle inhibits growth, so arthropods replace it periodically by molting. The arthropod body plan consists of repeated segments, each with a pair of appendages. It is so versatile that they have been compared to Swiss Army knives, and it has enabled them to become the most species-rich members of all ecological guilds in most environments. They have over a million described species, making up more than 80% of all described living animal species, and are one of only two animal groups that are very successful in dry environments – the other being the amniotes. They range in size from microscopic plankton up to forms a few meters long.”

Another way to put it – it’s these guys:

I thought the stuff on molting (Ecdysis) was interesting:

“The exoskeleton cannot stretch and thus restricts growth. Arthropods therefore replace their exoskeletons by molting, or shedding the old exoskeleton after growing a new one that is not yet hardened. Molting cycles run nearly continuously until an arthropod reaches full size.[22] […] In the initial phase of molting, the animal stops feeding and its epidermis releases molting fluid, a mixture of enzymes that digests the endocuticle and thus detaches the old cuticle. This phase begins when the epidermis has secreted a new epicuticle to protect it from the enzymes, and the epidermis secretes the new exocuticle while the old cuticle is detaching. When this stage is complete, the animal makes its body swell by taking in a large quantity of water or air, and this makes the old cuticle split along predefined weaknesses where the old exocuticle was thinnest. It commonly takes several minutes for the animal to struggle out of the old cuticle. At this point the new one is wrinkled and so soft that the animal cannot support itself and finds it very difficult to move, and the new endocuticle has not yet formed. The animal continues to pump itself up to stretch the new cuticle as much as possible, then hardens the new exocuticle and eliminates the excess air or water. By the end of this phase the new endocuticle has formed. Many arthropods then eat the discarded cuticle to reclaim its materials.[22]

Because arthropods are unprotected and nearly immobilized until the new cuticle has hardened, they are in danger both of being trapped in the old cuticle and of being attacked by predators. Molting may be responsible for 80 to 90% of all arthropod deaths.[22]”

It’s a long article, and it has a lot of good stuff (and lots of links).

iv. Scottish independence referendum, 2014. I did not know about this.

v. Coordination game.

“In game theory, coordination games are a class of games with multiple pure strategy Nash equilibria in which players choose the same or corresponding strategies. Coordination games are a formalization of the idea of a coordination problem, which is widespread in the social sciences, including economics, meaning situations in which all parties can realize mutual gains, but only by making mutually consistent decisions. […]

A typical case for a coordination game is choosing the side of the road upon which to drive, a social standard which can save lives if it is widely adhered to. […] In a simplified example, assume that two drivers meet on a narrow dirt road. Both have to swerve in order to avoid a head-on collision. If both execute the same swerving maneuver they will manage to pass each other, but if they choose differing maneuvers they will collide. […] In this case there are two pure Nash equilibria: either both swerve to the left, or both swerve to the right. In this example, it doesn’t matter which side both players pick, as long as they both pick the same. Both solutions are Pareto efficient. This is not true for all coordination games”

vi. Ostrogothic Kingdom. Of course Heather is the reason why I read that article. At its greatest extent, the kingdom looked roughly like this:

I have not yet read all of the relevant material covering this subject in Heather, so I don’t know the extent to which he (or others) disagrees with Bury (who seems to be the main source of the article). But if you didn’t know there was such a thing as an Ostrogothic Kingdom in the first place, reading the article will probably not be a step in the wrong direction.

vii. Speleology. Yet another one of those areas of research you have probably never thought about:

“Speleology (also spelled spelæology or spelaeology) is the scientific study of caves and other karst features, their make-up, structure, physical properties, history, life forms, and the processes by which they form (speleogenesis) and change over time (speleomorphology). The term speleology is also sometimes applied to the recreational activity of exploring caves, but this is more properly known as caving, spelunking or potholing. Speleology and caving are often connected, as the physical skills required for in situ study are the same.

Speleology is a cross-disciplinary field that combines the knowledge of chemistry, biology, geology, physics, meteorology and cartography to develop portraits of caves as complex, evolving systems.”

I thought the article on troglobites (small cave-dwelling animals which live permanently underground and cannot survive outside the cave environment), which it links to, was interesting too.

* I decided to present the readers with an alternative way to post images on the blog, which I’m considering applying in the future. I have been made aware that the current modus operandi, posting pictures full-size in the posts, is not always optimal given the readers’ preferences regarding browsers and which tools with which to access the site (‘modern gadgets’ vs PC). I should make it clear that if you read this blog using a PC in a firefox browser with a pretty standard screen resolution, it looks fine. Because that’s how I access and view the site.

I am, and have been for a very long time, afraid that the blog will turn too much into a wall of text and I keep reminding myself that I should take active countermeasures to prevent this from happening. I don’t care that much about illustrations and images, but I know that many people do. Is this way of presenting images which I have applied in the post – relatively small thumbs which you can click if you want to see them in full size – (much) better than the alternative?

One more thing. I know that it’s quite possible that the reason stuff like images sometimes look like crap is because the chosen theme for the blog is not optimal. But I also know that the last time I changed the theme, everything went to hell and it took me days to handle the problems which the theme change caused. That was, mind you, at a point in time where the number of posts was less than a fourth of what it is today. If I change the theme, it affects at least every post I’ve written in the last 4 years. I have no idea how it will impact stuff like videos. So even if the theme is not optimal, changing it is not an option if I can avoid it.

April 22, 2012 Posted by | biology, blogging, Game theory, Geology, history, Paleontology, wikipedia | 1 Comment

Wikipedia articles of interest

1. Trophic level.

“The trophic level of an organism is the position it occupies in a food chain. The word trophic derives from the Greek τροφή (trophē) referring to food or feeding. A food chain represents a succession of organisms that eat another organism and are, in turn, eaten themselves. The number of steps an organism is from the start of the chain is a measure of its trophic level. Food chains start at trophic level 1 with primary producers such as plants, move to herbivores at level 2, predators at level 3 and typically finish with carnivores or apex predators at level 4 or 5. The path along the chain can form a one-way flow, or a food “web.” Ecological communities with higher biodiversity form more complex trophic paths. […]

The three basic ways organisms get food are as producers, consumers and decomposers.

*Producers (autotrophs) are typically plants or algae. Plants and algae do not usually eat other organisms, but pull nutrients from the soil or the ocean and manufacture their own food using photosynthesis. For this reason, they are called primary producers. In this way, it is energy from the sun that usually powers the base of the food chain.[1] An exception occurs in deep-sea hydrothermal ecosystems, where there is no sunlight. Here primary producers manufacture food through a process called chemosynthesis.[2]

*Consumers (heterotrophs) are animals which cannot manufacture their own food and need to consume other organisms. Animal that eat primary producers (like plants) are called herbivores. Animals that eat other animals are called carnivores, and animals that eat both plant and other animals are called omnivores.

*Decomposers (detritivores) break down dead plant and animal material and wastes and release it again as energy and nutrients into the ecosystem for recycling. Decomposers, such as bacteria and fungi (mushrooms), feed on waste and dead matter, converting it into inorganic chemicals that can be recycled as mineral nutrients for plants to use again.”

2. Charles de Gaulle.

3. Pareto distribution. You need to know a bit of statistics to make sense of this article.

4. Red Barn Murder.

“The Red Barn Murder was a notorious murder committed in Polstead, Suffolk, England, in 1827. A young woman, Maria Marten, was shot dead by her lover, William Corder. The two had arranged to meet at the Red Barn, a local landmark, before eloping to Ipswich. Maria was never heard from again. Corder fled the scene and although he sent Marten’s family letters claiming she was in good health, her body was later discovered buried in the barn after her stepmother spoke of having dreamt about the murder.

Corder was tracked down in London, where he had married and started a new life. He was brought back to Suffolk, and after a well-publicised trial, found guilty of murder. He was hanged in Bury St Edmunds in 1828; a huge crowd witnessed Corder’s execution. The story provoked numerous articles in the newspapers, and songs and plays. The village where the crime had taken place became a tourist attraction and the barn was stripped by souvenir hunters.”

5. SN 1987A. A little knowledge makes everything a little cooler, so of course I had to link to this after reading this awesome abstruse goose comic.

6. Structural history of the Roman military.

“The structural history of the Roman military concerns the major transformations in the organization and constitution of ancient Rome’s armed forces, “the most effective and long-lived military institution known to history.”[1] From its origins around 800 BC to its final dissolution in AD 476 with the demise of the Western Roman Empire, Rome’s military organization underwent substantial structural change. At the highest level of structure, the forces were split into the Roman army and the Roman navy, although these two branches were less distinct than in many modern national defense forces. Within the top levels of both army and navy, structural changes occurred as a result of both positive military reform and organic structural evolution. These changes can be divided into four distinct phases.

Phase I
*The army was derived from obligatory annual military service levied on the citizenry, as part of their duty to the state. During this period, the Roman army would wage seasonal campaigns against largely local adversaries.

Phase II
*As the extent of the territories falling under Roman control expanded and the size of the forces increased, the soldiery gradually became salaried professionals. As a consequence, military service at the lower (non-salaried) levels became progressively longer-term. Roman military units of the period were largely homogeneous and highly regulated. The army consisted of units of citizen infantry known as legions (Latin: legiones) as well as non-legionary allied troops known as auxilia. The latter were most commonly called upon to provide light infantry, logistical, or cavalry support.

Phase III
*At the height of the Roman Empire’s power, forces were tasked with manning and securing the borders of the vast provinces which had been brought under Roman control. Serious strategic threats were less common in this period and emphasis was placed on preserving gained territory. The army underwent changes in response to these new needs and became more dependent on fixed garrisons than on march-camps and continuous field operations.

Phase IV
*As Rome began to struggle to keep control over its sprawling territories, military service continued to be salaried and professional for Rome’s regular troops. However, the trend of employing allied or mercenary elements was expanded to such an extent that, these troops came to represent a substantial proportion of the armed forces. At the same time, the uniformity of structure found in Rome’s earlier military disappeared. Soldiery of the era ranged from lightly armed mounted archers to heavy infantry, in regiments of varying size and quality. This was accompanied by a trend in the late empire of an increasing predominance of cavalry rather than infantry troops, as well as a requirement for more mobile operations.” (the (featured) article has much more + plenty of links)

7. Megalodon.

“The megalodon (play /ˈmɛɡələdɒn/ MEG-ə-lə-don; meaning “big tooth”, from Greek μέγας (mega, “big”) and ὀδούς (odon, “tooth”)) is an extinct species of shark that lived roughly from 28 to 1.5 million years ago, during the Cenozoic Era (late Oligocene to early Pleistocene).

The taxonomic assignment of C. megalodon has been debated for nearly a century, and is still under dispute with two major interpretations; Carcharodon megalodon (under family Lamnidae) or Carcharocles megalodon (under family Otodontidae).[1] Consequently, the scientific name of this species has been commonly abbreviated to C. megalodon in literature.

C. megalodon is regarded as one of the largest and most powerful predators in vertebrate history.[2] C. megalodon likely had a profound impact on structuring of the marine communities. Fossil remains indicate that this giant shark reached a total length (TL) of more than 16 metres (52 ft),[1] and also affirm that it had a cosmopolitan distribution.[1] Scientists suggest that C. megalodon looked like a stockier version of the great white shark, Carcharodon carcharias, in life. […]

Somewhat related: In case you guys haven’t already heard about this, the remains of a huge feathered dinosaur was found in China recently. If you’re curious, you can read more here or here.

April 7, 2012 Posted by | astronomy, biology, history, Paleontology, statistics, wikipedia | Leave a comment