Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Mixotrich's Tale

Richard Dawkins' great book- "The Ancestor's Tale" tells the story of evolution backwards- from man to microbe- so as not to give the incorrect impression that we are the pinnacle of the evolutionary tree. This is frankly annoying. Who would write a history book starting in the present day, then heading backwards? Hopefully, some future edition will be re-written backwards.

Regardless, it is a tremendous book- highly recommended- but I've found that i tend to dip into it's encyclopedic pages every few months. One of my favourite bits is towards the 'end' - regarding the Mixotrich.

The Mixotric - (didn't you know this already?) is a single celled organism that lives its entire life in the gut of a termite- helping it to digest wood cellulose. The termite thinks its universe is the termite mound, but the Mixotrich thinks its entire universe is the gut of a single termite.

What's interesting is that the Mixotrich moves by holding on to a team of spirochaete bacteria- using them for propulsion. Quite bizarre. I guess from the spirochaete's perspective, the universe is a single Mixotrich.

One of the fundamentally amazing things about the universe is its ability to form nested complex structures at all scales. The universe as we perceive it may be only a fragment of what's out there.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Grapefruit was Invented!

Amazing isn't it? You sort of think that 'fruit' has been around forever- but no- there wasn't any such thing as a grapefruit before 1750. This, and other amazing facts in the latest great lecture on "SALT" - Seminars About Long-term Thinking: a balanced, rational view of "Organic" vs "GM" food.


Artist/chitect Adam Kalkin built his amazing house around another house - and now uses the front porch as a dining room. Tremendously cool.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Photosynth of the Night Sky

When you look up at the beautiful stars on a clear night- you're looking at an image that's different from anything you'll see on earth. That's because each point of light is from a different time. Adjacent stars may be separated by billions of miles. You're seeing the stars as they were, and WHERE THEY WERE billions of years ago. Before there were humans, before there was Earth.

Who knows where they are now? Some of them have probably already been sucked into black holes, or blown themselves up in supernovas, or travelled halfway across the sky.

This is what i think: understanding the massive/tiny time & distance scales of the universe is too hard for a monkey brain to comprehend intuitively. "Seeing is believing" - and we have trouble grasping the fact that the image of an object is not the object itself.

An experiment is everyday living:

1. you place a fresh red apple 1 foot away, and take a polaroid photo of it, and place the photo in front of the apple. (Don't look at the apple or the photo).

2. throw the apple on the back of a truck as it speeds away, wait a year till it's completely rotten in some landfill somewhere.

3. now open your eyes- and look at the apple image.

4. Ask yourself: "where is the apple really?"

5. Ask yourself: "where is the image of the apple?"

That's what looking up at the night sky is like. Looking up at the stars is not at all like looking down at your feet. Actually, it's a lot like looking at a photosynth image- a composite image of a region of space, but with each photograph representing a different time. Maybe generation Z will have a better grip on the universe thanks to photosynth!