Because the pace of change in our scientific understanding of our world, and the technology which follows it, is increasing at greater rates in recent decades than at any other time in our history, it has become ever so more important that we have at least some basic understanding of that science and technology, that we as a society wield in this world…without this, we are literally blundering in the dark, blindly upsetting systems and cycles, upon which our lives depend, with little understanding of our responsibility for the decline or grasp of our own agency in setting the world back to rights. The advancement of science is an outgrowth of our curiosity as a society. It is a look behind the ‘curtain’ that too many of us take for granted. The technologies that spring from these scientific advances carry with them consequences which amplify our individual impacts while providing us with promised advantages through a marketplace that too often only wants to sell and profit from its latest innovation, with little concern for its overall impacts. As long as our basic world view, our grasp of science, remains stuck in the past, in the more ‘simple’ classical world of its roots, we are more easily swayed by advertisers and pitchmen who’s business demands that we not look too deeply. We are not, and can never be, ‘experts’ in every field. The demands and rigors of scientific advancement have a very high bar, but it is essential, especially in these days, that we understand basic concepts, that we have some grasp of how science has redefined the world making possible those technologies which we either wield clumsily, like a weapon of destruction, or more tactfully and respectfully like a surgeon and healer. As long as science remains esoteric and remote, ourselves ignorant of its ‘message’ and, by extension, ignorant of our own impact on the world, we place all things at risk. Continue reading
Nurse, Paul, “What is Life?: Five Great Ideas in Biology”, WW Norton and Co., 2021. I’m placing this book out of order here, its American edition just released this year and I’ve only just read it, because I concur that this is an excellent introduction to its topic and should be accessible to a broad audience, one without an academic background in biology. It does what Carlo Rovelli’s “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics”, does for its readers, presents in a compact and cogent way the central ideas for understanding the science of life. Nurse, is a Nobel Prize winning geneticist and cell biologist, who has dedicated his research life to the study of the cell and what sets this class of matter apart and unique, looking into its structure, chemistry/metabolism, reproduction, evolution and the relationships and communication which must occur within and between cells. He looks into what genetics is and isn’t capable of, what it seems to control, the genes for 20,000 some different proteins included within our DNA, while leaving open to question the instructions and detailed directions, how the growth and development of an organism is actually determined.
The reader will benefit from having some basic understanding of chemistry to fully grasp what he writes here, but this is an excellent starting point. At 143 pages this book shouldn’t scare off the reader. This is a window into life and should peek the readers interest as Nurse reveals what he still finds so fascinating about life and this world.
Al-Khalili, Jim and Johnjoe McFadden, “Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology”, Broadway Books, 2016. In the world of science, quantum biology is a toddler. Quantum mechanics itself only began a hundred plus years ago and quickly began redefining the way that physicists look at the world. Today most branches of science are transforming themselves, aligning themselves with this new reality of physics. This may be impacting none of the sciences more than it is biology and the life sciences. What was once limited to the quantum world of elementary particles so much smaller than we can see even with technology’s assistance, today we are finding quantum actions behind even the most simple processes up to and including the energy and origins of life. Mass and energy lie at the heart of everything and life is a very particular case of highly complex ordering of that mass and energy, intricately linked in coherent relationships, borne out of seemingly random, chaotic, actions at a subatomic level. In these systems/organisms life has evolved effective patterns that ‘feed’ on themselves, self-regulating, self-maintaining, able to reproduce with great ‘fidelity’ to one’s parent organisms, energy dissipating structures, dynamic, balanced between stasis or death and a runaway consumption of one’s self,, a conflagration. Patterns built on more basic patterns, conformed into very particular resonant structures which are additive and transformative, never perfect, evolving towards greater complexity and capacity, structures that ‘live’ in relationship to one another in a supportive manner, dynamic, time limited and ‘stable’ in a self-reinforcing sense…existing in different states, simultaneously. Follow Al-Khalili and McFadden down part of a ‘proven’ path. Continue reading
On Darwin and His Theory
Evolution is a word that can divide the world. Its opponents often claim that all that lives today, in terms of species diversity, did so yesterday…all the way back to the ‘first’ yesterday, which some people claim was precisely 4004 B.C., when ‘God’ created everything essentially in a moment. Bishop Ussher, of Ireland, published his ‘findings’ in 1650 and his ‘documentation’ is that most frequently referenced by opponents of evolution. He has it down to the day, Oct. 23 of that year. This is a problem when a researcher goes in with an ‘answer’ and is only looking for corroborating evidence, evidence which they will eventually find. Science, through the study of evolution, has developed various specialized technologies and techniques to reach back in time and analyze the evidence at hand. It has done this building on the work of those studying paleontology, microbiology, geology, chemistry, atmospheric chemistry; palynology, the study of pollen; astronomy and cosmology, quantum physics, stochastic methods developed around the hypothesis of a molecular clock which posits a rate of genetic change; and cladistics which assesses genetic lineages, the relationships between species and larger classification groups…scientists have collectively been dating ‘life’ back over Earth’s 4 billion years. The creationist argument depends entirely upon belief, denies science and views evidence such as fossils simply as ‘puzzles’ God left to confuse us.…Others accept that lower species may have ‘evolved’, but Man, created in His image, is special, exceptional and exempt, a creation of God, fixed and forever. Modern science does not give a pass to such claims of specialness seeking instead more direct evidence, making connections, following patterns, doing science….
A fellow gardener asked the question about whether there were a list of sure thing Agapanthus, plants that a beginner could confidently choose and have success with in most of the maritime PNW. I’m going to say no. All of these are South African natives and while many of us can grow these in our gardens, because our conditions overall are marginal, a gardener is going to have to possess a good understanding of their site in particular and some knowledge of the cultivars that they are choosing. I’m going to borrow here from Manning and Goldblatt’s book, “The Color Encyclopedia of Cape Bulbs”, which discusses the bulbs of the Cape Floristic region and those adjacent areas spilling over into other parts of South Africa. Agapanthus species are native there, endemic in fact, occurring naturally no where else in the world. I’m also relying here on the SANBI website, the South African Natural Biodiversity Institute which has put together an incredible national program, which all countries should be building for their own countries. Being a South African plant aficionado I visit it frequently. To this I add my own observations and speculations, having grown several Agapanthus over the last 25+ years in Portland: These come from warm temperate and subtropical areas in South Africa, 10 species total, 3 limited to the Cape itself, all of which tend to occur in rocky grasslands. Other botanists have downgraded 3 of Manning and Goldblatt’s species and given them subspecies status recognizing only 7 species. Continue reading
For years now my real interest has been in plants and the life sciences. This has lead me to better understand the physics and chemistry of life, of the organism, as I attempt to understand the truly awesome and fantastical phenomenon that is life itself. I find it impossible to ignore the links between all of the sciences and it should not be too surprising that what one might learn in biology can have application for our own human species, including the social aspects of our lives, because whether we talk about art and beauty, economics or the institutions we share as humans, all are an outgrowth of our lives and the forces and cycles that govern us. Primary among these is the phenomenon of relationship whether between the various ‘nested’ and interlinked cells in our own bodies or the countless organisms we share this world with, with which we in fact evolved, in both competitive and cooperative ways. John Donne once pronounced in a poem that, ‘No man is an island’ and he meant that quite literally. Our fate and health are all bound to one another whether we like it our not, in relationships which can be mutually beneficial, or, if we choose to ignore and deny them, in mutually destructive ways.
Ecology is the study of a shared community of organisms, its description and how it all fits together, its relationships, ‘eco’ arising from the old greek word for household and logos, which speaks to order, purpose and form. Economy, begins with that same concept of ‘household’ only its suffix comes from the greek word meaning management or distribution and refers to the function of the household, its processes and how it produces, distributes or apportions its resources and products…it refers to the actions whereby the ‘household’ lives, the actions, that characterize its many relationships. In ancient Greece the economy revolved around the household. In their world economic actions were not simply those by which a society achieves material ends, the Greeks also constrained it to those activities which resulted in ‘praiseworthy’ outcomes, those which provided a larger benefit to the household. (Greek society, not perfect, was much like our own, placing women in a subservient role and was dependent upon slavery. Like American democracy, it was exclusive, but capable of being expanded to include all peoples.)
The two concepts remain closely linked though today our understanding of economy includes only those parts of the larger community’s operation, the money economy, that produces material benefit and wealth. Any harm accrued or costs imposed on others is not directly relevant if such costs have been ‘outside’ of the transaction, beyond the responsibility of the buyer and seller’s deal. Leaders have mutually decided to exclude all else. We define our economy in a limited way that serves the production of wealth and its accumulation, making profit the purpose and most relevant factor in economic decision making, placing outside it that which we choose to, that which we under value and take for granted. The two largest examples of this are our exclusion of domestic or women’s work, and the contribution of the environment. To include them would radically change our economic calculations and the very concept of profit.
Profit is what remains after costs are considered. To the degree that costs can be excluded then, profit is increased. This ‘habit’ of exclusion extends throughout society and extends to whole sectors of the human population and beyond, distorting our decision making and the broader social and political structures that govern our lives….Our understanding of economics today exists outside of ethics. Ethics and ethical behavior, if it is to factor into it, must be imposed. That is the responsibility of a society through its political processes. Such decisions lie within the realm of possibility though considerable power is aligned behind our current model and we behave as if they are fixed and unchangeable. (See this PDF to understand how far our economic ideas have strayed from the thinking and goals of the ancient Greeks.) The Greeks rightly recognized the economy as the engine of the ‘household’ and society, the system that, through nature’s largesse and human labor, creates that which sustains us. It is necessary that an economy be regulated through rational decision making. Such a system ‘freed’ of its responsibility to society to move it in a beneficial direction, is more likely to simultaneously squander its world and resources while failing to meet the needs of its people and the many species that comprise it. The Greeks understood that by not limiting the pursuit of luxury the capacity of nature to fulfill its demands would be compromised.
This last year has driven this point home for me as the pandemic and our divisive politics, both plagues on this world, work to drive us apart. These compound the ever increasing gap between the rich and poor, stranding ever more of the middle class on their own as well. We’ve conflated what we want with what we need and released individual greed to pursue its ends freely. I have been studying the topics of evolution, natural selection, random mutation and the role of energy in life, acting as a driving, creative, force behind evolution, increasing complexity and the self-organization of organisms, which in the world of physics are recognized as far out of equilibrium, dissipative structures, taking higher quality energy in, utilizing it in their growth and metabolism, before exhausting it outside of their ‘bodies’. Organisms have the ability to self-catalyze, reproduce and maintain themselves as long as energy flows through them uninterrupted. These phenomenon lend weight to our understanding that life is not a random occurrence, there is something inevitable about it, the underlying physics and chemistry of the universe pushing the process. Organisms are living, self-reinforcing, complex ‘nested’ systems, each composed of successful, dynamic patterns, that repeat in innumerable forms, between very narrow limits. Organisms exist in the ‘moment’ along the energetic cusp between life and death, that sweet spot within which our chemistry and metabolism remain, between sub-critical and supra-critical states, stasis and conflagration. There are countless lessons for us to learn from biology that we can apply to our own lives, because life is not an accident, nor is it a singular miraculous event…it is rooted within and powered by the forces of nature.
We exist within a complex network of organisms, a network of self-sustaining systems, made possible and animated by the flow of energy as it moves from low to high entropy, from order to randomness, sunlight ‘becoming’ living tissue, feeding successive trophic levels, endlessly cycling. All of life exists in this singular moment entirely dependent upon the health and vitality of the whole, the process of which each individual is a part, with a role to play, which effects every living thing and of what will follow. Through our broader economic behavior we have set ourselves outside of this essential process of nature. We cannot know ultimately where this will take life, but we do know, with some confidence, that if we interrupt or compromise it, we put everything at risk.
When will it actually flower? Once people got passed the, ‘What is ‘that’ question?’, this is what they wanted to know. When would it actually flower? by which they meant the individual petalous flowers open. More than a few times I responded snarkily…it’s flowering right now! Agave are among a wide ranging group of plants whose flowering includes a relatively large inflorescence, a supporting structure, which can rival the rest of the plant in terms of size. An Agave montana flowering here is foreign to our experience. The idea that such a large structure could arise so quickly, is to most people’s minds, strange, if not surreal…but for experienced gardens, who observe and strive to understand, there are links and connections, shared purpose and processes with all flowers. Gardeners and botanists, horticulturists and evolutionary scientists, they see the wonder in it all. When does flowering begin? When a plant commits to its purpose. Flowering should not be taken for granted. It does not occur to meet our aesthetic need. It is also much more than a simple result of a plant’s life. It is a fulfillment of one well and fully lived, projecting oneself into the future. Flowering and the production of one’s seed is a commitment to a future that will go on beyond oneself…and it begins from where every plant begins. Continue reading
In this blog I focus on plants. Any gardener, botanist or horticulturist knows that plants, all living organisms, live in an incredibly complex, interwoven network of systems, each affecting the others, the health of anyone, in large part determined by the health of the ‘whole’. Life does not and cannot exist in a vacuum. We humans are also very much living organisms and subject to the same kind of limits as any species. What we build and produce, including those more abstract things like our social and economic systems upon which we are very much dependent, are subject to the same natural laws and limits, whether we recognize them or not. Very much a part of this is how we value other life collectively. Just because many may say other people and species are of less value, does not make this fact. The laws and ways of ‘man’ must remain within, and consistent with, the laws of nature. We are not at liberty to treat other life as expendable. We owe a debt and responsibility to all life. Life permits and supports us so it is incumbent upon us to do the same for it. Such is the natural law of reciprocity. Continue reading
I’m not a biological ‘fatalist’, but there are several reasons why epidemiologists were attempting to plan for a pandemic and why the Obama administration was empowering institutions, creating protocols and organizing resources that could be mobilized quickly, before the COViD-19 outbreak, not for this one specifically, but one of some kind. Viruses, bacteria, mycoplasma and other microbes fill the world at a microscopic level…they are everywhere, all of the time. Our own bodies contain far more of them than we do of our own some three trillion cells. Fortunately, most of them do not cause us disease, at least as long as we remain healthy. Many of them, in fact perform valuable functions in us, beneficial ones, without which our lives would be the poorer. Disease too is part of life’s ‘plan’. Its agents are dynamic. Today’s diseases are not those of the past. We evolved together. They mutate and sometimes ‘leap’ across species boundaries. A study of biology and disease reveals a function of disease or at least a consequence to the health and evolution of a species. It may sound heartless to put it this way, but disease is very much a part of living. With this new disease, COVID-19, as with others, it is selective, affecting those whose health is compromised in some way disproportionately, killing those most susceptible, the weak and those may include those surprising to us. As in most things concerning life, nothing is so simple as our concept of strong and weak. Disease is a part of the process of natural selection that has always been in effect in the world. Continue reading
Gardening for most of us is more than just a distraction, but these days, in light of the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, the disease it causes, COVID-19, the conflicted messaging we’re getting from our ‘leaders’ and the insecurity many or most of us are feeling around our own financial situations, we are likely more in need of one than we had been. This post will be a bit of that, while at the same time an attempt to shed a little light on the issue of viruses in the plant world. Yes, viruses plague plants as well, but they are also thought, by more than a few scientists, to have played other roles as well, such as in evolution, a process that continues to and beyond this day! In some ways they parallel those of bacteria. Both viruses and bacteria can cause disease. The disease that a virus can cause is generally very limited to a narrow range of species, even to one, with notable exceptions. Most, however, perform other tasks as they go about their ‘business’, within the bodies of bacteria and larger multi-celled organisms. In fact most viruses, like bacteria, play no direct roll in our health…and they are everywhere.
It is important to understand that science has its own biases and that our perspective as mortal human beings affects how we view things as well…viruses included. Science builds on experience. It requires that new science, and its theories, be consistent with what is ‘known’, but it must also be open enough to avail itself to new understandings when it better explains previously accepted theories. What do I mean? Viruses ‘cause’ disease, but might they also be something else? If our biases set us up to see them agents of disease, reservoirs for future disease or inconsequential, we will fail to see what they may also be…and there are some who would assign a much more important role to viruses and see them not just as disease agents, but as far more, as essential ‘elements’ and players to life today and the processes that made today’s form of it even possible! First, though, what do we ‘know’ of viruses. Continue reading
[Dear reader, if this seems a bit rambling, I’m sorry, but my first purpose here is understanding the role of Quantum Physics in the life of the organism. This is me trying to make sense of it and I do this by writing. In writing our errors become most obvious. I have read and reread this many times, rewriting and editing sections, throwing others out I later decided were just wrong. I suspect I will come back to this over time as I continue on this quest to understand this post’s central question and that should be okay, because my understanding, like the science I am reading continues to evolve. I read fairly widely across the several branches of science and rarely find those who can integrate these ideas. Quantum Biology is a real thing, but the work of synthesis or joining the pertinent work and theories from the separate sciences has really just begun. Quantum mechanics, biochemistry, cell biology, enzyme action, evolution, metabolic activity, the unique role of the water molecule in life and the study of life as an integrated, complex system, is not something done. It is my belief that to understand the miracle of life, one must have a grasp of the related sciences and their various complimentary and competing theories. The story they each tell individually is, unsurprisingly, incomplete. We will never understand life if we continue to examine it only in its isolated parts and functions. Life is quite the opposite. If you reader are able to gain some clarity from my struggles here…then all the better!]
What, some of you are likely thinking, does quantum physics have to do with biology and living organisms? Physics’ realm, after all, is that of apples falling, billiard balls ricocheting off of one another, a planet orbiting around its sun, the electricity that powers many of our devices and nuclear explosions. Yes, it is that, and so much more. It examines and seeks to explain the physical properties of matter and energy in all of its forms and at all of its scales…well, at their most basic, tiniest scale, organisms are composed of this same matter, the stuff of planets and stars. Quantum physics looks at this ‘behavior’ at unimaginably tiny scales, that of quanta, those tiny bits that physicists, like Max Planck discovered cannot be further divided, that contain fixed and set amounts of energy, that when multiplied by billions, gain enough size that we can directly perceive them. At the tiny scale of quanta, of sub-atomic particles, the laws of matter change, those used to calculate the trajectory of a much more massive rocket or explain the movement of heat in water, no longer hold. Such tiny bits of matter behave differently and such tiny bits play key roles within living organisms.
At that level, all of these particles exhibit what physicists describe as quantum motion and uncertainty; they are capable of ‘tunneling’ and ‘walking’; of being in two, binary, states, particle and wave, at the same time; of having the potential for what physicists call ‘super-position’ or having the capacity to possess different properties at the same moment until they are caused to ‘collapse’ into a single state, a single position; and they do this at a scale well beyond our ability to directly perceive, that of nanometers and time frames of nanoseconds, billionths of a meter, billionths of a second. These are the scales at which we could examine single atoms. At such scales quanta, the component bits of atoms, the smallest atoms, like hydrogen, common to virtually every ‘organic’ molecule, ‘behave’, can do these things, coherently, as if they were directly linked and coordinated. This is a ‘world’ in which velocity and location become problematic, in which a particle/wave cannot have its velocity and location known at the same moment, a world in which quanta could be in more than one place, at the same time, no, ‘are’ in any of several possible positions at a given moment, a world of ‘probabilities’, where in a very real sense all things are possible. Physicist’s speak of ‘wave forms’ which are predictive tools to help them determine the probability of one’s velocity and location….What? Such ideas boggle the mind. At such an unimaginable level, matter does not exist, not in the kind of solid, fixed, massive sense that most of us tend to think anyway. At that level matter consists of energy, that is ‘informed’, structured in such a way that through its energized action, its ‘behavior’, ‘wave forms’ collapsing in and out of ‘fixed’ position, manifest at our scale as the ‘stuff’ we know and can perceive. This is pretty bizarre and ‘weird’ stuff. Some refer to this as the quantum weird.
….This might be a good place to take a break…then reread the above. The reader might do well to take this approach as your ‘work’ your way through this, bit or bite by bite.