How psychopaths see the world

Friday, March 16th, 2018

A new study looks at how psychopaths see the world:

Here are people who can understand what their victims are thinking but just don’t care. Hence their actions. But Baskin-Sommers found that there’s more to their minds than it seems.

Most of us mentalize automatically. From infancy, other minds involuntarily seep into our own. The same thing, apparently, happens less strongly in psychopaths. By studying the Connecticut inmates, Baskin-Sommers and her colleagues, Lindsey Drayton and Laurie Santos, showed that these people can deliberately take another person’s perspective, but on average, they don’t automatically do so to the extent that most other people do. “This is the first time we’re seeing evidence that psychopaths don’t have this automatic ability that most of us have,” Baskin-Sommers says.


The U.S. prison system doesn’t assess psychopathy at intake, so Baskin-Sommers administered a standard test herself to 106 male inmates from the Connecticut prison. Of them, 22 proved to be psychopaths, 28 were not, and the rest fell in a gray zone.


The psychopaths proved to be “glib, narcissistic, and conniving,” she adds. “They can be aggressive, and they like to tell us gruesome details of murders, I think to shock us. But it’s not like that all the time. They do a lot of impression management.”

After assessing the 106 volunteers, she then gave them a computer-based task. They saw a picture of a human avatar in prison khakis, standing in a room, and facing either right or left. There were either two red dots on the wall in front of the avatar, or one dot in front of them and one dot behind them. Their job was to verify how many dots either they or the avatar could see.

Normally, people can accurately say how many dots the avatar sees, but they’re slower if there are dots behind the avatar. That’s because what they see (two dots) interferes with their ability to see through the avatar’s eyes (one dot). This is called egocentric interference. But they’re also slower to say how many dots they can see if that number differs from the avatar’s count. This shows how readily humans take other perspectives: Volunteers are automatically affected by the avatar’s perspective, even when it hurts their own performance. This is called altercentric interference.

Baskin-Sommers found that the psychopathic inmates showed the usual level of egocentric interference — that is, their own perspective was muscling in on the avatar’s. But they showed much less altercentric interference than the other inmates — the avatar’s perspective wasn’t messing with their own, as it would for most other people.

This sounds a bit like another condition:

Other groups of people also show differences in their theory of mind. For example, in one study, Frith asked people to predict where a girl might search for a marble that had been moved without her knowledge. The onlookers knew the marble’s whereabouts, so could they override their own knowledge to step into the girl’s shoes? Eye-tracking software revealed that neurotypical adults look at the same place the girl would, but people with Asperger’s syndrome are less likely to. They don’t seem to spontaneously anticipate others’ actions. “It is a bit worrying if [Baskin-Sommers and her colleagues] are proposing the very same underlying mechanism to explain callousness in psychopathy that we used previously to explain communication problems in autism, albeit based on a different test,” Frith says. “These are very different conditions, after all.”

Waking up to hidden motives

Tuesday, March 13th, 2018

I haven’t read The Elephant in the Brain (yet), but I enjoyed Robin Hanson’s talk with Sam Harris about hidden motives:

They discuss selfishness, hypocrisy, norms and meta-norms, cheating, deception, self-deception, education, the evolutionary logic of conversation, social status, signaling and counter-signaling, common knowledge, AI, and many other topics.

I especially enjoyed the misguided questions from the audience.

Why some people become sudden geniuses

Saturday, March 10th, 2018

In 1860 Eadweard Muybridge was thrown from a stagecoach — and became a creative genius:

He abandoned bookselling and became a photographer, one of the most famous in the world. He was also a prolific inventor. Before the accident, he hadn’t filed a single patent. In the following two decades, he applied for at least 10.

In 1877 he took a bet that allowed him to combine invention and photography. Legend has it that his friend, a wealthy railroad tycoon called Leland Stanford, was convinced that horses could fly. Or, more accurately, he was convinced that when they run, all their legs leave the ground at the same time. Muybridge said they didn’t.

To prove it he placed 12 cameras along a horse track and installed a tripwire that would set them off automatically as Stanford’s favourite racing horse, Occident, ran. Next he invented the inelegantly named “zoopraxiscope”, a device which allowed him to project several images in quick succession and give the impression of motion. To his amazement, the horse was briefly suspended, mid-gallop. Muybridge had filmed the first movie – and with it proven that yes, horses can fly.

The abrupt turnaround of Muybridge’s life, from ordinary bookseller to creative genius, has prompted speculation that it was a direct result of his accident. It’s possible that he had “sudden savant syndrome”, in which exceptional abilities emerge after a brain injury or disease. It’s extremely rare, with just 25 verified cases on the planet.

There’s Tony Cicoria, an orthopaedic surgeon who was struck by lightning at a New York park in 1994. It went straight through his head and left him with an irresistible desire to play the piano. To begin with he was playing other people’s music, but soon he started writing down the melodies that were constantly running through his head. Today he’s a pianist and composer, as well as a practicing surgeon.

Another case is Jon Sarkin, who was transformed from a chiropractor into an artist after a stroke. The urge to draw landed almost immediately. He was having “all kinds” of therapy at the hospital – speech therapy, art therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, mental therapy – “And they stuck a crayon in my hand and said ‘want to draw?’ And I said ‘fine’,” he says.


Most strikingly there’s Jason Padgett, who was attacked at a bar in Tacoma, Washington in 2002. Before the attack, Padgett was a college dropout who worked at a futon store. His primary passions in life were partying and chasing girls. He had no interest in maths – at school, he didn’t even get into algebra class.

But that night, everything changed. Initially he was taken to the hospital with a severe concussion. “I remember thinking that everything looked funky, but I thought it was just the narcotic pain shot they gave me” he says. “Then the next morning I woke up and turned on the water. It looked like little tangent lines [a straight line that touches a single point on a curve], spiralling down.”.


There are two leading ideas. The first is that when you’re bashed on the head, the effects are similar to a dose of LSD. Psychedelic drugs are thought to enhance creativity by increasing the levels of serotonin, the so-called “happiness hormone”, in the brain. This leads to “synaesthesia”, in which more than one region is simultaneously activated and senses which are usually separate become linked.


But there is an alternative. The first clue emerged in 1998, when a group of neurologists noticed that five of their patients with dementia were also artists – remarkably good ones. Specifically, they had frontotemporal dementia, which is unusual in that it only affects some parts of the brain. For example, visual creativity may be spared, while language and social skills are progressively destroyed.


To find out what was going on, the scientists performed 3D scans of their patients’ brains. In four out of five cases, they found lesions on the left hemisphere. Nobel Prize-winning research from the 1960s shows that the two halves of the brain specialise in different tasks; in general, the right side is home to creativity and the left is the centre of logic and language.

But the left side is also something of a bully. “It tends to be the dominant brain region,” says Brogaard. “It tends to suppress very marginal types of thinking — highly original, highly creative thinking, because it’s beneficial for our decision-making abilities and our ability to function in normal life.”. The theory goes that as the patients’ left hemispheres became progressively more damaged, their right hemispheres were free to flourish.

This is backed up by several other studies, including one in which creative insight was roused in healthy volunteers by temporarily dialling down activity in the left hemisphere and increasing it in the right. “[the lead researcher] Allen Snyder’s work was replicated by another person, so that’s the theory that I think is responsible,” says Darold Treffert, a psychiatrist from the University of Wisconsin Medical School, who has been studying savant syndrome for decades.


It’s been estimated that as many as one in 10 people with autism have savant syndrome and there’s mounting evidence the disorder is associated with enhanced creativity. And though it’s difficult to prove, it’s been speculated that numerous intellectual giants, including Einstein, Newton, Mozart, Darwin and Michelangelo, were on the spectrum.

One theory suggests that autism arises from abnormally low levels of serotonin in the left hemisphere in childhood, which prevents the region from developing normally. Just like with sudden savant syndrome, this allows the right hemisphere to become more active.

Interestingly, many people with sudden savant syndrome also develop symptoms of autism, including social problems, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and all-consuming interests.

An effortless way to improve your memory

Friday, March 9th, 2018

The remarkable memory-boosting benefits of undisturbed rest were first documented in 1900 by the German psychologist Georg Elias Muller and his student Alfons Pilzecker:

In one of their many experiments on memory consolidation, Muller and Pilzecker first asked their participants to learn a list of meaningless syllables. Following a short study period, half the group were immediately given a second list to learn — while the rest were given a six-minute break before continuing.

When tested one-and-a-half-hours later, the two groups showed strikingly different patterns of recall. The participants given the break remembered nearly 50% of their list, compared to an average of 28% for the group who had been given no time to recharge their mental batteries. The finding suggested that our memory for new information is especially fragile just after it has first been encoded, making it more susceptible to interference from new information.

Although a handful of other psychologists occasionally returned to the finding, it was only in the early 2000s that the broader implications of it started to become known, with a pioneering study by Sergio Della Sala at the University of Edinburgh and Nelson Cowan at the University of Missouri.

The team was interested in discovering whether reduced interference might improve the memories of people who had suffered a neurological injury, such as a stroke. Using a similar set-up to Muller and Pilzecker’s original study, they presented their participants with lists of 15 words and tested them 10 minutes later. In some trials, the participants remained busy with some standard cognitive tests; in others, they were asked to lie in a darkened room and avoid falling asleep.

The impact of the small intervention was more profound than anyone might have believed. Although the two most severely amnesic patients showed no benefit, the others tripled the number of words they could remember — from 14% to 49%, placing them almost within the range of healthy people with no neurological damage.

The next results were even more impressive. The participants were asked to listen to some stories and answer questions an hour later. Without the chance to rest, they could recall just 7% of the facts in the story; with the rest, this jumped to 79% — an astronomical 11-fold increase in the information they retained. The researchers also found a similar, though less pronounced, benefit for healthy participants in each case, boosting recall between 10 and 30%.

Della Sala and Cowan’s former student, Michaela Dewar at Heriot-Watt University, has now led several follow-up studies, replicating the finding in many different contexts. In healthy participants, they have found that these short periods of rest can also improve our spatial memories, for instance — helping participants to recall the location of different landmarks in a virtual reality environment. Crucially, this advantage lingers a week after the original learning task, and it seems to benefit young and old people alike. And besides the stroke survivors, they have also found similar benefits for people in the earlier, milder stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

Bret and Eric Weinstein on The Rubin Report

Saturday, March 3rd, 2018

If you haven’t yet watched Bret and Eric Weinstein on The Rubin Report, now’s your chance:

Katabasis leads to catharsis

Saturday, February 17th, 2018

Depression serves a purpose:

At the center of Hutson’s piece is Paul Andrews, an evolutionary psychologist at McMaster University in Canada. Andrews argues that depression may be “an adaptation for analyzing complex problems.” He sees it in the condition’s bouquet of symptoms, which include “anhedonia,” or an inability to feel much pleasure; people who are depressed ruminate frequently, often in spirals; and they get more REM sleep, a phase associated with memory consolidation. This reflects an evolutionary design, the argument goes, one that’s to, as Hutson summarizes, “pull us away from the normal pursuits of life and focus us on understanding or solving the one underlying problem that triggered the depressive episode.” Like, say, a “failed” relationship. The episode, then, is a sort of altered state, one different from the hum of daily life, one that’s supposed to get you to pay attention to whatever wounding led to the upset. For example, 80 percent of subjects in a 61-person study of depression found that they perceived some benefit from rumination, mostly assessing problems and preventing future mistakes.


Still, this framing of depression as a space for reflection is empowering, and lends a degree of agency to the person being pressed down. Like anxiety, depression might be trying to tell you something. The language of therapeutic traditions is useful: a Jungian analyst would describe depression as katabasis, an Ancient Greek word for descent. Like Orpheus heading to Hades or Luke Skywalker in the swamps of Dagobah, it’s a journey into the underworld, where the adventurer is to “go through the door … immerse himself in the wound, and exit from his old life through it,” like Robert Bly writes in Iron John. Since it is subjective, the problems and solutions will be personal — of the person and their particular psychological history — and thus demand the individualized understanding of the sufferer of depression, perhaps with the assistance of a skilled therapist. That’s another theme: While disengagement from emotionality characterizes depression and other disorders, engagement with one’s inner world looks to to be the way out. Put more poetically: You exit through the wound.

“Most episodes of depression end on their own — something known as spontaneous remission,” Vanderbilt psychologist Steven Hollon tells Nautilus, noting that the depression-as-adaptation narrative may explain why. Indeed, “cognitive behavioral and problem-solving therapies may work precisely because they tap into and accelerate — in a matter of weeks — the very processes that have evolved to occur over the space of months,” he added. Katabasis leads to catharsis; not coincidentally, there’s a shared theme in the personal narratives of people who reach midlife with a sense of well-being and generativity toward others: redemption.

(Hat tip to Richard Harper.)

Brain cells share information with virus-like capsules

Friday, February 2nd, 2018

We still don’t know how the brain works. For instance, we only recently learned that brain cells share information with virus-like capsules:

When Jason Shepherd first saw the structures under a microscope, he thought they looked like viruses. The problem was: he wasn’t studying viruses.

Shepherd studies a gene called Arc which is active in neurons, and plays a vital role in the brain. A mouse that’s born without Arc can’t learn or form new long-term memories. If it finds some cheese in a maze, it will have completely forgotten the right route the next day. “They can’t seem to respond or adapt to changes in their environment,” says Shepherd, who works at the University of Utah, and has been studying Arc for years. “Arc is really key to transducing the information from those experiences into changes in the brain.”

Despite its importance, Arc has been a very difficult gene to study. Scientists often work out what unusual genes do by comparing them to familiar ones with similar features—but Arc is one-of-a-kind. Other mammals have their own versions of Arc, as do birds, reptiles, and amphibians. But in each animal, Arc seems utterly unique—there’s no other gene quite like it. And Shepherd learned why when his team isolated the proteins that are made by Arc, and looked at them under a powerful microscope.

He saw that these Arc proteins assemble into hollow, spherical shells that look uncannily like viruses. “When we looked at them, we thought: What are these things?” says Shepherd. They reminded him of textbook pictures of HIV, and when he showed the images to HIV experts, they confirmed his suspicions. That, to put it bluntly, was a huge surprise. “Here was a brain gene that makes something that looks like a virus,” Shepherd says.

That’s not a coincidence. The team showed that Arc descends from an ancient group of genes called gypsy retrotransposons, which exist in the genomes of various animals, but can behave like their own independent entities.* They can make new copies of themselves, and paste those duplicates elsewhere in their host genomes. At some point, some of these genes gained the ability to enclose themselves in a shell of proteins and leave their host cells entirely. That was the origin of retroviruses—the virus family that includes HIV.

So, Arc genes are the evolutionary cousins of these viruses, which explains why they produce shells that look so similar. Specifically, Arc is closely related to a viral gene called gag, which retroviruses like HIV use to build the protein shells that enclose their genetic material. Other scientists had noticed this similarity before. In 2006, one team searched for human genes that look like gag, and they included Arc in their list of candidates. They never followed up on that hint, and “as neuroscientists, we never looked at the genomic papers so we didn’t find it until much later,” says Shepherd.

The similarities don’t end there. When genes are activated, the instructions encoded within their DNA are first transcribed into a related molecule called RNA. Shepherd’s colleague Elissa Pastuzyn showed that the Arc shells can enclose RNA and move it from one neuron to another. And that’s basically what retroviruses do—they use protein shells to protect their own RNA as it moves between cells in a host.

The Naples Soldier and Disease 11

Sunday, January 28th, 2018

This year marks the centenary of Spanish flu, the most deadly pandemic in human history:

It is estimated that five hundred million people contracted it — a third of the global population in 1918 — and that between fifty and a hundred million of them died. Asians were thirty times more likely to die than Europeans.


The spread of Spanish flu was quickened by the railway and steamer lines that girdled the planet, starkly illuminating global inequalities in security, nutrition and access to medical care. In India 6 per cent of the population died; in Fiji 5 per cent; in Tonga 10 per cent. In Western Samoa, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, more than 20 per cent of the population died. Even harder hit were the Alaskan Inuit, with a death rate between 25 and 50 per cent: in some small Alaskan communities everybody died. Koreans and Japanese were infected at the same rate, but the Koreans, subject to chronic malnutrition, were twice as likely to die. In the US, Italian immigrants died at twice the background rate (the Italian neighbourhoods of New York had a density of five hundred per acre, ten to a room), while black populations were the least affected.


The flu wasn’t Spanish at all. The name stuck when in May 1918 the Spanish king, the prime minister and his entire cabinet all came down with it. In Madrid, it was known as the Naples Soldier after a catchy tune then in circulation, while French military doctors called it Disease 11. In Senegal it was Brazilian flu; in Brazil it was German flu. Poles called it the Bolshevik Disease and the Persians thought the British were responsible.


The first case of Spanish flu was recorded on 4 March 1918, when a military mess cook called Albert Gitchell in Camp Funston, Kansas, reported sick with a headache and fever. By the following day a hundred others had reported the same symptoms. A hangar was requisitioned to house the men, but flu has an incubation period of a couple of days, and had already moved on, aided by the war machine. By mid-April it had reached the Western Front, where three-quarters of French troops and half the British fell ill; 900,000 German soldiers were taken out of action. In April it also surfaced in South-East Asia, and in May, as the Spanish cabinet took to their beds, it was spreading through North Africa. On 1 June the New York Times reported it spreading through China (possibly for the second time), and later that summer it reached Australia. That was the first wave; through the summer of 1918 the pandemic seemed to be on the wane.

But in August a second and more deadly wave struck all at once in Sierra Leone, Boston and Brest. The virus seems to have mutated, making it more transmissible and provoking a more florid inflammatory reaction. Ten thousand died in Addis Ababa; Haile Selassie said that he fell ‘gravely ill’, but ‘was spared from death by God’s goodness’. In Prague Kafka became ill; in Dublin Yeats’s pregnant wife, Georgie, was stricken, as was Ezra Pound in London. In Zamora in north-west Spain the bishop ordered a novena — the community was to gather for nine consecutive evenings to pray to St Rocco, patron saint of pestilence, and to kiss his relics. Observant locals noted that afterwards ‘Zamoranos seemed to be dying in higher numbers than the residents of other provincial capitals.’


When Charlie Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms came to New York in October, Harold Edel, the manager of the Strand Theatre, wrote: ‘We think it a most wonderful appreciation of Shoulder Arms that people should veritably take their lives in their hands to see it.’ Edel was dead within a week, of flu.

Although there was no effective treatment for the virus, aspirin was taken by the tonne (its German manufacturer, Bayer, was suspected of spreading flu through its pills); aspirin poisoning possibly killed some who would otherwise have survived.


The structure of the flu virus was first seen in 1943, when effective electron microscopes became available. They are just 0.1 microns across, between a tenth and a twentieth of the size of the bacilli most often associated with pneumonia. It’s moot whether they are even alive: viruses are simply packets of protein and fat, together with some nucleic acids to encode proteins. The flu virus carries just eight strands of RNA, with which it creates copies of itself. Two kinds of protein jut out from its surface: Haemagglutinin is the skeleton key that allows the flu virus to slip into living cells; Neuraminidase is the battering-ram that bursts its progeny out. These antigens can be recognised by our immune system and used to destroy the virus; we name flu strains according to which H and N subtypes they carry.


Animal ‘reservoirs’ allow flu strains to recombine until a new pandemic strain breaks out again — which it will. Every flu pandemic of the 20th century followed the emergence of a new Haemagglutinin antigen: H1 in 1918, H2 in 1957 and H3 in 1968.


In 1951 a Swedish-Iowan pathologist, Johan Hultin, travelled to Alaska and sampled lung tissue from graves at Brevig Mission, one of the Inuit communities badly affected by Spanish flu. The graves were relatively well preserved in permafrost, but even so Hultin didn’t manage to get enough samples of the virus to reproduce it. In 1997 the virologists Ann Reid and Jeffery Taubenberger worked with a scrap of lung from a 1918 flu victim, preserved for seventy years in formaldehyde. They succeeded in extracting some damaged RNA, but again too little to reconstitute the virus. Hultin read of Reid and Taubenberger’s research and returned to Brevig Mission: he was again given permission to dig, and this time exhumed an obese woman whose lungs had been preserved in fat. Enough flu virus was recovered from the lungs to be sequenced, and the results, published in Nature in 2005, suggested that the 1918 virus was avian in origin, but that a mutation had rendered it fatally adept at infecting mammals. When the reconstituted virus was given to mice under barrier conditions the mice lost 13 per cent of their body weight and produced forty thousand times more infectious particles than mice with ordinary seasonal flu. Six days after infection, all the mice were dead. The virus is currently held in a high-security facility in Atlanta, Georgia. In 2016, around 1.7 million people died from tuberculosis, around a million from HIV/Aids, and around half a million from malaria. Computer modelling suggests that if the 1918 H1N1 virus were to break out of the facility in Atlanta it would cause around thirty million deaths.

Can I get a flu shot against that strain of H1N1, please?

An endearing antelope with a bulbous nose

Saturday, January 27th, 2018

The saiga is “an endearing antelope” that roams Central Asia. Its “bulbous nose gives it the comedic air of a Dr. Seuss character,” Ed Yong says:

It typically wanders over large tracts of Central Asian grassland, but every spring, tens of thousands of them gather in the same place to give birth. These calving aggregations should be joyous events, but the gathering in May 2015 became something far more sinister when 200,000 saiga just dropped dead. They did so without warning, over a matter of days, in gathering sites spread across 65,000 square miles — an area the size of Florida. Whatever killed them was thorough and merciless: Across a vast area, every last saiga perished.

Saiga calf

At first, the team suspected that a new infectious disease had spread through the population, but the pattern of deaths just didn’t fit. The saiga were dying too synchronously and too quickly. Also, all of them had died. “In biology, there’s certain rules, you know?” says Kock. “We accept that sometimes microbes can cause us harm, but not like this. Even very severe viral diseases or anthrax don’t do this. A good proportion of the animals would be fine.”

News of the die-off sparked outlandish explanations about Russian rocket fuel, radiation, and even aliens. But while conspiracy theories raged, a huge international team of scientists, led by Kock, got to work. Vets autopsied as many saigas as they could. Ecologists sampled the soil. Botanists checked the local plants. They couldn’t find any signs of toxins that might have killed the saiga. Instead, the actual culprit turned out to be a bacterium, one that’s usually harmless.

Pasteurella multocida normally lives in the saiga’s respiratory tract, but Kock’s team found that the microbe had found its way into the animals’ blood, and invaded their livers, kidneys, and spleens. Wherever it went, it produced toxins that destroyed the local cells, causing massive internal bleeding. Blood pooled around their organs, beneath their skin, and around their lungs. The saigas drowned in their own bodily fluids.

But that answer just led to more questions. Pasteurella is common and typically harmless part of the saiga’s microbiome. In livestock, it can cause disease when animals are stressed, as sometimes happens when they’re shipped over long distances in bad conditions. But it has never been linked to a mass die-off of the type that afflicted the saigas. What could have possibly turned this docile Jekyll into such a murderous Hyde?

The team considered a list of possible explanations that runs to 13 pages. They wondered if some environmental chemical or dietary change had set the microbe off. They checked if biting insects had transmitted a new infection that interacted with Pasteurella. They considered that Pasteurella might have gone rogue because of an accompanying viral infection, in the same way that Streptococcus bacteria can bloom during a cold, leading to strep throat. “We tested for everything and we couldn’t find anything,” says Eleanor Milner-Gulland from the University of Oxford.

Only one factor fit the bill: climate. The places where the saigas died in May 2015 were extremely warm and humid. In fact, humidity levels were the highest ever seen the region since records began in 1948. The same pattern held for two earlier, and much smaller, die-offs from 1981 and 1988. When the temperature gets really hot, and the air gets really wet, saiga die. Climate is the trigger, Pasteurella is the bullet.

It’s still unclear how heat and humidity turn Pasteurella into a killer, and the team is planning to sequence the bacterium’s genome to find out more.

None more black

Thursday, January 25th, 2018

Blackbirds, Ed Yong explains, aren’t actually all that black:

Their feathers absorb most of the visible light that hits them, but still reflect between 3 and 5 percent of it. For really black plumage, you need to travel to Papua New Guinea and track down the birds of paradise.

Although these birds are best known for their gaudy, kaleidoscopic colors, some species also have profoundly black feathers. The feathers ruthlessly swallow light and, with it, all hints of edge or contour. They make body parts seem less like parts of an actual animal and more like gaping voids in reality. They’re blacker than black. None more black.

By analyzing museum specimens, Dakota McCoy, from Harvard University, has discovered exactly how the birds achieving such deep blacks. It’s all in their feathers’ microscopic structure.

A typical bird feather has a central shaft called a rachis. Thin branches, or barbs, sprout from the rachis, and even thinner branches—barbules—sprout from the barbs. The whole arrangement is flat, with the rachis, barbs, and barbules all lying on the same plane. The super-black feathers of birds of paradise, meanwhile, look very different. Their barbules, instead of lying flat, curve upward. And instead of being smooth cylinders, they are studded in minuscule spikes. “It’s hard to describe,” says McCoy. “It’s like a little bottle brush or a piece of coral.”

Bird of Paradise Ultra-Black

These unique structures excel at capturing light. When light hits a normal feather, it finds a series of horizontal surfaces, and can easily bounce off. But when light hits a super-black feather, it finds a tangled mess of mostly vertical surfaces. Instead of being reflected away, it bounces repeatedly between the barbules and their spikes. With each bounce, a little more of it gets absorbed. Light loses itself within the feathers.

McCoy and her colleagues, including Teresa Feo from the National Museum of Natural History, showed that this light-trapping nanotechnology can absorb up to 99.95 percent of incoming light. That’s between 10 and 100 times better than the feathers of most other black birds, like crows or blackbirds. It’s also only just short of the blackest materials that humans have designed. Vantablack, an eerily black substance produced by the British company Surrey Nanosystems, can absorb 99.965 percent of incoming light. It consists of a forest of vertical carbon nanotubes that are “grown” at more than 750 degrees Fahrenheit. The birds of paradise mass-produce similar forests, using only biological materials, at body temperature.

Mars is like Northern Canada, but worse

Sunday, January 14th, 2018

Colonizing Venus may be oddly feasible, because its dense atmosphere lends itself to floating cities. Colonizing Mars presents a very different challenge, as Matter Beam explains:

Atmospheric pressure is 1% of that on Earth. It is mostly unbreathable carbon dioxide, and does a poor job of spreading the warmth from half the sunlight we are accustomed to. Temperatures ranges from -135 degrees Celsius to an infrequent 35 degrees Celsius, averaging -55 degrees Celsius to Earth’s 14 degrees. Dust storms sometimes fill the sky, but their main effect seems to be eroding the ancient geological features over a surface area equal to Earth’s landmass.

The planet is also long dead. Most of the core is no longer molten, meaning that it does not spin to generate a magnetic field. Being 15% of Earth’s size, it cooled down to its present state much quicker.

Despite its downsides, Mars is pretty hospitable compared to other planets in the Solar System. It is cold, but no unmanageably so. It has a lot of solid, traversable ground. The polar caps contain billions of tons of water ice covered by a layer of solid carbon dioxide. The soil can be used for agriculture after some preparation.

Martian gravity is 37.6% of that on Earth. It is doubtful whether this is enough to stave off the muscle atrophy and bone loss caused by prolonged living in low or micro-gravity.

The low atmospheric pressure means that most architecture and equipment on Mars will have to be hermetically sealed and pressurized. This imposes structural constraints and a dangerous failure mode if the colony’s walls are pierced. Obtaining breathable gasses might requires energy and time: oxygen can be removed from carbon dioxide by energy-hungry chemical reactions, of through the photosynthesis of plants. Nitrogen is present at a 1.0% concentration in the thin Martian air, so it can eventually be extracted for small colonies to use as fertilizer and breathing mix. Larger colonies would need to find it in the soil, either as NO3 or NO.

The atmosphere actually helps with the cold, as it is so thin that lacks the ability to conduct heat away from the colony. It acts as an insulator. This makes dealing with Mars’s low temperatures easier than on Earth, where a thick atmosphere steals heat away from buildings in Antarctica or Northern Canada much more quickly.

Mars’s greatest assets, Matter Beam explains, may be its two moons: Phobos and Deimos.

Let’s start with Phobos.

The closest description would be a floating pile of rubble, loosely held together by a layer of compacted dust. It is composed mainly of carbonaceous chondrite rock riddled with ices and crevasses that might take up to a third of its volume. What is it good for? Living and lifting.

Phobos has a surface gravity of about 0.0004g. Riding a bicycle on the Mars-facing side is enough to fall off the moon and start orbiting Mars instead. It also means that it is very easy to dig into Phobos and excavate large volumes. These volumes can be filled with orbital habitats. These will have access to large quantities of volatiles and minerals, and the surrounding rock will provide sufficient radiation protection.

At 6000km, Phobos is also close enough to start considering orbital elevators. A cable can be dropped from the moon to an altitude of about 10km. In the simplest version, it passes over the surface at 2662 km/h. A mass-driver launched spacecraft or even a supersonic aircraft can catch up to the cable. The Martian end of the cable experiences nearly no drag, so it doesn’t heat up. Structural requirements are so low that it can be built from existing materials such as Zylon. It only needs to be about 12 times heavier than the payloads it expects to receive.

Once the aircraft or pod is attached, it simply climbs up to Phobos with no propellant required. This is a ‘free’ 4.1km/s of deltaV.

A more advanced version has an equally long cable extending out from Phobos. The two cables rotate in opposite directions to the moon’s orbit, allowing the lower end to nearly cancel its velocity, while the higher end travels at twice the orbital velocity.

The advanced version allows Phobos to ‘pick up’ payloads from the surface, then fling it outwards on the opposite end. At 4km/s, it can impart enough velocity to fling a payload all the way to Earth. In reverse, it can capture a spaceship entering the Martian system, and deposit it gently onto the surface at the other end.

A cable system vastly cheapens travel to and from Mars’s surface, Mars’s moons and extramartian destinations. Mars might end up being an even easier destination than Venus with its aerocapture or Mercury with its beamed solar power. Thanks to low surface gravity and thin atmosphere, the cables can be made from conventional materials and do not require much protection.

Deimos is a more extreme version of Phobos.

It is even smaller and higher than Phobos, but nearly identical in every other way. With a cable system, it can capture interplanetary spacecraft and lower them to Mars’s surface or Phobos’s orbit even more cheaply in terms of deltaV saved, energy required and structural mass involved.

So, by properly exploiting its moons instead of relying only on the surface, Mars becomes a very inviting destination for spacecraft. While it lacks the energy to produce or refine products cheaply, it can compensate by providing rocket fuel and sending off the products to other destinations at greatly reduced deltaV cost.

I was not expecting that.

Too many cypress knees

Saturday, January 13th, 2018

Swamp Park, in southeastern North Carolina, is at the northern extreme for American alligators, which means it can get a little cold for the cold-blooded reptiles:

At first, [George Howard, the park’s general manager] thought the water had too many cypress knees – woody projections from tree roots that are a common sight in swamps.

Then he saw teeth.

Alligator Snout Poking out of Ice

When it’s cold but not icy, the alligators disappear, sinking to the bottom of the swamp for most of the day or burrowing into the mud, Howard said. “You don’t see them, but they’re under there.”


Right before the surface freezes, they stick their snouts out of the water so they can continue breathing.

Iguanas, by the way, react somewhat differently to the cold:

And in Florida, where temperatures took a rare dip into the 40s last week, iguanas also slowed their bodily functions. But because many are tree dwellers, some just fell to the ground.

It was a repeat of a cold snap in 2010, when the iguana situation caught people similarly unawares.

“Neighbourhoods resounded with the thud of iguanas dropping from trees onto patios and pool decks, reptilian Popsicles that suggested the species may not be able to retain its claw-hold on South Florida,” the Sun-Sentinel’s David Fleshler wrote.

But the story had a happy ending, Fleshler reported. The iguanas “have rebounded, repopulating South Florida neighbourhoods and resuming their consumption of expensive landscaping.”

By the way, the term brumation was coined in 1965, so reptiles could have their own term for hibernation.

Finishing an academic dissertation was a logistical nightmare

Saturday, January 13th, 2018

In 18th-century Europe, Linnaeus — I suppose I should call him Carl Linnaeus, using both names — had achieved meteoric success, but he had a problem:

The man who made order from nature’s chaos did not have a good management system for his own work. His methods for sorting and storing information about the natural world couldn’t keep up with the flood of it he was producing.


He had started out collecting plants in the woods of his native southern Sweden. But as his profile grew, so did his research and writing, and the number of students under his wing. Achieving scientific renown of their own, Linnaeus’s students sent him specimens from their travels in Europe, Russia, the Middle East, West Africa, and China. According to Charmantier and Müller-Wille, most botanists of the era employed a team to manage their affairs that would keep track of correspondence and categorize specimens. But not Linnaeus, “who preferred to work alone.” Starting in the 1750s, he complained in letters to friends of feeling overworked and overwhelmed. Burnout, it turns out, isn’t a modern condition.

Linnaeus’s predicament wasn’t new, either. In her book Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age, the historian Ann Blair explains that since the Renaissance, “the discovery of new worlds, the recovery of ancient texts, and the proliferation of printed books” unleashed an avalanche of information. The rise of far-flung networks of correspondents only added to this circulation of knowledge. Summarizing, sorting, and searching new material wasn’t easy, especially given the available tools and technologies. Printed books needed buyers. And while notebooks kept information in one place, finding a detail buried inside one was another story. Finishing an academic dissertation wasn’t just a test of erudition or persistence; dealing with the material itself — recording, searching, retrieving it — was a logistical nightmare.

Many scholars, like the 17th-century chemist Robert Boyle, preferred to work on loose sheets of paper that could be collated, rearranged, and reshuffled, says Blair. But others came up with novel solutions. Thomas Harrison, a 17th-century English inventor, devised the “ark of studies,” a small cabinet that allowed scholars to excerpt books and file their notes in a specific order. Readers would attach pieces of paper to metal hooks labeled by subject heading. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the German polymath and coinventor of calculus (with Isaac Newton), relied on Harrison’s cumbersome contraption in at least some of his research.

Linnaeus experimented with a few filing systems. In 1752, while cataloging Queen Ludovica Ulrica’s collection of butterflies with his disciple Daniel Solander, he prepared small, uniform sheets of paper for the first time. “That cataloging experience was possibly where the idea for using slips came from,” Charmantier explained to me. Solander took this method with him to England, where he cataloged the Sloane Collection of the British Museum and then Joseph Banks’s collections, using similar slips, Charmantier said. This became the cataloging system of a national collection.

Linnaeus may have drawn inspiration from playing cards. Until the mid-19th century, the backs of playing cards were left blank by manufacturers, offering “a practical writing surface,” where scholars scribbled notes, says Blair. Playing cards “were frequently used as lottery tickets, marriage and death announcements, notepads, or business cards,” explains Markus Krajewski, the author of Paper Machines: About Cards and Catalogs. In 1791, France’s revolutionary government issued the world’s first national cataloging code, calling for playing cards to be used for bibliographical records. And according to Charmantier and Müller-Wille, playing cards were found under the floorboards of the Uppsala home Linnaeus shared with his wife Sara Lisa.

In 1780, two years after Linnaeus’s death, Vienna’s Court Library introduced a card catalog, the first of its kind. Describing all the books on the library’s shelves in one ordered system, it relied on a simple, flexible tool: paper slips. Around the same time that the library catalog appeared, says Krajewski, Europeans adopted banknotes as a universal medium of exchange. He believes this wasn’t a historical coincidence. Banknotes, like bibliographical slips of paper and the books they referred to, were material, representational, and mobile. Perhaps Linnaeus took the same mental leap from “free-floating banknotes” to “little paper slips” (or vice versa). Sweden’s great botanist was also a participant in an emerging capitalist economy.

Yes, dolphins are smart

Friday, January 12th, 2018

The more we study dolphins, the brighter they turn out to be:

At the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Mississippi, Kelly the dolphin has built up quite a reputation. All the dolphins at the institute are trained to hold onto any litter that falls into their pools until they see a trainer, when they can trade the litter for fish. In this way, the dolphins help to keep their pools clean.

Kelly has taken this task one step further. When people drop paper into the water she hides it under a rock at the bottom of the pool. The next time a trainer passes, she goes down to the rock and tears off a piece of paper to give to the trainer. After a fish reward, she goes back down, tears off another piece of paper, gets another fish, and so on. This behaviour is interesting because it shows that Kelly has a sense of the future and delays gratification. She has realised that a big piece of paper gets the same reward as a small piece and so delivers only small pieces to keep the extra food coming. She has, in effect, trained the humans.

Her cunning has not stopped there. One day, when a gull flew into her pool, she grabbed it, waited for the trainers and then gave it to them. It was a large bird and so the trainers gave her lots of fish. This seemed to give Kelly a new idea. The next time she was fed, instead of eating the last fish, she took it to the bottom of the pool and hid it under the rock where she had been hiding the paper. When no trainers were present, she brought the fish to the surface and used it to lure the gulls, which she would catch to get even more fish. After mastering this lucrative strategy, she taught her calf, who taught other calves, and so gull-baiting has become a hot game among the dolphins.

Dolphins are clever in the wild, too:

In an estuary off the coast of Brazil, tucuxi dolphins are regularly seen capturing fish by “tail whacking”. They flick a fish up to 9 metres with their tail flukes and then pick the stunned prey from the water surface. Peale’s dolphins in the Straits of Magellan off Patagonia forage in kelp beds, use the seaweed to disguise their approach and cut off the fishes’ escape route. In Galveston Bay, Texas, certain female bottlenose dolphins and their young follow shrimp boats. The dolphins swim into the shrimp nets to take live fish and then wriggle out again – a skill requiring expertise to avoid entanglement in the fishing nets.

Dolphins can also use tools to solve problems. Scientists have observed a dolphin coaxing a reluctant moray eel out of its crevice by killing a scorpion fish and using its spiny body to poke at the eel. Off the western coast of Australia, bottlenose dolphins place sponges over their snouts, which protects them from the spines of stonefish and stingrays as they forage over shallow seabeds.

This earns a “wow”:

At a dolphinarium, a person standing by the pool’s window noticed that a dolphin calf was watching him. When he released a puff of smoke from his cigarette, the dolphin immediately swam off to her mother, returned and released a mouthful of milk, causing a similar effect to the cigarette smoke.

Their ability to learn a language is impressive:

By human definition, there is currently no evidence that dolphins have a language. But we’ve barely begun to record all their sounds and body signals let alone try to decipher them. At Kewalo Basin Marine Laboratory in Hawaii, Lou Herman and his team set about testing a dolphin’s ability to comprehend our language. They developed a sign language to communicate with the dolphins, and the results were remarkable. Not only do the dolphins understand the meaning of individual words, they also understand the significance of word order in a sentence. (One of their star dolphins, Akeakamai, has learned a vocabulary of more than 60 words and can understand more than 2,000 sentences.) Particularly impressive is the dolphins’ relaxed attitude when new sentences are introduced. For example, the dolphins generally responded correctly to “touch the frisbee with your tail and then jump over it”. This has the characteristics of true understanding, not rigid training.

I’m reminded of that damn bird, Alex the African Grey parrot, who was no birdbrain, and of Rico the Border Collie.

Raptors are setting fires on purpose

Thursday, January 11th, 2018

Raptors — the black kite, whistling kite, and brown falcon — are intentionally spreading grass fires in northern Australia:

Raptors on at least four continents have been observed for decades on the edge of big flames, waiting out scurrying rodents and reptiles or picking through their barbecued remains.

What’s new, at least in the academic literature, is the idea that birds might be intentionally spreading fires themselves. If true, the finding suggests that birds, like humans, have learned to use fire as a tool and as a weapon.

Gosford, a lawyer turned ethno-ornithologist (he studies the relationship between aboriginal peoples and birds), has been chasing the arson hawk story for years. “My interest was first piqued by a report in a book published in 1964 by an Aboriginal man called Phillip Roberts in the Roper River area in the Northern Territory, that gave an account of a thing that he’d seen in the bush, a bird picking up a stick from a fire front and carrying it and dropping it on to unburnt grass,” he told ABC.

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“MJ,” a Kimberley, (Western Australia) cattle station caretaker manager … saw kites working together to move a late dry season fire across a river by picking up, transporting, and dropping small, burning sticks in grass, which immediately ignited in several places,” they write. “The experience resulted in an uncontrollable blaze that destroyed part of the station’s infrastructure.”

Bob White, a firefighter in the Northern Territory saw a small group of raptors, likely black kites, “pick up numerous smouldering sticks and transport them ahead of a fire front, successfully helping the blaze spread up a small valley.”

Nathan Ferguson claims to have observed fire spreading about a dozen times in the Northern Territory since 2001. The long-time firefighter is adamant that the birds he’s observed — picking up twigs and starting new fires — were doing so on purpose.

That jibes with the other research Gosford and Bonta dug up. “Most accounts and traditions unequivocally indicate intentionality on the part of three raptor species,” they wrote.