June 02, 2011

Top Ten new species of the year

photo of a new species of mushroom

Every year scientists discover something like 15,000 new species. Among those discovered last year are a new species of bacteria found clinging to the railing of the Titanic, a six-foot long fruit eating lizard found in a forest in the Philippines, and the Brazilian mushroom pictured here that glows with a bright greenish light.

The International Institute for Species Exploration has a photo gallery of the top ten new species of the year.

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March 29, 2011

What's inside an ant hill?

ant hill

You ever wonder what's inside an ant hill? Me too. This amazing video shows what happens when you take a massive African anthill, pump it full of concrete, let it dry, and then carefully cut away all of the dirt to reveal the hidden underground structure. The narrator has it right when he calls it "a wonder of the world".

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August 16, 2009

The Center for PostNatural History

image from the Center for PostNatural History

We humans have come up with lots of places to see the planet's life. There are aquaria for fish, aviaries for birds, arboretums for plants, wildlife refuges for, well, wildlife.

But what about the rapidly growing number of organisms that have been deliberately altered...and in some cases created...by humans. Welcome to The Center for PostNatural History.

The CPNH (as they like to be known) seeks to document, display, and explain the story of life after man got involved. Their mandate includes genetic manipulation that we humans have done for centuries -- such as selective breeding of farm animals -- as well as more recent phenomena such as gene splicing and synthetic biology.

Their website has a nice short video explaining what they're into.

The CPNH doesn't yet have a permanent home, but they have had several exhibits on display at cooperating art galleries. Their website also features their PostNatural Organism of the Month. Roll up and learn the true story of the military goat modified to make spider's silk in its milk!

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August 14, 2009

Biomimicry FTW!

image from Janine Benyus' TED Conference talk on biomimicry

You need to know more about biomimicry. Not just because it's so fuckin' cool, (which it is, in a mind-blowing "hey that is sooooo fuckin' cool" kind of a way), but because it may just help us engineer our way out of many of the messes we've engineered ourselves into.

Briefly, biomimicy is the concept of studying how nature solves fundamental design and engineering problems (energy storage, maximum strength with minimum mass, filtration, reduction of drag, you name it) and then figuring out how to apply those same techniques to man-made products and systems.

In coming posts I'll be pointing out several companies that are taking the biomimicry ball and running with it. But to start there's no better way to get up to speed on biomimicry than to watch this great TED conference talk by biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyus.

Comments? Email me at comments-at-spurgeonworld.com

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August 10, 2009

Species named after famous people

Kate Winslet and the ground beetle named after her

Thousands of new species are identified each year, and each and every one of them needs a name. As a general rule, the scientist who discovers a new species gets to name it, and the names are often inspired by someone the scientist knows...a spouse or lover, an influential teacher, a relative, and sometimes a celebrity.

That's why we've ended up with a lichen named after Barack Obama, a slime-mold beetle named after George Bush, a lemur named after John Cleese, and...wait for it...a sub-species of bunny named for Hugh Hefner. Pictured above is Agra katewinsletae, a ground beetle named for actress Kate Winslet.

Popular Mechanics' website
has a bunch more.

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November 11, 2008

Google Predicts the Flu

graph of flu vs. google search trends

There's no end to the cool things waiting to be discovered by analyzing search data. Case in point -- Google can detect when there's a regional outbreak of the flu before the federal government can.

By tracking the rise in users hitting Google with search terms like "flu" and "treating flu" over the past several years, the company demonstrated that the rises and falls in their search stats line up quite accurately with the Centers for Disease Control's statistics for flu cases. But the thing is, Google detects the rise in flu about two weeks before the CDC(*). Spotting a regional flu outbreak earlier can translate into actual lives saved, as health care workers can take extra precautions with at-risk patients.

Google.org, the company's non-profit arm, is making real-time flu search stats available to the public at www.google.org/flutrends . They also have a paper on the subject accepted for publication in Nature. (Here's a PDF manuscript).

Update: Here's a New York Times article on Google Flu Trends.

(*)The lag isn't because of incompetence at the CDC, it's because their flu stats are based on periodic reports from physicians around the country.

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September 01, 2008

The secret lives of seeds

seed of the creeping carrot plant

Here's a quick bit of beauty for your (US) holiday weekend. BBC Science has put together a brief narrated slide show highlighting some of the amazing complexity of plant fruits and seeds. Pictured above, the seed of the creeping carrot, which has wings to ride the breeze as well as barbs to snag a ride on the flanks of passing animals.

The amazing photos come from two books... Fruits and Seeds.

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May 09, 2008

Green porno

Isabella Rossellini in Green Porno

For the last few months The Sundance Channel has been showing a odd and wonderful series of short films called "Green Porno". The shorts star actress Isabella Rossellini portraying a wide variety of invertebrates in the act of reproduction. The films have this great low-budget feel to them, with no special effects other than Rossellini's school play looking costumes. And the mating habits of these creatures are truly bizarre and eye-opening. So if you're interested in invertibrate behavior, or watching Isabella Rossellini mate, or both, Green Porno is worth checking out.

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April 06, 2008

Making friends in the squirrel world

Squirrel from the movie Hoodwinked

If you spend endless hours tweaking your Facebook and Linked-in contacts, it turns out you have a lot in common with squirrels. According to an article in the April issue of the journal Animal Behavior, Columbian ground squirrels (a common squirrel species in the American and Canadian west) develop complex webs of friends, friends of friends, friends of friends of friends, etc.

Just as is the case with groups of human friends, there are certain individual squirrels who are natural connectors...associating with lots of others in the group. And just like what happens all too often with human cliques, the popular squirrels spend most of their time hanging with the other popular squirrels.

There are layman-friendly write-ups of the research on the New Scientist and Discovery Channel websites.

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March 23, 2008

Evocutlery

part of evocutlery chart

If you're reading this, take a bow. For you are descended from a line of ancestors who achieved something seemingly impossible. Consider... every single one of your direct ancestors, all the way back to the beginning of life on Earth several billion years ago, managed to survive long enough to successfully reproduce. It's an astonishing achievement, and the tiny detail that we share that achievement with every single organism on the planet shouldn't make you crow about your particular success any less.

It's evolution and natural selection of course that gave rise to the astonishing diversity of life on earth, processes that are still operating all around us all the time.

Like for instance, while you're eating dinner. And what better way to remind yourself of that fact with every bite, than this set of cutlery by designer Harry White?

Starting with two knifes, two forks and two spoons, White imagined how the utensils would look if they could interbreed and produce offspring. The full 49-piece set includes some truly bizarre flatware hybrids. But nothing odder than what nature itself comes up with.

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February 29, 2008

Email apnea

photo of woman reading email by maloukh. Available under CC license at http://www.flickr.com/photos/75636517@N00/339062727/

Every time I open my email, I hold my breath. It's a mix of apprehension (Is there something in there from a boss? An ex-girlfriend? A bill collector?), curiosity (Is thinkgeek having a sale?), and the disorder that's about to be injected into my life (Which email to answer first? Which emails can be answered later or ignored entirely?). It turns out I'm not alone.

Linda Stone, who spends a lot of time thinking about how computers effect our lives, has noticed this same breath-holding behavior in lots of people when they first fire up their email clients. She calls it email apnea, and after speaking with a number of physiologists, she worries that it can have significant physical consequences.

I called Dr. Margaret Chesney, at the National Institute of Health (NIH). Research conducted by Dr. Margaret Chesney and NIH research scientist Dr. David Anderson demonstrated that breath-holding contributes significantly to stress-related diseases. The body becomes acidic, the kidneys begin to re-absorb sodium, and as the oxygen (O2), carbon dioxide (CO2), and nitric oxide (NO) balance is undermined, our biochemistry is thrown off.

Stone says there's strong evidence that these effects can directly lead to problems like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. She also predicts that while controlled breathing exercises have long been a part of &auot;alternative" health techniques like yoga, we're about to see breathing exercises hit the mainstream fitness world.

Read her thoughts about it on O'Reilly Radar.

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