13 April 2014

Cloning dogs!

Clone me! Photo: PA/Channel4
I should have mentioned! I was on BBC Radio Cumbria talking about cloning pooches with Kevin Fernihough. Only 4 days left to listen (I'm on from 9min20sec). The low-down - I can see the utility for understanding biology and perhaps conservation and de-extinction, but if it's to perpetuate your relationship with Rover, forget it. All you can get at best is Rover's identical twin. Spend your money on better things.

23 March 2014

Prepare to meet your maker - Mathematics.

This is my Amazon.co.uk review of Max Tegmark's "Our Mathematical Universe", published by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books. [Permalink to review]



If Max Tegmark is correct (and I have to say I think he *is*), we inhabit a universe that is just one of several hierarchies of multiverse that exist by virtue of the fact that they are mathematical structures. Not simply "describable" by mathematics, but that they fundamentally *are* maths. It's a conclusion that a lot of people have reacted against, and some of the implications are mind-boggling, but Max outlines his reasoning with wit and clarity in this very enjoyable romp between the physics of the Very Big to the Very Small and back to us humans. What is the meaning of Life? What gives meaning to the Universe? The ultimate answer is us, self-aware substructures within a larger mathematical entity, apparently evolving as the Schroedinger wavefunction through infinite-dimensioned Hilbert space, seeding clones at every quantum decoherence point, generating vast (infinite) numbers of parallel universes that are themselves part of this grander mathematical multiverse.

Max writes in an accessible and engaging style - it is clear that he is enjoying himself in coming up with his ideas (they seem to usually strike him when he's riding a bike (unlike a huge truck in Stockholm when he was a kid, fortunately for the Max in this universe) or walking in a park with one of his colleagues - in some ways these little biographical details add to the charm, and allow parallels to be drawn to the incredible writing of Richard Feynman.

That said, you can tell that Max knows this is an uphill struggle - many of his ideas strike deeply at some of the core notions we have as humans. Could there really be an infinite number of "yous" within this contiguous spacetime, not to mention within an infinite number of parallel spinoffs of this universe, each with the same subjective feeling that they are unique? These are not concepts that Max tosses out to deal with tricky problems - they are a fundamental prediction of certain formulations of physics. I have to say that I have not read a better description of cosmic inflation than Max presents here - I thought I had run the gamut of popular science descriptions, but this book makes several aspects much clearer, and provokes the reader to think on a wider level about the implications, and how we might test them.

The final chapter is a gem - what are the major existential threats facing humanity, and what should we be doing about them? As far as we can tell, we are alone in the Universe. He's a bit pessimistic here, in thinking that other civilisations are unlikely, and I very much hope that he is wrong (or do I?), but even so, there are multiple hazards that we will need to avoid if we are going to fulfil the role that we seem compelled to adopt - WE are what gives the universe meaning, so WE need to protect ourselves, our planet, our science. Whether it's dodging asteroids, or avoiding hostile artificial intelligence take-over, we would do well to plan ahead. Increasing scientific literacy is critical - this will drive both research and the intelligent use of new information as it arises. In the end, this is the only way we can hope to avoid a possible Great Cosmic Filter - if it lies ahead of our current technological state, it could well be the reason why we have not found other alien civilisations yet.

Is this an easy introduction to a complex subject? Is it a sales pitch for a radical reformulation of what we think of as "reality"? Is it Max's musings through the worlds of physics and ethics? It's all of the above and more. In at least some universes it is destined to become a classic, and those are the universes that are most likely to retain intelligent life. Probably.

13 February 2014

No giraffes please, we're Danish.

Now is not a happy time to be a young randy male giraffe in Denmark. Forget all that stuff about clean, tolerant Scandinavia - if you're tall and spotty, you're a marked Marius. Well, yesterday was Darwin Day, but in the spirit of the times, here's a Lamarck Fish you can print out and attach to the bumper of your car.


The ORIGINAL Lamarck Fish!

07 February 2014

How do you like your Permaculture? Purple or Brown?

Permaculture is sort-of my current fad. I do this from time to time - become inordinately interested in a topic for a while, read and pontificate about it, maybe even put some into practice for a bit, then drop it. However, I think gardening in general will stick with me, and applying "permaculture" (at least as I choose to see it) to that end is likely to be a long term thingy.

However, Permaculture means different things to different people, and Paul Wheaton (who is insanely proud of being dubbed "The Duke of Permaculture" by Geoff Lawton "The Crown-Prince of Permaculture") discerns a division. On the one hand he has "Purple Permaculture", which involves hugging trees, attuning oneself to the energies of the universe, seeing spirituality in trees and streams and shit. On the other hand, there is "Brown Permaculture", which is perhaps more earthy (hence the brown) and practical - what works; how can we combine complex systems to reduce waste and effort and optimise beneficial outputs and interactions. Paul sees himself (and he has never formally declared for Geoff) on the brown end of the spectrum. That's where I would put Geoff, and where I would put my own inclinations.

I don't believe in Ley Lines, biorhythms, homeopathy, life forces, pixies or fairies of any kind. Indeed, I think such fantasies are bonkers. However I do recognise a few simple principles:
  1. Our planet was doing very well in terms of biological output before we got here
  2. Life and evolution are pretty amazing at coming up with counter-intuitive solutions or work-arounds to problems that they face
  3. Many biological systems greatly out-produce the base needs of the system (so we can potentially tap into that surplus)
  4. By simple linear thinking we are making serious errors in the maintenance of our biosphere.
At present many of our processes are not harnessing the rather spectacular power of biology to produce yummy stuff without much in the way of inputs. Indeed, we have done this sort of Garden-of-Eden-Departure thing of assuming that in order for plants to grow and flourish, WE have to make them do it. And we fight with nature in order to make that happen. I think there are smarter ways. One of the smartest ways turns out to be one of the easiest ways - we should all grow at least a proportion of the veg we use.

So do it! Plant some spuds or tomatoes or something, and harvest them and eat them! Not only are you benefiting your health and well-being, you're sticking it to Mr Tesco, who only pays farmers a pittance for the produce anyway. Every little helps, as they say.

But keep it brown. Remember where you came from. Hydrothermal vents to seas to trees to here. You're a product of the system you should be trying to protect. Oh, and remember, we *are* still going to go to Mars.

26 January 2014

Overpopulation as an effect of poverty

Melinda Gates has written about why helping the world's poor helps reduce population size, improves health, and protects the environment. She's right.

04 January 2014

The Gentle Art of Conservation Ju Jitsu

A panda yesterday.
What should we conserve? How much effort should we expend on preventing animals and plants that are having obvious evolutionary problems surviving in the modern world going extinct? Are photogenic megafauna useful? Should we pander to pandas? This was the question that the indefatigable Messrs Robin Ince and Brian Cox grappled with in a recent episode of The Infinite Monkey Cage on Radio 4.

Presenters and panel covered such thorny issues as whether we should protect ugly animals (yes, even including the threatened human pubic louse, apparently endangered by habitat loss due to Brazilians, I kid you not) or whether photocopier-friendly beasts such as the Giant Panda should be let slide gently into that good night of eternal extinction. Or, by focusing on individual species, are we missing the bigger picture? No species is an island - they - WE - all exist as part of a wider biosphere, itself composed of multiple interacting ecosystems. Those ecosystems are themselves often phenomenally complex, and impact on other systems in ways that we probably haven't even thought about yet. Loss or significant degradation can have profound unforeseen effects.

But the illusion of stasis - implicit in the word "conservation" - is a mirage. In fact (and this was brought up in the programme), the biological world is in a constant state of flux. That's the very clockspring of evolution - species and ecosystems change, and we are as much agents of that change as any invasive species. Indeed, humans can be described as the Japanese knotweed of the mammalian world, as one contributor put it.

As a 45 minute discussion it worked well, but I feel this issue needs much wider attention, as well as a comprehensive focus from government and society in general. Not because pandas and the other inhabitants of Brian's Ark are cute, but because our very existence depends on them, and more specifically the interactions between multiple species and environments that give rise to ecosystems and the biosphere. In that respect, the beetles, wasps, fungi and bacteria are every bit as important - perhaps even more so - as the big fluffies.

Allied to this (citation needed!) it is widely quoted that the top six inches of soil contains more than double the carbon that is in the atmosphere contributing to global warming. Yet land being farmed in monoculture by modern agricultural methods is actually highly degraded in organics, and the massive production that we achieve on today's large farms is achieved on injured depleted soil at the expense of massive application of fossil-fuel-intensive fertilisers. Plus, in modern arable farming we engage in spectacular ploughing activity, which breaks up soil ecosystems and further kicks soil carbon into the atmosphere for the short-term expedient of high yield of pricey annual crops. We're mining the soil as well as the oil.

So from a conservation (in the wider sense) viewpoint, is there a solution? Is it just the case that seven billion of us on this planet are doomed to trash the place, degrading our ecosystems to the stage where the larger biosphere just collapses (at least as far as maintaining human civilisation is concerned)? I don't think so, and neither do many other people. It is possible to design systems of high agricultural yield that require much less fossil fuel input, and that as byproduct build fertility back into the soil and capture carbon at the same time. These systems thrive on biodiversity and encourage it. More complex systems are (perhaps counter-intuitively) more resistant to catastrophic collapse - resilience flows naturally from the process.

And when you think about it, this has to be the case - after all, life has survived and flourished on Earth for several billion years. What we need to do is figure out how to keep that process dynamic and functional, while at the same time living off the interest, rather than the capital. Can this be done with billions of people on the planet and a continual quest for economic growth and cultural advance? I can't see why not, although (as I have outlined before) I do feel we need to take steps further out into the Solar System, rather than keep all our precious eggs in one glittering yet fragile basket. But while we continue to undervalue biodiversity and the intricacies of the tangled ecosystems that comprise our life support system in an inimical universe of black holes, cosmic radiation, dark energy and (mostly) vacuum, we're threatening our very survival as a species, and endangering the one chance that our universe has, via us, to experience itself and know itself.

What if we change? What if we learn to work with the processes of nature/ecology/evolution to achieve our civilisational aims, rather than breaking them to our sadly short-sighted will? What if we converted a dry desert to lush and productive greenery, while increasing incomes and quality of life? Here's how it might work.


Let's change.

01 January 2014

Watch out for what "Genetic Ancestry" might be telling you!

In my last couple of posts dealing with playing with my 23andMe genome data, I have been exploring genetic ancestry and having a giggle at the numbers that come up. We need to treat these numbers with a certain degree of perspicacity - they don't necessarily mean what first glance would imply. This is not new information - here is Joe Pickrell's blog post on Genomes Unzipped from 2010 dealing with the prediction that he had 20% Ashkenazi ancestry. Further poking suggests that he probably doesn't, but the story of how we can interpret these data is very informative. Highly recommended!