What science can tell us about how other creatures experience the world

Ross Andersen writes:

Amid the human crush of Old Delhi, on the edge of a medieval bazaar, a red structure with cages on its roof rises three stories above the labyrinth of neon-lit stalls and narrow alleyways, its top floor emblazoned with two words: birds hospital.

On a hot day last spring, I removed my shoes at the hospital’s entrance and walked up to the second-floor lobby, where a clerk in his late 20s was processing patients. An older woman placed a shoebox before him and lifted off its lid, revealing a bloody white parakeet, the victim of a cat attack. The man in front of me in line held, in a small cage, a dove that had collided with a glass tower in the financial district. A girl no older than 7 came in behind me clutching, in her bare hands, a white hen with a slumped neck.

The hospital’s main ward is a narrow, 40-foot-long room with cages stacked four high along the walls and fans on the ceiling, their blades covered with grates, lest they ensnare a flapping wing. I strolled the room’s length, conducting a rough census. Many of the cages looked empty at first, but leaning closer, I’d find a bird, usually a pigeon, sitting back in the gloom.

The youngest of the hospital’s vets, Dheeraj Kumar Singh, was making his rounds in jeans and a surgical mask. The oldest vet here has worked the night shift for more than a quarter century, spending tens of thousands of hours removing tumors from birds, easing their pain with medication, administering antibiotics. Singh is a rookie by comparison, but you wouldn’t know it from the way he inspects a pigeon, flipping it over in his hands, quickly but gently, the way you might handle your cellphone. As we talked, he motioned to an assistant, who handed him a nylon bandage that he stretched twice around the pigeon’s wing, setting it with an unsentimental pop.

The bird hospital is one of several built by devotees of Jainism, an ancient religion whose highest commandment forbids violence not only against humans, but also against animals. A series of paintings in the hospital’s lobby illustrates the extremes to which some Jains take this prohibition. In them, a medieval king in blue robes gazes through a palace window at an approaching pigeon, its wing bloodied by the talons of a brown hawk still in pursuit. The king pulls the smaller bird into the palace, infuriating the hawk, which demands replacement for its lost meal, so he slices off his own arm and foot to feed it.

I’d come to the bird hospital, and to India, to see firsthand the Jains’ moral system at work in the world. Jains make up less than 1 percent of India’s population. Despite millennia spent criticizing the Hindu majority, the Jains have sometimes gained the ear of power. During the 13th century, they converted a Hindu king, and persuaded him to enact the subcontinent’s first animal-welfare laws. There is evidence that the Jains influenced the Buddha himself. And when Gandhi developed his most radical ideas about nonviolence, a Jain friend played philosophical muse. [Continue reading…]

Your life choices aren’t just about what you want to do; they’re about who you want to be

Joshua Rothman writes:

In July of 1838, Charles Darwin was twenty-nine years old and single. Two years earlier, he had returned from his voyage aboard H.M.S. Beagle with the observations that would eventually form the basis of “On the Origin of Species.” In the meantime, he faced a more pressing analytical problem. Darwin was considering proposing to his cousin Emma Wedgwood, but he worried that marriage and children might impede his scientific career. To figure out what to do, he made two lists. “Loss of time,” he wrote on the first. “Perhaps quarreling. . . . Cannot read in the evenings. . . . Anxiety and responsibility. Perhaps my wife won’t like London; then the sentence is banishment and degradation into indolent, idle fool.” On the second, he wrote, “Children (if it Please God). Constant companion (and friend in old age). . . . Home, & someone to take care of house.” He noted that it was “intolerable to think of spending one’s whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working. . . . Only picture to yourself a nice soft wife on a sofa with good fire and books and music perhaps.”

Beneath his lists, Darwin scrawled, “Marry, Marry, Marry QED.” And yet, Steven Johnson writes, in “Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most,” “we have no evidence of how he actually weighed these competing arguments against each other.” Johnson, the author of “How We Got to Now” and other popular works of intellectual history, can’t help but notice the mediocrity of Darwin’s decision-making process. He points out that Benjamin Franklin used a more advanced pro-and-con technique: in what Franklin called “Prudential Algebra,” a numerical weight is assigned to each listed item, and counterbalancing items are then eliminated. (“If I find a Reason pro equal to some two Reasons con, I strike out the three . . . and thus proceeding I find at length where the Ballance lies,” Franklin explained to a friend.) Even this approach, Johnson writes, is slapdash and dependent upon intuition. “The craft of making farsighted choices—decisions that require long periods of deliberation, decisions whose consequences might last for years,” he concludes, “is a strangely under-appreciated skill.”

We say that we “decide” to get married, to have children, to live in particular cities or embark on particular careers, and in a sense this is true. But how do we actually make those choices? One of the paradoxes of life is that our big decisions are often less calculated than our small ones are. [Continue reading…]

David Suzuki: ‘It’s very, very late and urgent’ to take climate action if we want to prevent human extinction

 

Astronomers say it’s time to start taking the search for E.T. seriously

Science News reports:

Long an underfunded, fringe field of science, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence may be ready to go mainstream.

Astronomer Jason Wright is determined to see that happen. At a meeting in Seattle of the American Astronomical Society in January, Wright convened “a little ragtag group in a tiny room” to plot a course for putting the scientific field, known as SETI, on NASA’s agenda.

The group is writing a series of papers arguing that scientists should be searching the universe for “technosignatures” — any sign of alien technology, from radio signals to waste heat. The hope is that those papers will go into a report to Congress at the end of 2020 detailing the astronomical community’s priorities. That report, Astro 2020: Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics, will determine which telescopes fly and which studies receive federal funding through the next decade. [Continue reading…]

Inside the struggle to define life

Ian Sample writes:

All the brain cells of life on Earth still cannot explain life on Earth. Its most intelligent species has uncovered the building blocks of matter, read countless genomes and watched spacetime quiver as black holes collide. It understands much of how living creatures work, but not how they came to be. There is no agreement, even, on what life is.

The conundrum of life is so fundamental that to solve it would rank among the most important achievements of the human mind. But for all scientists’ efforts – and there have been plenty – the big questions remain. If biology is defined as the study of life, on this it has failed to deliver.

But enlightenment may come from another direction. Rather than biology, some scientists are now looking to physics for answers, in particular the physics of information. Buried in the rules that shape information lie the secrets of life and perhaps even the reason for our existence.

That, at least, is the bold proposal from Paul Davies, a prominent physicist who explores the idea in his forthcoming book, The Demon in the Machine. Published next week, it continues a theme of thinking that landed Davies the $1m Templeton prize for contributions to religious thought and inquiry.

As director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University, Davies is well placed to spot the next wave that will crash over science. What he sees on the horizon is a revolution that brings physics and biology together through the common science of information.

“The basic hypothesis is this,” Davies says. “We have fundamental laws of information that bring life into being from an incoherent mish-mash of chemicals. The remarkable properties we associate with life are not going to come about by accident.”

The proposal takes some unpacking. Davies believes that the laws of nature as we know them today are insufficient to explain what life is and how it came about. We need to find new laws, he says, or at least new principles, which describe how information courses around living creatures. Those rules may not only nail down what life is, but actively favour its emergence. [Continue reading…]

What animals are thinking and feeling, and why it should matter

 

Chinese scientist who claimed to make genetically edited babies is kept under guard

The New York Times reports:

The Chinese scientist who shocked the world by claiming that he had created the first genetically edited babies is sequestered in a small university guesthouse in the southern city of Shenzhen, where he remains under guard by a dozen unidentified men.

The sighting of the scientist, He Jiankui, this week was the first since he appeared at a conference in Hong Kong in late November and defended his actions. For the past few weeks, rumors had swirled about whether Dr. He was under house arrest. His university and the Chinese government, which has put Dr. He under investigation, have been silent about his fate.

Dr. He now lives in a fourth-floor apartment at a university guesthouse, a hotel run by the school for visiting teachers, on the sprawling campus of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen’s Nanshan District, where many of China’s best-known tech companies, like Tencent, have their offices.

In November, Dr. He stunned the global scientific community when he claimed to have created the world’s first babies from genetically edited embryos, implanted in a woman who gave birth to twin girls. While he did not provide proof that the gene-edited twins were born, he presented data that suggested he had done what he claimed. [Continue reading…]

Hume believed we were nothing more or less than human

Julian Baggini writes:

Socrates died by drinking hemlock, condemned to death by the people of Athens. Albert Camus met his end in a car that wrapped itself around a tree at high speed. Nietzsche collapsed into insanity after weeping over a beaten horse. Posterity loves a tragic end, which is one reason why the cult of David Hume, arguably the greatest philosopher the West has ever produced, never took off.

While Hume was lying aged 65 on his deathbed at the end of a happy, successful and (for the times) long life, he told his doctor: ‘I am dying as fast as my enemies, if I have any, could wish, and as easily and cheerfully as my best friends could desire.’ Three days before he died, on 25 August 1776, probably of abdominal cancer, his doctor could still report that he was ‘quite free from anxiety, impatience, or low spirits, and passes his time very well with the assistance of amusing books’.

When the end came, Dr Black reported that Hume ‘continued to the last perfectly sensible, and free from much pain or feelings of distress. He never dropped the smallest expression of impatience; but when he had occasion to speak to the people about him, always did it with affection and tenderness … He died in such a happy composure of mind, that nothing could exceed it.’ [Continue reading…]

The discovery of vast populations of subsurface microbial beings is shaking up what we think we know about life

JoAnna Klein writes:

At the surface, boiling water kills off most life. But Geogemma barossii is a living thing from another world, deep within our very own. Boiling water — 212 degrees Fahrenheit — would be practically freezing for this creature, which thrives at temperatures around 250 degrees Fahrenheit.

No other organism on the planet is known to be able to live at such extreme heat.

But it’s just one of many mysterious microbes living in a massive subterranean habitat that until recently has been practically invisible. Over the past decade, scientists from around the world have banded together under the Deep Carbon Observatory to make sense of these hidden habitats. The observatory’s researchers presented some of their recent discoveries last week.

With high-tech drills, ROVs and submersibles, pressurized collection tubes, the latest DNA technology and computer modeling, the researchers have explored volcanoes, diamond mines, deep-sea hot springs, underwater mud volcanoes and other extreme sites beneath our oceans and continents. What they’ve found turns what we know about the world literally upside down.

So science fiction fans, rejoice. The real journey to the center of the Earth has begun.

These Altiarchaeales belong to a domain of nucleus-lacking single-celled microbes called Archaea. Archaea and bacteria make up the majority of life in the deep subsurface, and it’s estimated that there are more of these kinds of microbes below ground than above.

Some 200 to 600 octillion microbes live beneath our continents, suggests an analysis of data from sites all over the world, and even more live beneath the seafloor. Together they weigh the equivalent of up to 200 million blue whales — and far more than all 7.5 billion humans. Subterranean diversity rivals that of the surface, with most underground organisms yet to be discovered or characterized. [Continue reading…]

Russians interacted with at least 14 Trump associates during the campaign and transition

The Washington Post reports:

The Russian ambassador. A deputy prime minister. A pop star, a weightlifter, a lawyer, a Soviet army veteran with alleged intelligence ties.

Again and again and again, over the course of Donald Trump’s 18-month campaign for the presidency, Russian citizens made contact with his closest family and friends, as well as figures on the periphery of his orbit.

Some offered to help his campaign and his real estate business. Some offered dirt on his Democratic opponent. Repeatedly, Russian nationals suggested Trump should hold a peacemaking sit-down with Vladi­mir Putin — and offered to broker such a summit.

In all, Russians interacted with at least 14 Trump associates during the campaign and presidential transition, public records and interviews show. [Continue reading…]