Tag Archives: science

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog)

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): How the Silver Fox Became a DogHow to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): How the Silver Fox Became a Dog by Lee Alan Dugatkin

To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world . . . One only understands the things that one tames, said the fox. Men have no more time to understand anything.

— The Little Prince

One of the obvious and forgotten wonders of the human experience is our domestication of other species. “One only understands the things that one tames,” the fox explains in De Saint-Exupery’s Little Prince. “Men have no more time to understand anything.”

Domestication transformed both domesticator and domesticated, and indeed some scientists believe homo sapiens should itself be considered a self-domesticated variety of primate. Yet the mechanisms, history, and genetic implications of domestication are poorly understood. Why is it possible to domesticate some animals (horses), while close relatives (zebras) remain untamable? Why were so few species domesticated in our history, and how was this accomplished?

For the past sixty years, a remarkable experiment has been underway in Siberia to understand this process by recreating it with foxes. In just over a half a century—the blink of an evolutionary eye—Russian scientists have succeeded in domesticating foxes to the point where they live with humans and behave remarkably like dogs. Along the way, this has illuminated genetic changes unlocked when animals are unnaturally selected for calmness and tameness.

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) is the story of this experiment, documenting its history from its inception under the reign of Lenin to today. It is a popular treatment co-authored by an American evolutionary biologist and the Russian scientist who currently heads the project. The authors use the work to examine a variety of scientific issues, including evolutionary genetics, the role of hormone production in wild versus tame species, genetic coding, and primate evolution. Along the way there is also plenty historical context revealing what it was like to navigate a large, enduring experiment through the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Yet there are flaws with the book as well, specifically related to its awkwardly hagiographic tone regarding the founder of the experiment, the Soviet geneticist Dmitri Belyaev, as well as an un-self-conscious neglect of the ambivalent ethical background of the experiment carried out against the background of the Soviet fur industry and entailing generations of thousands of foxes raised in cages to be euthanized for their fur. The authors gloss over these implications for their research, focusing instead on the innate appeal of the idea of being able to take a fox home for a pet.

Octopus!

Octopus!: The Most Mysterious Creature in the SeaOctopus!: The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea by Katherine Harmon Courage

Octopus! is a fascinating exploration that is less about the creature itself (the plural of which we are told not more than a few pages in, is octopuses because of the word’s Greek origin, not octopi) as it is humanity’s relation with it. The book begins with a look at how these creatures are caught and from then goes on to examine everything from the role of the octopus in our cuisine to how the organism is informing studies of camouflage, robotics, and artificial intelligence. A large portion of the work is about those who are working to understand the cephalopod’s physiology—from the fluid mechanics of how it jets around in water to the distributed intelligence that likely helps control its arms to how cells in its skin detect the surrounding conditions and allow it to camouflage itself so quickly (not simply changing color but also texture and even the polarization of reflected light).

All of this means that as much as Courage wants us to take the octopus on its own terms, throughout the book the animal is continually seen through the lens of its relationship (and usefulness) to humans. In this respect, the title needs the exclamation point, because despite the fascinating topic, the book itself reads at times like an extended Scientific American article, or a series of these articles put together (and it did, admittedly, start as something like that): a ride-along on an octopus fishing boat, a visit to a robotics lab on the Italian coast or an octopus-processing plant in NYC, complete with a cascading cast of experts and scientists who add their perspective to the author’s account. It makes for a lot of information but not necessarily a cohesive narrative.

Besides the octopus and our interactions with it (on boat, plate, and lab) the book lacks an organizing or overarching theme. We’re not given a clear picture of Courage’s own story regarding the subject: how did she develop such an interest in the octopus that she was driven to seek out experts around the world? This might have helped tie things together, if the author herself played a larger role in the narrative. Courage’s writing style was also at times uneven, moving abruptly from expert scientific exposition (which was usually clear and sharp and detailed, as when, for instance, she offers an extensive discussion of editing in the octopus gene sequence) to random allusions of octopus depictions in comics, pop culture, horror films, and even erotica. A more structured discussion of any of these topics would have added to the treatment, but presented as they were without context or discussion (at times it seemed just for comedic effect) they seemed abrupt or even jarring. Despite these flaws, the book was rich with fascinating detail regarding these amazing invertebrates.

Tangents

TangentsTangents by Greg Bear

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s one simple instruction for the person who imagines she might want to be a writer: read. Marilynn Robinson said it. Steven King said it. I’m saying it too. Are there other careers like that? Probably. Do you want to be a famous composer? Listen. Do you want to be a painter? Learn to see. Do you want to be a writer? Read.

This means it’s going to be important what books are on your shelves, particularly what books are on your “to read” shelf. I know some writers collect books impulsively, simply for the love of books, and they live in wonderful houses bricked up with shelves of books they have no intention of ever reading or that they imagine they one day might get around to reading. There is a certain freedom of genius there. I’m far too rigid for something like that though. The books on my diminutive “to read” shelf I have every intention of (some day) reading. Otherwise why would they be sitting there?

It’s not a very big shelf. (My house isn’t big enough—or at least lacks the shelving—for the other sort of approach.) Which means that when I wander into a huge annual used book sale in the basement of the public library of my home town and can come home with a large bag of books for something like three dollars total, I have to be very careful. I pick. I chose. I collect a large pile of titles that catch my eye, and then I whittle it down to half that.

What do I want to read that might conceivably help me improve my craft? Someone who had donated to this particular book sale had a collection of book club editions of important science fiction authors—most interestingly, anthologies of short stories, including several authors I’ve been meaning to explore: Phillip Jose Farmer, Samuel Delany, Fritz Leiber. And this one, a slim volume of eight or nine of Greg Bear’s short fiction.

I was ill when I was reading most of it, recovering from a stomach flu. I’m glad I had already gotten through the first part of the work when the bug hit, otherwise reading the first story in the volume, “Blood Music,” might have hit too close to home: a scientist engineers super-intelligent microbes based on his own cellular structure, and then introduces him into his bloodstream. What happens when a human becomes host to trillions of intelligent beings, when he becomes a galaxy unto himself? What if the galaxy were alive, and we were spreading to fill it, learning to communicate with it? What would it mean when it was time to start colonizing others? I saw glimmers of some of the darker bits of Leviathan’s Wake and its proto-molecule here.

But Bear can also do quite excellent literary fantasy, as the second work—a novella, really—in the volume shows. I had an interesting experience sitting in my yard (this was also before the stomach bug), distracted, trying to read, when one of my older sons stopped in his bike riding abruptly to ask me about the book. What’s it about? It’s a book of stories. About what? And I remember doing the exact same thing to my dad when I was a kid and he was reading some random scifi anthology and then being fascinated with the ideas that unfolded in each summary he gave. But I wonder now how distracted he was in the telling and how many details he had to gloss over, as I did explaining “Sleepside Story,” which is about a young man who has to go live in a witch’s house.

Bear here has created a gritty, magical precursor to Mieville’s New Crobuzon in which a boy is traded as a servant into a haunted, enchanted brothel. The details and dreamlike quality of the story are in wonderful contrast to the exacting concepts of Bear’s hard science fiction (though the language remains sharp in this piece as well—focusing on certain surreal details with almost scientific exactitude). Even more haunting than the setting though are the ideas of what it means to be a prostitute, even a very good one, and what kind of love might it take to free someone of the bonds of the past.

Each piece in this collection is excellent, with the most famous being Bear’s award-winning short story about an Alan Turing-like character who fled Britain secretly instead of undergoing hormone treatment for his homosexuality and his unlikely friendship with a young boy who can see in the fourth dimension. I had read this story before, but this time (and maybe because I was ill and running on very little sleep) I wept like a baby when I finished it.

If I was more thoughtful I’d end this review by tying it back to the beginning and noting some of the things that Bear teaches about the craft of writing through this collection. I’d talk maybe about the way he plays with hard science in his piece on a surprisingly inhabited Mars, “A Martian Ricorso,” or the terrifying implications of quantum mechanics in “Schrodinger’s Plague” or something about the way he creates characters who feel true to life even in Hell in “Dead Run” or in the near-future “Sisters.” But that would be too much work, and beside the point if the point is simply to be absorbing good fiction. Because in this respect, Bear’s short stories are an ideal place to begin.

A Brief History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly EverythingA Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Bill Bryson tries to do everything, and it totally pisses me off. It wouldn’t bother me so much if I could dismiss him, if what he did didn’t really matter very much or if he did it badly. But he does it with a certain curmudgeonly panache that makes it all the more irritating when he succeeds. He gets to travel to interesting places and write about how they make him cranky, which is pretty much the height of achievement for a writer. But when he takes on something like the entirety of the physical world itself in A Brief History of Nearly Everything and comes across even more genuine and reflective, I want to either give him a huge high-five or push him off a cliff.

The thing about this book, Bryson’s first work of natural history, is that it retains most of the best parts of his writing style and drops the most irritating aspects. That is, in Bryson’s travel writings I’m always annoyed at the way his cranky “get off my lawn” disposition stands in tension with a clear-eyed excitement and wonder about the places he’s going and the things he learns there. Much of this, at least in his UK work, is because he’s seen these places before, has spent much of his career trying to preserve them, and is embittered about the way they’re changing. In A Brief History, the subject matter precludes some of this personal irritation but retains his wonder about the nature of reality itself and the story of man’s investigation of it, and this to great effect.

Bryson is a writer who can pretty much—it seems—do whatever he wants. So when he came to the realization that he didn’t know much about the natural history of the planet he’s spend a career traveling around on, no one told him that he didn’t have the training or the background to write a compelling treatment. He just started reading books and talking to specialists, and A Brief History is what we got. Despite my expectations returning to the book after nearly a decade and a PhD later, I think he largely succeeds.

Now, of course there are errors and misrepresentations. Any specialist reading a book in which Bryson tries to cover so much ground is going to find one or two. At one point, for instance, Bryson causally mentions a distance to Betelgeuse that I think is off by an order of magnitude. But in general terms, he does a remarkably good job of taking a non-specialist on a tour of the physical world, through space and time but focusing primarily on our own planet and our own (sometimes misguided) attempts to understand it, highlighting all the while just how amazing it all is. And, of course, because it’s Bryson, all the weirdness and randomness and strange stories involved in the (largely male) folks who figured this stuff out figure prominently.

Of course, that approach lends itself to certain pitfalls in writing historical treatments of science, and Bryson doesn’t avoid these. The entire work is suffused with Whiggism. That is, Bryson is interested in explaining how we “got to” our (assumedly correct) modern understanding of things. In fairness, he recognizes how much uncertainty and conjecture there is in discussion of, for instance, our early history and origins as a species. But largely, his story is a narrative of how different scientists “got it right” or “almost got it right.” What they did is interpreted with the final modern synthesis in sight. He’s not interested in understanding the context in which someone like Isaac Newton was working or evaluating his theories by their own terms and historical context; he holds them up as a modernist looking through interesting oddities, pulling old things from a drawer and laughing at how quaint certain aspects appear.

But I can forgive a lot in this work, because there are so many interesting things to bring to light and Bryson still does such a great job of unearthing them. He admits that his work is in no way a standardized, authoritative, or comprehensive treatment. It’s not a textbook, and a different writer would have pulled out different interesting bits. Rather, as with Bryson’s other books, it’s a meander. But here we don’t get vignettes of Bryson falling asleep on a bus only to wake and berate the fate of a random seaside village; here we get instead a lot of genuine wonder and accessible prose leading us along into this big wide world and our long and tangled explorations of it.

Through the Language Glass

Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other LanguagesThrough the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages by Guy Deutscher

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It started with a conversation with a student, who said he had read an article explaining that the color blue never appeared in ancient Greek writings. That led to some internet searching, and I quickly found this book, which claims to be a treatment of this puzzle and turns out to be an explanation of the way language shapes the way we see the world. Do people who speak different languages actually see the world differently? Or in other words, how much does the structure of our language mirror or constrain the structure of our thought?

Deutscher– a linguist who doesn’t mind going against some of the contemporary views in the field– starts the exploration of this question with its most interesting manifestation: color. The realization that there was something strange going on in ancient accounts of color goes back to the philhellene and sometimes Prime Minister William Gladstone who noticed that blue never appears in Homer’s writings. The sea and sky are not referred to as blue, and other colors are also used in questionable ways. Other researchers into ancient texts discovered similar things: many ancient languages didn’t have a word for blue. Indeed, there seemed to be a order of appearance in which “primitive” languages (and the author offers examples of some contemporary languages as well) distinguish between dark and light and lump all colors together as reddish. Eventually words for yellows and browns appear and finally terms that distinguish between greens and blues. The differentiation of blue usually comes last, and there are still signs of this, for instance, in the fact that in old Japanese the word for blue and green is the same.

What does this mean? Early theories speculated that there was an actual physiological evolution taking place, that as humans became less primitive their eyes developed to perceive a wider spectrum of colors. Modern genetics and tests on speakers who languages currently lack certain color words has disproven this. Ancient Greek eyes were the same as ours. But did their lack of names for certain colors shape the way they perceived the world? This is the crux of the author’s question: do we really see things if we don’t have words to express them? I explored this once in a story published in Daily Science Fiction. Does naming something make it more real or at least more readily apparent?

Part of the argument for color goes something like this. In primitive civilizations color doesn’t matter a whole lot, and certain colors are rarely perceived on their own. Red is the color of blood, so a word to distinguish this comes fairly early in most cultures. But there are no large blue animals, few blue flowers, and blue dye was very difficult to make and unknown in many cultures. (Egypt was an exception, and apparently ancient Egyptian had a word for blue.) Because of this, there was no social or linguistic need to distinguish or name this hue. But what about the sea and the sky? The sea rarely looks straightforwardly blue, and the sky– when completely clear– was simply the sky. Since there was no cultural need to distinguish its color, it was simply the sky.

The first half of the book is an investigation of the history of the color question, and if you’re not quite satisfied with the answer I’ve given (and I’m not sure I am), you might not be satisfied with this portion of the book. For Deutscher though, color simply sets up the bigger question: how do we determine– and then empirically test– whether language actually shapes our perception and our thought processes? Are certain concepts (like “The sky is blue”) simply inexpressible in some languages? Does this mean speakers of those languages are unable to conceive of certain statements and concepts? Deutscher’s answer is no to these last two questions but a cautious yes to the first.

An older, stronger claim would answer the final question of the above paragraph in the affirmative: language constrains thought. Because the Hopi Indians, for instance, have no verb tense in their language or expressions of time, they cannot perceive time as linear. Because other Native American languages do not distinguish between verb and subject, speakers of these languages have a more monistic, unified of nature. Deutscher disagrees and takes obvious pleasure in demolishing these claims, maintaining instead that any concept can be expressed in any language. His alternate claim is more subtle: it’s not that some languages make it impossible to perceive or conceive certain things; rather, his claim is that certain languages obligate speakers to always be thinking of certain things.

Again, what does this mean? The author provides three examples. The first is that of a particular well-studied Australian aboriginal language that does not possess an egocentric coordinate system (i.e. behind, in front, left, right) but only an absolute system (north, east, south, west). Every positional expression voiced in this language, from things as simple as “There’s a bug beside your foot” have to be given in terms of cardinal directions. (“There’s a bug north of your foot.”) This means that speakers of the language always have a sense of these directions from a very young age, and their experiences and memories are seen through that directional lens. The author discusses a variety of experiments in which it’s shown that speakers of this language can recall details in this coordinate system, recounting orientations of experiences from years ago. (To put this in perspective, try calling up a particularly vivid memory and expressing it in terms of cardinal directions. Were you standing to the north or south of your spouse when you got married?) The language obligates its speakers to always have cardinal directions in mind and thus shapes their perceptions of the world accordingly.

Languages with no egocentric coordinate system though are comparatively rare, so the author’s second example is closer to home: languages like German or Spanish or many more with a developed gender system. In English– at least since the century or so after the Norman Conquest, as the author points out in a fascinating historical treatment– does not oblige its speakers to assign genders to inanimate objects. Yet many other modern languages do. Not much study has yet been done, according to Deutscher, on how this influences the thoughts of speakers of these languages, but he illustrates some of the implications with an example of the role this plays in translation and the subtle nuances and relations that can be lost moving from a gendered to a largely non-gendered language.

Finally, he returns to color. Does our language’s names for colors– and the fact that these names don’t exist in certain other languages– influence the way we perceive the world? Recent studies, the author argues, indicate that yes, it does. He takes the case of light blue and dark blue, which in Russian have separate names. An English speaker would perceive these as shades of the same color. For a Russian speaker they would be separate colors. If this was indeed the case, one could expect that this linguistic obligation (that of the Russian speaker to give these separate hues different names) would allow Russians to more quickly distinguish between similar shades of blue if they lay on opposite sides of this distinction, in a similar manner to how an English speaker could more readily distinguish between greenish-blue and bluish-green than a speaker of a language that does not differentiate between green and blue. The author relates in detail the set-up of experiments to determine just that, which show the language-processing region of the brain active even when actively naming the hues was not part of the experiment. Russian speakers consistently differentiated between close shades of blue more quickly than English speakers.

This all comes back to the central claim of the book, that languages, by obligating their speakers to pay attention to certain things in their structure, can function as a lens by which their speakers perceive the world.

Consider this analogy (not given in the book): if your language has several different expressions for snow, so that each time you talk about snow you’re obligated to take into consideration things like whether it’s falling or on the ground, how long it’s been on the ground, what its thickness and consistency is, then when you look at snow (or call up a memory containing snow) you’re going to have a richer perception of the object than an English speaker who encapsulates all the varieties of snow under a single word. That doesn’t mean that an English speaker can’t conceptualize or express these nuances of snow. It just means her language doesn’t habituate her to these perceptions.

In these (possibly over-simplified) terms, Deutscher’s argument seems almost self-evident, but the richness of his treatment comes in the historical and linguistic background he provides while exploring this idea and especially in his explanations of the rigor and structure of the experiments devised to verify such apparently straightforward claims about language and how it shapes our perceptions of the world.

Against Infinity

Against InfinityAgainst Infinity by Gregory Benford

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up Gregory Benford’s Against Infinity at a used book store a while ago and then put it away to save for portable airport reading on my recent trip to Italy. (Pocket editions like this are truly the best books to travel with.) The book was an effective escape, staving off my growing impatience with multiple delays out of Chicago’s O’Hare because of high winds in New York City.

Against Infinity had more heft to it than I expected, and more beauty as well. Benford had been on my list for a while as a practicing astronomer who wrote science fiction, and I hadn’t been disappointed with his Great Sky River. This one was an interesting fusion between an Arctic survivalist story and the wonder and ecological trappings of Dune. On top of this, it offers a scientifically realistic view of what Ganymede and the Jovian system might look like as a legitimate frontier for settlement. The characters are scouring a living on the surface of the moon, clawing for minerals and slowly tipping the biosphere toward something that can sustain life.

Overlain on this is a hunting tale in the tradition of Jack London and the Yukon, complete with super-intelligent biomechanical dogs and a meaningful coming-of-age narrative. A boy is growing up, forging a bond with an older, wiser hunter, coming to terms with his father, and learning his own limits. The object of the hunt that provides the context for this growth is men venturing out of their settlements into the icy, shifting landscape to cull the mutants of the genetically engineered species that have been introduced to help terraform the surface. The actual object of the hunt though—and ultimately the lynchpin of Benford’s narrative—is the Aleph.

The Aleph is an ancient device or creature that pre-dates man’s arrival on Ganymede and continually burrows through or over the surface of the moon, heedless to its pursuit by men, unaffected by any of their weapons or devices, and sometimes killing them in its passage. The concept, especially in the haunting descriptions provided by Benford, is a compelling hybrid of the raw power and immensity of the sandworms of Arrakis and the alien inscrutability of the monoliths of Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey. Benford’s prose becomes positively electric in describing the various ways this enigmatic thing chews through the shattering and slowly thawing terrain of the moon. He can (and does) spend multiple pages on all the glorious details of the behemoth exploding through a hillside, for instance, taking its pursuers unaware.

The first two-thirds of the book hinges on one boy’s growth to manhood and fixation on hunting the immense and elusive Aleph. It reads very much like a science fiction tribute to Jack London: the boy learning the ways of the hunt, training a tracking dog (of sorts), and learning to appreciate the unique bond between man, animal, and the unforgiving wilderness. But whereas a reader of London can take the ecology of Alaska for granted, Benford the astrophysicist gives us a fine-grained detail of the geology and young ecosystem of the moon, a realistic look at what terraforming and its effectives might look like physically as well as psychologically.

But the true hinge of narrative is the Aleph, and the resolution of its pursuit changes the trajectory of the novel about two-thirds of the way into it. After this climax is reached, the narrative jumps in time and expands in scope. The Aleph moves from being a cypher for the great unknown on a boy’s horizon to a much larger unknown of the evolution of humanity. Like the dissected Aleph itself though, this final portion of the novel seems more segmented and less organic than what came before. Benford touches briefly (and a bit randomly) on ideas regarding the evolution of society, including socialism and capitalism essentialized against ecological catastrophe. In this all, the Aleph’s role (and ultimate nature) becomes more vague and less satisfying.

Planets & Stars

Planets: Ours and Others: From Earth to ExoplanetsPlanets: Ours and Others: From Earth to Exoplanets by Therese Encrenaz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The art of an insightful, timely, and scientifically rigorous overview is a difficult one. This is compounded when the subjects are as broad as planets and stars, respectively. Fortunately for the educated non-specialists, there two slender volumes succeed where many astronomy texts fail: they provide a comprehensive, up-to-date survey of two fields with enough breadth to be useful and accessible to the astronomy educator while retaining enough technical grit for those desiring more depth.

The first volume (Planets), by an atmospheric planetologist at the Paris Observatory, frames the current state of exoplanetary research and the search for life in the context of comparative planetology, starting with Earth and moving through our planetary system.

Beginning with a brief introduction to observing and exploring planets (including exoplanetary detection), Encrenaz moves into a description of theories of planetary formation and then on to the bulk of the book, treating the physical properties of planets. Using Earth as test case and exploring things like geological activity and the water cycle, she provides in-depth comparison of the atmospheres, compositions, and internal structures of the planets of our solar system, touching briefly on some outer-system moons as well.

All of this sets the stage for the final third of the book, a look at exoplanetary systems– their discovery, their properties, and a quick overview of the status of the search for life in the cosmos. The chapters here remind that this is not a book on exoplanets exclusively: rather, it’s a survey of what we know about planets, which any more must include a detailed exposition of the ways other planetary systems are informing this knowledge.

In some respects, this is more helpful than a book on exoplanets alone, allowing an understanding of our own planetary context in light of these new discoveries.

Birth, Evolution and Death of StarsBirth, Evolution and Death of Stars by James Lequeux
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The second volume is a survey of the physical processes (including a fascinating and detailed analysis of the interstellar medium) governing the life of stars. Lequeux, also of the Paris Observatory, takes a slightly more technical approach. Indeed, it was at times difficult to follow his account of the complex processes taking place within a star at various points in its life cycle.

However, the technical aspects provide a conceptual rigor often glossed over in more popular texts. Topics covered include the birth, physics, evolution, and death of single stars as well as a chapter on the “zoo” of double stars. It concludes with a glimpse of the larger questions of galactic evolution that stellar life and death play into.

Perhaps most importantly, this account discusses the many open questions in stellar evolution, especially star death, and the importance of modeling stellar interiors.

Both books are slender, less than 200 pages each, and filled with diagrams, images, and (especially in Lequeux’s) equations. Both are translations of works originally published in French, and the awkward language at times bears witness to this though never actively detracting from the text.

Neither volume is a textbook (there are no problem sets, for instance), nor are they purely popularizations, maintaining a balance between general survey and in-depth technical treatment. Often I read a survey text and learn nothing new; in contrast, these works are introductions written by active experts in their respective fields, lifting the veil on the physics behind the concepts but keeping a wide and fairly accessible scope, filled with a wealth of new information.

This review first appeared in the September 2015 issue of The Planetarian.