Category Archives: science

Health/science journalists/editors: deadline is March 22, 2024 for media boot camp in Boston, Massachusetts

A February 14, 2023 Broad Institute news release presents an exciting opportunity for health/science journalists and editors,

The Broad Institute of MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and Harvard is now accepting applications for its 2024 Media Boot Camp.

This annual program connects health/science journalists and editors with faculty from the Broad Institute, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and Harvard’s teaching hospitals for a two-day event exploring the latest advances in genomics and biomedicine. Journalists will explore possible future storylines, gain fundamental background knowledge, and build relationships with researchers. The program format includes presentations, discussions, and lab tours.

The 2024 Media Boot Camp will take place in person at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, MA on Thursday, May 16 and Friday, May 17 (with an evening welcome reception on Wednesday, May 15).

APPLICATION DEADLINE IS FRIDAY, MARCH 22 (5:00 PM US EASTERN TIME).

2024 Boot Camp topics include:

  • Gene editing
  • New approaches for therapeutic delivery  
  • Cancer biology, drug development
  • Data sciences, machine learning
  • Neurobiology (stem cell models of psychiatric disorders)
  • Antibiotic resistance, microbial biology
  • Medical and population genetics, genomic medicine

Current speakers include: Mimi Bandopadhayay, Clare Bernard,Roby Bhattacharyya, Todd Golub, Laura Kiessling, Eric Lander,David Liu, Ralda Nehme,Heidi Rehm, William Sellers, Feng Zhang, with potentially more to come.

This Media Boot Camp is an educational offering. All presentations are on-background.

Hotel accommodations and meals during the program will be provided by the Broad Institute. Attendees must cover travel costs to and from Boston.

Application Process

By Friday, March 22 [2024] (5:00 PM US Eastern time [2 pm PT]), please send at least one paragraph describing your interest in the program and how you hope it will benefit your reporting, as well as three recent news clips, to David Cameron, Director of External Communications, dcameron@broadinstitute.org

Please contact David at dcameron@broadinstitute.org, or 617-714-7184 with any questions.

I couldn’t find details about eligibility, that said, I wish you good luck with your ‘paragraph and three recent clips’ submission.

Canadian scientists still being muzzled and a call for action on values and ethics in the Canadian federal public service

I’m starting with the older news about a survey finding that Canadian scientists are being muzzled before moving on to news about a recent survey where workers in the Canadian public services (and where most Canadian scientists are employed) criticizes the government’s values and ethics.

Muzzles, anyone?

It’s not exactly surprising to hear that Canadian scientists are still being muzzled for another recent story, (see my November 7, 2023 posting, “Money and its influence on Canada’s fisheries and oceans” for some specifics’ two of the authors are associated with Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, Canada) .

This December 13, 2023 essay is by Alana Westwood, Manjulika E. Robertson and Samantha M. Chu (all of Dalhousie University but none were listed as authors on the ‘money, fisheries, and oceans paper) on The Conversation (h/t December 14, 2023 news item on phys.org). These authors describe some recent research into the Canadian situation, specifically since the 2015 election and the Liberals formed the government and ‘removed’ the muzzles placed on scientists by the previous Conservative government,

We recently surveyed 741 environmental researchers across Canada in two separate studies into interference. We circulated our survey through scientific societies related to environmental fields, as well as directly emailing Canadian authors of peer-reviewed research in environmental disciplines.

Researchers were asked (1) if they believed they had experienced interference in their work, (2) the sources and types of this interference, and (3) the subsequent effects on their career satisfaction and well-being.

We also asked demographic information to understand whether researchers’ perceptions of interference differed by career stage, research area or identity.

Although overall ability to communicate is improving, interference is a pervasive issue in Canada, including from government, private industry and academia. We found 92 per cent of the environmental researchers reported having experienced interference with their ability to communicate or conduct their research in some form.

Interference also manifested in different ways and already-marginalized researchers experienced worse outcomes.

The writers go on to offer a history of the interference (there’s also a more detailed history in this May 20, 2015 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation [CBC] online news article by Althea Manasan) before offering more information about results from the two recent surveys, Note: Links have been removed,

In our survey, respondents indicated that, overall, their ability to communicate with the public has improved in the recent years. Of the respondents aware of the government’s scientific integrity policies, roughly half of them attribute positive changes to them.

Others argued that the 2015 change in government [from Conservative to Liberal] had the biggest influence. In the first few months of their tenure, the Liberal government created a new cabinet position, the Minister of Science (this position was absorbed into the role of Minister of Innovation, Science, and Industry in 2019), and appointed a chief science advisor among other changes.

Though the ability to communicate has generally improved, many of the researchers argued interference still goes on in subtler ways. These included undue restriction on what kind of environmental research they can do, and funding to pursue them. Many respondents attributed those restrictions to the influence of private industry [emphasis mine].

Respondents identified the major sources of external interference as management, workplace policies, and external research partners. The chief motivations for interference, as the scientists saw it, included downplaying environmental risks, justifying an organization’s current position on an issue and avoiding contention.

Our most surprising finding was almost half of respondents said they limited their communications with the public and policymakers due to fears of negative backlash and reduced career opportunities.

In addition, interference had not been experienced equally. Early career and marginalized scientists — including those who identify as women, racialized, living with a disability and 2SLGBTQI+ — reported facing significantly more interference than their counterparts.

Scientists studying climate change, pollution, environmental impacted assessments and threatened species were also more likely to experience interference with their work than scientists in other disciplines.

The researchers used a single survey as the basis for two studies concerning interference in science,

Interference in science: scientists’ perspectives on their ability to communicate and conduct environmental research in Canada by Manjulika E. Robertson, Samantha M. Chu, Anika Cloutier, Philippe Mongeon, Don A. Driscoll, Tej Heer, and Alana R. Westwood. FACETS 8 (1) 30 November 2023 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1139/facets-2023-0005

This paper is open access.

Do environmental researchers from marginalized groups experience greater interference? Understanding scientists’ perceptions by Samantha M. Chu, Manjulika E. Robertson, Anika Cloutier, Suchinta Arif, and Alana R. Westwood.
FACETS 30 November 2023 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1139/facets-2023-0006

This paper is open access.

This next bit is on a somewhat related topic.

The Canadian government’s public service: values and ethics

Before launching into the latest news, here’s a little background. In 2016 the newly elected Liberal government implemented a new payroll system for the Canadian civil/public service. it was a débacle, which continues to this day (for the latest news I could find, see this September 1, 2023 article by Sam Konnert for CBC online news).

It was preventable and both the Conservative and Liberal governments of the day are responsible. You can get more details from my December 27, 2019 posting; scroll down to “The Minister of Digital Government and a bureaucratic débacle” and read on from there. In short, elected officials of both the Liberal and Conservative governments refused to listen when employees (both from the government and from the contractor) expressed grave concerns about the proposed pay system.

Now for public service employee morale, from a February 7, 2024 article by Robyn Miller for CBC news online, Note: Links have been removed,

Unions representing federal public servants say the government needs to do more to address dissatisfaction among the workforce after a recent report found some employees are unable to feel pride in their work.

“It’s more difficult now to be proud to be a public servant because of people’s perceptions of the institution and because of Canada’s role on the global stage,” said one participant who testified as part of the Deputy Ministers’ Task Team on Values and Ethics Report.

The report was published in late December [2023] by members of a task force assembled by Privy Council Clerk John Hannaford.

It’s the first major values and ethics review since an earlier report titled A Strong Foundation was released nearly 30 years ago.

Alex Silas, a regional executive vice-president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, said the union supports the recommendations in the report but wants to see action.

“What we’ve seen historically, unfortunately, is that the values and ethics proposed by the federal government are not implemented in the workplaces of the federal government,” Silas said.

According to the report, it drew its findings from more than 90 conversations with public servants and external stakeholders starting in September 2023.

The report notes “public servants must provide frank and professional advice, without partisan considerations or fear of criticism or political reprisals.” [emphasis mine]

“The higher up the food chain you go, the less accountability seems to exist,” said one participant.

So, either elected officials and/or higher ups don’t listen when you speak up or you’re afraid to speak up for fear of criticism and/or reprisals. Plus, there’s outright interference as noted in the survey of scientists.

For the curious, here’s a link to the Deputy Ministers’ Task Team on Values and Ethics Report to the Clerk of the Privy Council (Canada 2023).

Let’s hope this airing of dirty laundry leads to some changes.

Hilma af Klint, VR (virtual reality), and atoms

I’m primarily interested in the VR and the ‘atoms’ of Swedish artist Hilma af Klint but first there are the NFT (non-fungible tokens). From an October 28, 2022 article by Louis Jebb for The Art Newspaper,

More than a century after she completed her chef d’oeuvre—193 abstract canvases known collectively as Paintings for the Temple (1906-15)—Hilma af Klint has emerged this year as a multimedia power player. Her work—graphic, colourful and deeply idiosyncratic—has demonstrated a Van Gogh-like power to generate footfall and has given rise to projects across multiple formats, from books and films to experiences in virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR).

Now, from 14 November [2022], digital versions of all 193 of her Paintings for the Temple, created by Acute Art, will be offered as NFTs in one edition, for sale on Goda (Gallery of Digital Assets), the platform launched earlier this year by the multi-Grammy award-winning philanthropist and recording artist Pharrell Williams. A second edition of the NFTs will remain with Bokförlaget Stolpe, the publishers of the Af Klint catalogue raisonée. The originals belong to the not-for-profit Hilma af Klint Foundation in Sweden.

“Hilma af Klint was an incredible pioneer!” says Pharrell Williams. “It took us a century to fully understand. Now that we do, we need to rewrite art history! Beautiful and meaningful art truly transcends time, and Hilma af Klint’s work is a perfect example of that. We’re honoured to show her work on this platform and to truly celebrate a remarkable woman.” For KAWS, who acts as an art adviser on the Goda platform, Af Klint was a visionary. “I find it great that she finally gets the attention she deserves,” KAWS says. “During her lifetime the audience wasn’t ready but today we are. She painted for the future. She painted for us!”

VR

Hilma af Klint dreamt of a spiral shaped building to house her most important work, but the idea never materialised. More than a century later, af Klint’s vision has been translated into a VR experience where some of her most important paintings come alive. Hilma af Klint – The Temple is produced in collaboration with [Bokförlaget Stolpe and] Acute Art and premiered at Koko Camden during the Frieze Art Fair 2022. The virtual reality work Hilma af Klint – The Temple is a 12-minute VR experience which includes 193 of Hilma af Klint’s paintings in a format that transcends time and space and makes a significant portion of her artistic output available to the public.

Hilma af Klint – The Temple VR was on tour since it first debuted in 2022 and Elissaveta M. Brandon wrote up her experience in New York City in a October 25, 2023 article for Fast Company, Note: Links have been removed,

It is noon on a Tuesday, and I am sitting in a cocktail bar. But instead of a Negroni on my table, there is a VR headset.

The reason for this anomaly dates back to 1915, when the Swedish artist Hilma af Klint completed a series of paintings titled, Paintings for the Temple. The artist died in 1944, but from the 124 notebooks she left behind, we know that she dreamed of housing these paintings in a spiral-shaped building known as the Temple.

That building never materialized in real life, but it has now—in virtual reality.

Af Klint, which The Art Newspaper has described as “the mystic Swedish mother of early-modern abstraction,” is having a bit of a moment. A museum dedicated solely to her work remains to be built, but over the past few years, the artist has been the subject of a sprawling exhibition at the Guggenheim, a biopic, a new biography, a catalogue raisonné (a comprehensive, annotated list of all known works by the artist), an augmented reality “art walk” in London’s Regent’s Park, and now, a virtual reality temple.

The VR experience—I lack the words to describe it in any other way—is titled, Hilma af Klint: The Temple and lasts 12 minutes. It was conceived by the London-based extended-reality studio Acute Art in collaboration with [Bokförlaget] Stolpe Publishing. After various stints at the Tate Modern in London, the Institut Suédois in Paris, and Bozar in Brussels, it has now arrived at the Fotografiska Museum in New York City, where it is on view until November 19 [2023], inside a cocktail bar, which is tucked away behind a door in the museum’s lobby, and fittingly called Chapel Bar.

The artist left behind a large body of abstract work inspired by her spiritual encounters. Her series, Paintings for the Temple, was, in fact, born out of a séance, during which she was asked to take on a more extensive project than her previous work. Paintings for the Temple took 9 years to complete; it took me 12 minutes to explore.  

Atoms

While the focus is usually on af Klint’s spirituality and her absence from art history, there’s also her interest in science, from Brandon’s October 25, 2023 article,

…, I wonder how af Klint would have felt about her paintings being presented in virtual reality. According to Birnbaum [Daniel Birnbaum, current director and curator of Acute Art], who is the former director of Moderna Museet, Sweden’s museum of modern art in Stockholm, af Klint had a scientific mind. “One wonders what she would have thought of computation and recent inventions, like the blockchain,” he says. Stolpe also points me to the artist’s Atom Series—the atom being a major theme during her lifetime.

Image: courtesy Acute Art/Stolpe Publishing [downloaded from https://www.fastcompany.com/90971644/take-a-trip-inside-the-secretive-mind-of-visionary-painter-hilma-af-klint?]

The Guggenheim Museum in New York still has material from its 2018 blockbuster Hilma af Klint show available online, including this October 24, 2018 combined audio/transcript article, which includes these tidbits in the transcript,

The Atom Series (1917) by Hilma af Klint

Tracey Bashkoff [Director of Collections and Senior Curator at the Guggenheim]: Hilma af Klint is working at a time where the most recent scientific discoveries show that there is a world beyond our observable world, and that things like atoms and sound waves and x-rays and particles exist, that we don’t observe with the naked eye. And so, the question of opening up an invisible world from our physical world, being able to make observations of another dimension of reality, becomes an issue of exploration for af Klint and for many of the thinkers of her time.

Narrator: These works are from The Atom Series, which was executed in 1917. The atom was a major theme in science and society at large during the artist’s lifetime. In the last five years of the 19th century, the accepted understanding of atoms was overturned by the discovery of subatomic particles. At the same time, scientists were making numerous discoveries about electromagnetism, x-rays, radioactive decay, and other phenomena.

The audio file is about 2 mins. long and it’s a short transcript.

Follow up

Sadly, the VR show in New York City does not seem to have been extended and I can’t find any information about future ‘tour’ stops but I have found websites for Acute Art, Bokförlaget Stolpe Publishing, and Fotografiska New York.

Nature’s missing evolutionary law added in new paper by leading scientists and philosophers

An October 22, 2023 commentary by Rae Hodge for Salon.com introduces the new work with a beautiful lede/lead and more,

A recently published scientific article proposes a sweeping new law of nature, approaching the matter with dry, clinical efficiency that still reads like poetry.

“A pervasive wonder of the natural world is the evolution of varied systems, including stars, minerals, atmospheres, and life,” the scientists write in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Evolving systems are asymmetrical with respect to time; they display temporal increases in diversity, distribution, and/or patterned behavior,” they continue, mounting their case from the shoulders of Charles Darwin, extending it toward all things living and not.

To join the known physics laws of thermodynamics, electromagnetism and Newton’s laws of motion and gravity, the nine scientists and philosophers behind the paper propose their “law of increasing functional information.”

In short, a complex and evolving system — whether that’s a flock of gold finches or a nebula or the English language — will produce ever more diverse and intricately detailed states and configurations of itself.

And here, any writer should find their breath caught in their throat. Any writer would have to pause and marvel.

It’s a rare thing to hear the voice of science singing toward its twin in the humanities. The scientists seem to be searching in their paper for the right words to describe the way the nested trills of a flautist rise through a vaulted cathedral to coalesce into notes themselves not played by human breath. And how, in the very same way, the oil-slick sheen of a June Bug wing may reveal its unseen spectra only against the brief-blooming dogwood in just the right season of sun.

Both intricate configurations of art and matter arise and fade according to their shared characteristic, long-known by students of the humanities: each have been graced with enough time to attend to the necessary affairs of their most enduring pleasures.

If you have the time, do read this October 22, 2023 commentary as Hodge waxes eloquent.

An October 16, 2023 news item on phys.org announces the work in a more prosaic fashion,

A paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences describes “a missing law of nature,” recognizing for the first time an important norm within the natural world’s workings.

In essence, the new law states that complex natural systems evolve to states of greater patterning, diversity, and complexity. In other words, evolution is not limited to life on Earth, it also occurs in other massively complex systems, from planets and stars to atoms, minerals, and more.

It was authored by a nine-member team— scientists from the Carnegie Institution for Science, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and Cornell University, and philosophers from the University of Colorado.

An October 16, 2023 Carnegie Science Earth and Planets Laboratory news release on EurekAlert (there is also a somewhat shorter October 16, 2023 version on the Carnegie Science [Carnegie Institution of Science] website), which originated the news item, provides a lot more detail,

“Macroscopic” laws of nature describe and explain phenomena experienced daily in the natural world. Natural laws related to forces and motion, gravity, electromagnetism, and energy, for example, were described more than 150 years ago. 

The new work presents a modern addition — a macroscopic law recognizing evolution as a common feature of the natural world’s complex systems, which are characterised as follows:

  • They are formed from many different components, such as atoms, molecules, or cells, that can be arranged and rearranged repeatedly
  • Are subject to natural processes that cause countless different arrangements to be formed
  • Only a small fraction of all these configurations survive in a process called “selection for function.”   

Regardless of whether the system is living or nonliving, when a novel configuration works well and function improves, evolution occurs. 

The authors’ “Law of Increasing Functional Information” states that the system will evolve “if many different configurations of the system undergo selection for one or more functions.”

“An important component of this proposed natural law is the idea of ‘selection for function,’” says Carnegie astrobiologist Dr. Michael L. Wong, first author of the study.

In the case of biology, Darwin equated function primarily with survival—the ability to live long enough to produce fertile offspring. 

The new study expands that perspective, noting that at least three kinds of function occur in nature. 

The most basic function is stability – stable arrangements of atoms or molecules are selected to continue. Also chosen to persist are dynamic systems with ongoing supplies of energy. 

The third and most interesting function is “novelty”—the tendency of evolving systems to explore new configurations that sometimes lead to startling new behaviors or characteristics. 

Life’s evolutionary history is rich with novelties—photosynthesis evolved when single cells learned to harness light energy, multicellular life evolved when cells learned to cooperate, and species evolved thanks to advantageous new behaviors such as swimming, walking, flying, and thinking. 

The same sort of evolution happens in the mineral kingdom. The earliest minerals represent particularly stable arrangements of atoms. Those primordial minerals provided foundations for the next generations of minerals, which participated in life’s origins. The evolution of life and minerals are intertwined, as life uses minerals for shells, teeth, and bones.

Indeed, Earth’s minerals, which began with about 20 at the dawn of our Solar System, now number almost 6,000 known today thanks to ever more complex physical, chemical, and ultimately biological processes over 4.5 billion years. 

In the case of stars, the paper notes that just two major elements – hydrogen and helium – formed the first stars shortly after the big bang. Those earliest stars used hydrogen and helium to make about 20 heavier chemical elements. And the next generation of stars built on that diversity to produce almost 100 more elements.

“Charles Darwin eloquently articulated the way plants and animals evolve by natural selection, with many variations and traits of individuals and many different configurations,” says co-author Robert M. Hazen of Carnegie Science, a leader of the research.

“We contend that Darwinian theory is just a very special, very important case within a far larger natural phenomenon. The notion that selection for function drives evolution applies equally to stars, atoms, minerals, and many other conceptually equivalent situations where many configurations are subjected to selective pressure.”

The co-authors themselves represent a unique multi-disciplinary configuration: three philosophers of science, two astrobiologists, a data scientist, a mineralogist, and a theoretical physicist.

Says Dr. Wong: “In this new paper, we consider evolution in the broadest sense—change over time—which subsumes Darwinian evolution based upon the particulars of ‘descent with modification.’”  

“The universe generates novel combinations of atoms, molecules, cells, etc. Those combinations that are stable and can go on to engender even more novelty will continue to evolve. This is what makes life the most striking example of evolution, but evolution is everywhere.”

Among many implications, the paper offers: 

  1. Understanding into how differing systems possess varying degrees to which they can continue to evolve. “Potential complexity” or “future complexity” have been proposed as metrics of how much more complex an evolving system might become
  2. Insights into how the rate of evolution of some systems can be influenced artificially. The notion of functional information suggests that the rate of evolution in a system might be increased in at least three ways: (1) by increasing the number and/or diversity of interacting agents, (2) by increasing the number of different configurations of the system; and/or 3) by enhancing the selective pressure on the system (for example, in chemical systems by more frequent cycles of heating/cooling or wetting/drying).
  3. A deeper understanding of generative forces behind the creation and existence of complex phenomena in the universe, and the role of information in describing them
  4. An understanding of life in the context of other complex evolving systems. Life shares certain conceptual equivalencies with other complex evolving systems, but the authors point to a future research direction, asking if there is something distinct about how life processes information on functionality (see also https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsif.2022.0810).
  5. Aiding the search for life elsewhere: if there is a demarcation between life and non-life that has to do with selection for function, can we identify the “rules of life” that allow us to discriminate that biotic dividing line in astrobiological investigations? (See also https://conta.cc/3LwLRYS, “Did Life Exist on Mars? Other Planets? With AI’s Help, We May Know Soon”)
  6. At a time when evolving AI systems are an increasing concern, a predictive law of information that characterizes how both natural and symbolic systems evolve is especially welcome

Laws of nature – motion, gravity, electromagnetism, thermodynamics – etc. codify the general behavior of various macroscopic natural systems across space and time. 

The “law of increasing functional information” published today complements the 2nd law of thermodynamics, which states that the entropy (disorder) of an isolated system increases over time (and heat always flows from hotter to colder objects).

* * * * *

Comments

“This is a superb, bold, broad, and transformational article.  …  The authors are approaching the fundamental issue of the increase in complexity of the evolving universe. The purpose is a search for a ‘missing law’ that is consistent with the known laws.

“At this stage of the development of these ideas, rather like the early concepts in the mid-19th century of coming to understand ‘energy’ and ‘entropy,’ open broad discussion is now essential.”

Stuart Kauffman
Institute for Systems Biology, Seattle WA

“The study of Wong et al. is like a breeze of fresh air blowing over the difficult terrain at the trijunction of astrobiology, systems science and evolutionary theory. It follows in the steps of giants such as Erwin Schrödinger, Ilya Prigogine, Freeman Dyson and James Lovelock. In particular, it was Schrödinger who formulated the perennial puzzle: how can complexity increase — and drastically so! — in living systems, while they remain bound by the Second Law of thermodynamics? In the pile of attempts to resolve this conundrum in the course of the last 80 years, Wong et al. offer perhaps the best shot so far.”

“Their central idea, the formulation of the law of increasing functional information, is simple but subtle: a system will manifest an increase in functional information if its various configurations generated in time are selected for one or more functions. This, the authors claim, is the controversial ‘missing law’ of complexity, and they provide a bunch of excellent examples. From my admittedly quite subjective point of view, the most interesting ones pertain to life in radically different habitats like Titan or to evolutionary trajectories characterized by multiple exaptations of traits resulting in a dramatic increase in complexity. Does the correct answer to Schrödinger’s question lie in this direction? Only time will tell, but both my head and my gut are curiously positive on that one. Finally, another great merit of this study is worth pointing out: in this day and age of rabid Counter-Enlightenment on the loose, as well as relentless attacks on the freedom of thought and speech, we certainly need more unabashedly multidisciplinary and multicultural projects like this one.”

Milan Cirkovic 
Astronomical Observatory of Belgrade, Serbia; The Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford University [University of Oxford]

The natural laws we recognize today cannot yet account for one astounding characteristic of our universe—the propensity of natural systems to “evolve.” As the authors of this study attest, the tendency to increase in complexity and function through time is not specific to biology, but is a fundamental property observed throughout the universe. Wong and colleagues have distilled a set of principles which provide a foundation for cross-disciplinary discourse on evolving systems. In so doing, their work will facilitate the study of self-organization and emergent complexity in the natural world.

Corday Selden
Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences, Rutgers University

The paper “On the roles of function and selection in evolving systems” provides an innovative, compelling, and sound theoretical framework for the evolution of complex systems, encompassing both living and non-living systems. Pivotal in this new law is functional information, which quantitatively captures the possibilities a system has to perform a function. As some functions are indeed crucial for the survival of a living organism, this theory addresses the core of evolution and is open to quantitative assessment. I believe this contribution has also the merit of speaking to different scientific communities that might find a common ground for open and fruitful discussions on complexity and evolution.

Andrea Roli
Assistant Professor, Università di Bologna.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

On the roles of function and selection in evolving systems by Michael L. Wong, Carol E. Cleland, Daniel Arends Jr., Stuart Bartlett, H. James Cleaves, Heather Demarest, Anirudh Prabhu, Jonathan I. Lunine, and Robert M. Hazen. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) 120 (43) e2310223120 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2310223120 Published: October 16, 2023

This paper is open access.

Chandra Sonifications (extraplanetary music and data sonification)

I’m not sure why the astronomy community is so taken with creating music out of data but it seems to be the most active of the science communities in the field. This October 15. 2023 article by Elizabeth Hlavinka for Salon.com provides a little context before describing some of the latest work, Note: Links have been removed,

Christine Malec, who has been blind since birth, has always been a big astronomy buff, fascinated by major questions about the universe like what happens when a limit reaches infinity and whether things like space travel could one day become a reality. However, throughout her childhood, most astronomical information was only accessible to her via space documentaries or science fiction books.

Nearly a decade ago, Malec discovered a completely new way to experience astronomy when she saw astronomer and musician Matt Russo, Ph.D., give a presentation at a local planetarium in Toronto. Using a process called astronomical sonification, Russo had translated information collected from the TRAPPIST-1 solar system, which has seven planets locked in an orbital resonance, into something people who are blind or have low vision could experience: music. 

Russo’s song sent a wave of goosebumps through Malec’s body. Something she had previously understood intellectually but never had turned into a sensory experience was suddenly, profoundly felt.

“It was unforgettable,” Malec told Salon in a phone interview. “I compare it to what it might be like for a sighted person to look up at the night sky and get a sensory intuition of the size and nature of the cosmos. As a blind person, that’s an experience I hadn’t had.”

Through astronomical sonification, scientists map complex astronomical structures like black holes or exploded stars through the similarly expansive and multidimensional world of sound. Translating data from outer space into music not only expands access to astronomy for people who are blind or have low vision, but it also has the potential to help all scientists better understand the universe by leading to novel discoveries. Like images from the James Webb telescope that contextualize our tiny place in the universe, astronomical sonification similarly holds the power to connect listeners to the cosmos.

“It really does bring a connection that you don’t necessarily get when you’re just looking at a cluster of galaxies that’s billions of light years away from you that stretches across many hundreds of millions of light years,” said Kimberly Kowal Arcand, Ph.D., a data visualizer for NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. “Having sound as a way of experiencing that type of phenomenon, that type of object, whatever it is, is a very valid way of experiencing the world around you and of making meaning.”

Malec serves as a consultant for Chandra Sonifications, which translates complex data from astronomical objects into sound. One of their most popular productions, which has been listened to millions of times, sonified a black hole in the Perseus cluster galaxy about 240 million light-years away. When presenting this sonification at this year’s [2023] SXSW festival in March, Russo, who works with Chandra through an organization he founded called SYSTEM Sounds, said this eerie sound used to depict the black hole had been likened to “millions of damned souls being sucked into the pits of hell.” 

Here’s some of what the audience at the 2023 SXSW festival heard,

If you have the time , do read Hlavinka’s October 15. 2023 article as she tells a good story with many interesting tidbits such as this (Note: Links have been removed),

William “Bill” Kurth, Ph.D., a space physicist at the University of Iowa, said the origins of astronomical sonification can be traced back to at least the 1970s when the Voyager-1 spacecraft recorded electromagnetic wave signals in space that were sent back down to his team on Earth, where they were processed as audio recordings.

Back in 1979, the team plotted the recordings on a frequency-time spectrogram similar to a voiceprint you see on apps that chart sounds like birds chirping, Kurth explained. The sounds emitted a “whistling” effect created by waves following the magnetic fields of the planet rather than going in straight lines. The data seemed to confirm what they had suspected: lightning was shocking through Jupiter’s atmosphere.

“At that time, the existence of lightning anywhere other than in Earth’s atmosphere was unknown,” Kurth told Salon in a phone interview. “This became the first time that we realized that lightning might exist on another planet.”

And this (Note: Links have been removed),

Beyond astronomy, sonification can be applied to any of the sciences, and health researchers are currently looking at tonifying DNA strands to better understand how proteins fold in multiple dimensions. Chandra is also working on constructing tactile 3-D models of astronomical phenomena, which also expands access for people who are blind or have low vision — those who have historically only been able to experience these sciences through words, Malec said.

Chandra and other sonification projects

I found a brief and somewhat puzzling description of the Chandra sonification project on one of the of US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) websites. From a September 22, 2021 posting on the Marshall Science Research and Projects Division blog (Note: Links have been removed,)

On 9/16/21, a Chandra sonification image entitled “Jingle, Pluck, and Hum: Sounds from Space” was released to the public.  Since 2020, Chandra’s “sonification” project has transformed astronomical data from some of the world’s most powerful telescopes into sound.  Three new objects — a star-forming region, a supernova remnant, and a black hole at the center of a galaxy — are being released.  Each sonification has its own technique to translate the astronomical data into sound.

For more information visit: Data Sonifications: Westerlund 2 (Multiwavelength), Tycho’s Supernova Remnant, and M87. https://www.nasa.gov/missions_pages/chandra/main/index.html.

A Chandra article entitled “Data Sonification: Sounds from the Milky Way” was also released in the NASA STEM Newsletter.  This newsletter was sent to 54,951 subscribers and shared with the office of STEM engagements social media tools with approximately 1.7M followers. For more information visit: https://myemail.constantcontact.com/NASA-EXPRESS—-Your-STEM-Connection-for-Sept–9–2021.html?soid=1131598650811&aid=iXfzAJk6x_s

I’m a little puzzled by the reference to a Chandra sonification image but I’m assuming that they also produce data visualizations. Anyway, as Hlavinka notes Chandra is a NASA X-ray Observatory and they have a number of different projects/initiatives.

Getting back to data sonification, Chandra offers various audio files on its A Universe of Sound webpage,

Here’s a sampling of three data sonification posts (there are more) here,

Enjoy!

Simon Fraser University’s (SFU; Vancouver, Canada) Café Scientifique Winter/Spring 2024 events + a 2023 Nobel-themed lecture

There are three upcoming Simon Fraser University (SFU) Café Scientifique events (Zoom) and one upcoming Nobel=themed lecture (in person) according to a January 15, 2024 notice (received via email), Note: All the events are free,

Hello SFU Cafe Scientifique friends!

We are back with a brand new line up for our Cafe Scientifique discussion series.  Zoom invites will be sent closer to the event dates [emphasis mine].  We hope you can join us.

All event information and registration links on this page: https://www.sfu.ca/science/community.html

Café Scientifique: Why Do Babies Get Sick? A Systems Biology Approach to Developing Diagnostics and Therapeutics for Neonatal Sepsis. 

Tuesday, January 30, 5:00-6:30pm over Zoom 

Around the world five newborn babies die each second from life-threatening infections. Unfortunately there is no fast or easy way to tell which microbes are involved. Molecular Biology and Biochemistry assistant professor Amy Lee will share how we can use genomics and machine learning approaches to tackle this challenge.
Register here. https://events.sfu.ca/event/38235-cafe-scientifique-january-why-do-babies-get-sick?

Cafe Scientifique: From data to dollars: A journey through financial modelling
Tuesday, February 27, 5:00-6:30 pm over Zoom 

Financial modelling involves using mathematical and statistical techniques to understand future financial scenarios, helping individuals and businesses make informed decisions about their investments. Join Dr. Jean-François Bégin as he explores how these models can empower us to navigate the complexities of financial markets.

Register here: https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/763521010897

Cafe Scientifique: Overtraining and the Everyday Athlete
Tuesday, April 30, 5:00-6:30 pm over Zoom 

What happens when we train too hard, don’t take enough time to recover, or underfuel while exercising, and how that applies to both elite athletes and just your “everyday athlete.” Join Dr. Alexandra Coates from our Biomedical Physiology and Kinesiology Department in this interesting discussion.

Register here: https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/763521010897

Missed our last Café Scientifique talk [Decoding how life senses and responds to carbon dioxide gas] with Dustin King? [SFU Molecular Biology and Biochemistry Assistant Professor Dustin King’s Indigenous background is central to his work and relationship with the biochemical research he conducts. He brings Indigenous ways of knowing and a two-eye seeing approach to critical questions about humanity’s impact upon the natural world …] Watch it on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xCHTSbF3RVs&list=PLTMt9gbqLurAMfSHQqVAHu7YbyOFq81Ix&index=10

The ‘2023 Nobel Prize Lectures’ being presented by SFU do not feature the 2023 winners but rather, SFU experts in the relevant field, from the January 15, 2024 SFU Café Scientifique notice (received via email),

BACK IN-PERSON AT THE SCIENCE WORLD THEATRE!

Location: Science World Theatre 1455 Quebec Street Vancouver, BC V6A 3Z7

NOBEL PRIZE LECTURES  

Wednesday, March 6, 2024 

6:30-7:30 pm Refreshments, 7:30-9:30 pm Lectures 

Celebrate the 2023 Nobel awardees in Chemistry, Physics, Physiology or Medicine!

SFU experts will explain Nobel laureates’ award-winning research and its significance to our everyday lives. 

Featured presenters are

*Mark Brockman from Molecular Biology and Biochemistry for the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology;

*Byron Gates from Chemistry for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry; and

*Shawn Sederberg from the School of Engineering Science for the Nobel Prize in Physics.

Register here: https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/nobel-prize-lectures-tickets-773387301237

For anyone who has trouble remembering who and why the winners were awarded a 2023 Nobel Prize, here’s a nobleprize.org webpage devoted to the 2023 winners.

Using measurements to generate quantum entanglement and teleportation

Caption: The researchers at Google Quantum AI and Stanford University explored how measurements can fundamentally change the structure of quantum information in space-time. Credit: Google Quantum AI, designed by Sayo-Art

interesting approach to illustrating a complex scientific concept! This October 18, 2023 news item on phys.org describes the measurement problem,

Quantum mechanics is full of weird phenomena, but perhaps none as weird as the role measurement plays in the theory. Since a measurement tends to destroy the “quantumness” of a system, it seems to be the mysterious link between the quantum and classical world. And in a large system of quantum bits of information, known as “qubits,” the effect of measurements can induce dramatically new behavior, even driving the emergence of entirely new phases of quantum information.

This happens when two competing effects come to a head: interactions and measurement. In a quantum system, when the qubits interact with one another, their information becomes shared nonlocally in an “entangled state.” But if you measure the system, the entanglement is destroyed. The battle between measurement and interactions leads to two distinct phases: one where interactions dominate and entanglement is widespread, and one where measurements dominate, and entanglement is suppressed.

An October 18, 2023 Google Quantum AI news release, which originated the news item, on EurekAlert provides more information about a research collaboration between Google and Stanford University,

As reported today [October 18, 2023] in the journal Nature, researchers at Google Quantum AI and Stanford University have observed the crossover between these two regimes — known as a “measurement-induced phase transition” — in a system of up to 70 qubits. This is by far the largest system in which measurement-induced effects have been explored. The researchers also saw signatures of a novel form of “quantum teleportation” — in which an unknown quantum state is transferred from one set of qubits to another — that emerges as a result of these measurements. These studies could help inspire new techniques useful for quantum computing.

One can visualize the entanglement in a system of qubits as an intricate web of connections. When we measure an entangled system, the impact it has on the web depends on the strength of the measurement. It could destroy the web completely, or it could snip and prune selected strands of the web, but leave others intact. 

To actually see this web of entanglement in an experiment is notoriously challenging. The web itself is invisible, so researchers can only infer its existence by seeing statistical correlations between the measurement outcomes of qubits. Many, many runs of the same experiment are needed to infer the pattern of the web. This and other challenges have plagued past experiments and limited the study of measurement-induced phase transitions to very small system sizes. 

To address these challenges, the researchers used a few experimental sleights of hand. First, they rearranged the order of operations so that all the measurements could be made at the end of the experiment, rather than interleaved throughout, thus reducing the complexity of the experiment. Second, they developed a new way to measure certain features of the web with a single “probe” qubit. In this way, they could learn more about the entanglement web from fewer runs of the experiment than had been previously required. Finally, the probe, like all qubits, was susceptible to unwanted noise in the environment. This is normally seen as a bad thing, as noise can disrupt quantum calculations, but the researchers turned this bug into a feature by noting that the probe’s sensitivity to noise depended on the nature of the entanglement web around it. They could therefore use the probe’s noise sensitivity to infer the entanglement of the whole system.

The team first looked at this difference in sensitivity to noise in the two entanglement regimes and found distinctly different behaviors. When measurements dominated over interactions (the “disentangling phase”), the strands of the web remained relatively short. The probe qubit was only sensitive to the noise of its nearest qubits. In contrast, when the measurements were weaker and entanglement was more widespread (the “entangling phase”) the probe was sensitive to noise throughout the entire system. The crossover between these two sharply contrasting behaviors is a signature of the sought-after measurement-induced phase transition.

The team also demonstrated a novel form of quantum teleportation that emerged naturally from the measurements: by measuring all but two distant qubits in a weakly entangled state, stronger entanglement was generated between those two distant qubits. The ability to generate measurement-induced entanglement across long distances enables the teleportation observed in the experiment.

The stability of entanglement against measurements in the entangling phase could inspire new schemes to make quantum computing more robust to noise. The role that measurements play in driving new phases and physical phenomena is also of fundamental interest to physicists. Stanford professor and co-author of the study, Vedika Khemani, says, “Incorporating measurements into dynamics introduces a whole new playground for many-body physics where many fascinating and new types of non-equilibrium phases could be found. We explore a few of these striking and counter-intuitive measurement induced phenomena in this work, but there is much more richness to be discovered in the future.” 

Before getting to the citation for and link to the paper, I have an interview with some of the researchers that was written up by Holly Alyssa MacCormick (Associate Director of Public Relations. Science writer and news editor for Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences) in an October 18, 2023 article for Stanford University, Note 1: Some of this will be redundant; Note 2: Links have been removed,

Harnessing the “weirdness” of quantum mechanics to solve practical problems is the long-standing promise of quantum computing. But much like the state of the cat in Erwin Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment, quantum mechanics is still a box of unknowns. Similar to the solid, liquid, and gas phases of matter, the organization of quantum information, too, can assume different phases. Yet unlike the phases of matter we are familiar with in everyday life, the phases of quantum information are much harder to formulate and observe and as a result have been only a theoretical dream until recently.

Measurements are arguably the weirdest facet of quantum mechanics. Intuition tells us that a state has some definite property and measurement reveals that property. However, measurements in quantum mechanics produce intrinsically random results, and the act of measurement irreversibly changes the state itself. Unlike laptops, smartphones, and other classical computers that rely on binary “bits” to code in the state of 0 (off) or 1 (on), quantum computers use “qubits” of information that can be in the state of 0, 1, or 0 and 1 at the same time, a concept known as superposition. The act of measurement doesn’t just extract information, but also changes the state, randomly “collapsing” a superposition into a specific value (0 or 1).

Moreover, this collapse affects not just the qubit that was measured, but also potentially the entire system—an effect described by Einstein as “spooky action at a distance.” This is due to “entanglement,” a quantum property that allows multiple particles in different places to jointly be in superposition, which is a key ingredient for quantum computing. The collapse of an entangled state can also enable spooky phenomena such as “teleportation,” thereby irretrievably altering the “arrow of time” (the concept that time moves in one forward direction) that governs our everyday experience.

In other words, measurements can be used to fundamentally reorganize the structure of quantum information in space and time.

Now, a new collaboration between Stanford and Google Quantum AI investigates the effect of measurements on quantum systems of many particles on Google’s quantum computer and has obtained the largest experimental demonstration of novel measurement-induced phases of quantum information to date. The study was co-led by Jesse Hoke, a physics graduate student and fellow at Stanford’s Quantum Science and Engineering initiative (Q-FARM), Matteo Ippoliti, a former postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Physics, and senior author Vedika Khemani, associate professor of physics at the Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences and Q-FARM. Their results were published Oct. 18 in the journal Nature.

Here, Hoke, Ippoliti, and Khemani discuss how they observed measurement-induced phases of quantum information—a feat once thought to be beyond the realm of what could be achieved in an experiment—and how their new insights could help pave the way for advancements in quantum science and engineering.

Question: What distinguishes the phases investigated in this study from one another, and what is teleportation?

Ippoliti: In the simplest case, there are two phases. In one phase, the structure of quantum information in the system forms a strongly connected web where qubits share a lot of entanglement, even at large spatial distances and/or temporal separations. In the other, the system is weakly connected, so correlations like entanglement decay quickly with distance or time. These are the two phases that we probed in our experiment. The strongly entangled phase enables teleportation, which occurs when the state of one qubit is instantly transmitted, or “teleported,” to another far away qubit by measuring all but those two qubits.

Question: How did you control when a phase transition occurred

Khemani: The competing forces at play are the interactions between qubits, which tend to build entanglement, and measurements of the qubits, which can destroy it. This is the famous “wave function collapse” of quantum mechanics—think of Schrödinger’s cat “collapsing” into one of two states (dead or alive) when we open the box. However, because of entanglement, the collapse is not restricted to the qubit we directly measure but affects the rest of the system too. By controlling the strength or frequency of measurements on the quantum computer, we can induce a phase transition between an entangled phase and a disentangled one.

Question: What were some of the challenges your team needed to overcome to measure quantum states, and how did you do it?

Ippoliti: Measurements in quantum mechanics are inherently random, which makes observing these phases notoriously challenging. This is because every repetition of our experiment produces a different, random-looking quantum state. This is a problem because detecting entanglement (the feature that sets our two phases apart) requires observations on many copies of the same state. To get around this difficulty, we developed a diagnostic that cross-correlates data from the quantum processor with the results of simulations on classical computers. This hybrid quantum-classical diagnostic allowed us to see evidence of the different phases on up to 70 qubits, making this one of the largest digital quantum simulations and experiments to date.

Hoke: Another challenge was that quantum experiments are currently limited by environmental noise. Entanglement is a delicate resource that is easily destroyed by interactions from the outside environment, which is the primary challenge in quantum computing. In our setup, we probe the entanglement structure between the system’s qubits, which is destroyed if the system is not perfectly isolated and instead gets entangled with the surrounding environment. We addressed this challenge by devising a diagnostic that uses noise as a feature rather than a bug—the two phases (weak and strong entanglement) respond to noise in different ways, and we used this as a probe of the phases.

Khemani: In addition, we used the fact that the “arrow of time” loses meaning with measurement-induced teleportation. This allowed us to reorganize the sequence of operations on the quantum computer in advantageous ways to mitigate the effects of noise and to devise new probes of the organization of quantum information in space-time.

Question: What do the findings mean?

Khemani: At the level of fundamental science, our experiments demonstrate new phenomena that extend our familiar concepts of “phase structure.” Instead of thinking of measurements merely as probes, we are now thinking of them as an intrinsic part of quantum dynamics, which can be used to create and manipulate novel quantum correlations. At the level of applications, using measurements to robustly generate structured entanglement is inspiring new ways to make quantum computing more robust against noise. More generally, our understanding of general phases of quantum information and dynamics is still nascent, and many exciting surprises await.

Acknowledgements

Hoke conducted research on this study while working as an intern at Google Quantum AI under the supervision of Xiao Mi and Pedram Roushan. Ippoliti is now an assistant professor of physics at the University of Texas at Austin. Additional co-authors on this study include the Google Quantum AI team and researchers from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Auburn University; University of Technology, Sydney; University of California, Riverside; and Columbia University. The full list of authors is available in the Nature paper.

Ippoliti was funded in part by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation’s EPiQS Initiative. Khemani was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, Basic Energy Sciences; the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation; and the Packard Foundation.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper, Note: There are well over 100 contributors to the paper and I have not listed each one separately, You can find the list if you go to the Nature paper and click on Google Quantum AI and Collaborators in the author field,

Measurement-induced entanglement and teleportation on a noisy quantum processor by Google Quantum AI and Collaborators. Nature volume 622, pages 481–486 (2023) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-023-06505-7 Published online: 18 October 2023 Issue Date: 19 October 2023

This paper is open access.

Poinsettia frogs and a Merry 2023 Christmas

I stumbled across this image in a December 20, 2023 article by Dorothy Woodend for The Tyee where she is the culture editor,

Instead of new material goods this holiday season, I’m searching for something more elusive and ultimately sustaining. And it may help us grow our appreciation for the natural world and its mysteries. Illustrations for The Tyee by Dorothy Woodend.

À propos given the name for this blog and the time of year. Thank you, Ms. Woodend!

I try not to do too many of these stories since the focus for this blog is new and emerging science and technology but I can’t resist including these frog stories (and one dog story). Plus, there may be some tap dancing.

A new (!) fanged frog in Indonesia

This is not the tiny Indonesian fanged frog but it does show you what a fanged frog looks like, from the December 21, 2023 “What Are Fanged Frogs?” posting on the Vajiram and Ravi IAS Study Center website,

Not an Indonesian fanged frog. h/t Vajiram and Ravi IAS Study Center [downloaded from https://vajiramias.com/current-affairs/what-are-fanged-frogs/658416a9f0e178517404afda/]

If you don’t have much time and are interested in the latest fanged frog, check out the December 21, 2023 “What Are Fanged Frogs?” posting as they have relevant information in bullet point form.

On to the specifics about the ‘new’ fanged frog from a December 21, 2023 news item on ScienceDaily,

In general, frogs’ teeth aren’t anything to write home about — they look like pointy little pinpricks lining the upper jaw. But one group of stream-dwelling frogs in Southeast Asia has a strange adaptation: two bony “fangs” jutting out of their lower jawbone. They use these fangs to battle with each other over territory and mates, and sometimes even to hunt tough-shelled prey like giant centipedes and crabs. In a new study, published in the journal PLOS [Public Library of Science] ONE, researchers have described a new species of fanged frog: the smallest one ever discovered.

“This new species is tiny compared to other fanged frogs on the island where it was found, about the size of a quarter,” says Jeff Frederick, a postdoctoral researcher at the Field Museum in Chicago and the study’s lead author, who conducted the research as a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley.

A December 20, 2023 Field Museum news release (also on EurrekAlert), which originated the news item, adds more detail,

“Many frogs in this genus are giant, weighing up to two pounds. At the large end, this new species weighs about the same as a dime.”

In collaboration with the Bogor Zoology Museum, a team from the McGuire Lab at Berkeley   found the frogs on Sulawesi, a rugged, mountainous island that makes up part of Indonesia. “It’s a giant island with a vast network of mountains, volcanoes, lowland rainforest, and cloud forests up in the mountains. The presence of all these different habitats mean that the magnitude of biodiversity across many plants and animals we find there is unreal – rivaling places like the Amazon,” says Frederick.

While trekking through the jungle, members of the joint US-Indonesia amphibian and reptile research team noticed something unexpected on the leaves of tree saplings and moss-covered boulders: nests of frog eggs.

Frogs are amphibians, and they lay eggs that are encapsulated by jelly, rather than a hard, protective shell. To keep their eggs from drying out, most amphibians lay their eggs in water. To the research team’s surprise, they kept spotting the terrestrial egg masses on leaves and mossy boulders several feet above the ground. Shortly after, they began to see the small, brown frogs themselves.

“Normally when we’re looking for frogs, we’re scanning the margins of stream banks or wading through streams to spot them directly in the water,” Frederick says. “After repeatedly monitoring the nests though, the team started to find attending frogs sitting on leaves hugging their little nests.” This close contact with their eggs allows the frog parents to coat the eggs with compounds that keep them moist and free from bacterial and fungal contamination.

Closer examination of the amphibian parents revealed not only that they were tiny members of the fanged frog family, complete with barely-visible fangs, but that the frogs caring for the clutches of eggs were all male. “Male egg guarding behavior isn’t totally unknown across all frogs, but it’s rather uncommon,” says Frederick.

Frederick and his colleagues hypothesize that the frogs’ unusual reproductive behaviors might also relate to their smaller-than-usual fangs. Some of the frogs’ relatives have bigger fangs, which help them ward off competition for spots along the river to lay their eggs in the water. Since these frogs evolved a way to lay their eggs away from the water, they may have lost the need for such big imposing fangs. (The scientific name for the new species is Limnonectes phyllofolia; phyllofolia means “leaf-nester.”)

“It’s fascinating that on every subsequent expedition to Sulawesi, we’re still discovering new and diverse reproductive modes,” says Frederick. “Our findings also underscore the importance of conserving these very special tropical habitats. Most of the animals that live in places like Sulawesi are quite unique, and habitat destruction is an ever-looming conservation issue for preserving the hyper-diversity of species we find there. Learning about animals like these frogs that are found nowhere else on Earth helps make the case for protecting these valuable ecosystems.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

A new species of terrestrially-nesting fanged frog (Anura: Dicroglossidae) from Sulawesi Island, Indonesia by Jeffrey H. Frederick, Djoko T. Iskanda, Awal Riyanto, Amir Hamidy, Sean B. Reilly, Alexander L. Stubbs, Luke M. Bloch, Bryan Bach, Jimmy A. McGuire. PLOS ONE 18(12): e0292598 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0292598 Published: December 20, 2023

This paper is open access and online only.

Fatal attraction to … frog noses?

Bob Yirka in a November 28, 2023 article published on phys.org describes research into some unusual mosquito behaviour, Note: Links have been removed,

A pair of environmental and life scientists, one with the University of Newcastle, in Australia, the other the German Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research, has found that one species of mosquito native to Australia targets only the noses of frogs for feeding. In their paper published in the journal Ethology, John Gould and Jose Valdez describe their three-year study of frogs and Mimomyia elegans, a species of mosquito native to Australia

As part of their study of frogs living in a pond on Kooragang Island, the pair took a lot of photographs of the amphibians in their native environment. It was upon returning to their lab and laying out the photographs that they noticed something unique—any mosquito feeding on a frog’s blood was always atop its nose. This spot, they noted, seemed precarious, as mosquitos are part of the frog diet.

A mosquito perches on the nose of a green and yellow frog perched on a branch.
A species of Australian mosquito, Mimomyia elegans, appears to have a predilection for the nostrils of tree frogs, according to new observations published in the journal Ethology. (John Gould) [downloaded from https://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/mosquitoes-on-frog-noses-1.7058168]

Sheena Goodyear posted a December 13, 2023 article containing an embedded Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) As It Happens radio programme audio file of an interview with researcher John Gould, Note: A link has been removed,

So why risk landing on the nose of something that wants to eat you, when there are so many other targets walking around full of delicious blood?

“In all of the occasions that we observed, it seems as if the frog didn’t realize that it had a mosquito on top of it…. They were actually quite happy, just sitting idly, while these mosquitoes were feeding on them,” Gould said.

“So it might be that the area between the eyes is a bit of a blind spot for the frogs.”

It’s also something of a sneak attack by the mosquitoes.

“Some of the mosquitoes first initially landed on the backs of the frogs,” Gould said. “They might avoid being eaten by the frogs by landing away from the head and then walking up to the nostrils to feed.

It’s a plausible theory, says amphibian expert Lea Randall, a Calgary Zoo and Wilder Institute ecologist who wasn’t involved in the research. 

“Frogs have amazing vision, and any mosquito that approached from the front would likely end up as a tasty snack for a frog,” she said.

“Landing on the back and making your way undetected to the nostrils is a good strategy.”

And the reward may just be worth the risk. 

“I could also see the nostrils as being a good place to feed as the skin is very thin and highly vascularized, and thus provides a ready source of blood for a hungry mosquito,” Randall said.

Gould admits his friends and loved ones have likely grown weary of hearing him “talking about frogs and nostrils.” But for him, it’s more than a highly specific scientific obsession; it’s about protecting frogs.

His earlier research has suggested that mosquitoes may be a vector for transmitting amphibian chytrid fungus, which is responsible for declines in frog populations worldwide. 

That’s why he had been amassing photos of frogs and mosquitoes in the first place.

“Now that we know where the mosquito is more likely to land, it might give us a better impression about how the infection spreads along the skin of the frog,” he said.

But more work needs to be done. His frog nostril research, while it encompasses three years’ of fieldwork, is a natural history observation, not a laboratory study with controlled variables.

“It would be quite interesting to know whether this particular type of mosquito is transferring the chytrid fungus, and also how the fungus spreads once the mosquito has landed,” Gould said.

A man in a bright yellow jacket and a light strapped to his forehead poses outside at night with a tiny frog perched on his hand.
Gould describes himself as a ‘vampire scientist’ who stays up all night studying nocturnal tree frogs in Australia. ‘They’re so soft and timid a lot of the times,’ he said. ‘They’re quite a special little, little animal.’ (Submitted by John Gould)

Vampire scientist, eh? You can find the embedded 6 mins. 28 secs. audio file in the December 13, 2023 article on the CBC website.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the research paper,

A little on the nose: A mosquito targets the nostrils of tree frogs for a blood meal by John Gould, Jose W. Valdez. Ethology DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/eth.13424 First published: 21 November 2023

This paper is open access.

Gifted dogs

Caption: Shira, 6 -year-old, female, Border Collie mix, that was rescued at a young age. She lives in New Jersey, and knows the names of 125 toys. Credit Photo: Tres Hanley-Millman

A December 14, 2023 news item on phys.org describes some intriguing research from Hungary,

All dog owners think that their pups are special. Science now has documented that some rare dogs are even more special. They have a talent for learning hundreds of names of dog toys. Due to the extreme rarity of this phenomenon, until recently, very little was known about these dogs, as most of the studies that documented this ability included only a small sample of one or two dogs.

A December 18,2023 Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) press release (also on EurekAlert but published December 14, 2023), which originated the news item, delves further into the research,

In a previous study, the scientists found that only very few dogs could learn the names of object, mostly dog toys. The researchers wanted to understand this phenomenon better and, so they needed to find more dogs with this ability. But finding dogs with this rare talent was a challenge! For five years, the researchers tirelessly searched across the world for these unique Gifted Word Learner (GWL) dogs. As part of this search, in 2020, they launched a social media campaign and broadcasted their experiments with GWL dogs, in the hope of finding more GWL dogs.

“This was a citizen science project” explains Dr. Claudia Fugazza, team leader. “When a dog owner told us they thought their dog knew toy names, we gave them instructions on how to self-test their dog and asked them to send us the video of the test”. The researchers then held an online meeting with the owners to test the dog’s vocabulary under controlled conditions and, if the dog showed he knew the names of his toys, the researchers asked the owners to fill out a questionnaire. “In the questionnaire, we asked the owners about their dog’s life experience, their own experience in raising and training dogs, and about the process by which the dog came to learn the names of his/her toys” explains Dr. Andrea Sommese, co-author.

VIDEO ABSTRACT ABOUT THE RESEARCH

The researchers found 41 dogs from 9 different countries: the US, the UK, Brazil, Canada, Norway, Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and Hungary. Most of the previous studies on this topic included Border collies. So, while object label learning is very rare even in Border collies, it was not surprising that many of the dogs participating in the current study (56%) belonged to this breed. However, the study documented the ability to learn toy names in a few dogs from non-working breeds, such as two Pomeranians, one Pekingese, one Shih Tzu, a Corgi, a Poodle, and a few mixed breeds.

“Surprisingly, most owners reported that they did not intentionally teach their dogs toy names, but rather that the dogs just seemed to spontaneously pick up the toy names during unstructured play sessions,” says Shany Dror, lead researcher. In addition, the vast majority of owners participating in the study had no professional background in dog training and the researchers found no correlations between the owners’ level of experience in handling and training dogs, and the dogs’ ability to select the correct toys when hearing its names.

“In our previous studies we have shown that GWL dogs learn new object names very fast” explains Dror. “So, it is not surprising that when we conducted the test with the dogs, the average number of toys known by the dogs was 29, but when we published the results, more than 50% of the owners reported that their dogs had already acquired a vocabulary of over 100 toy names”.

“Because GWL dogs are so rare, until now there were only anecdotes about their background” explains Prof. Adam Miklósi, Head of the Ethology Department at ELTE and co-author. “The rare ability to learn object names is the first documented case of talent in a non-human species. The relatively large sample of dogs documented in this study, helps us to identify the common characteristics that are shared among these dogs, and brings us one step closer in the quest of understanding their unique ability”.

This research is part of the Genius Dog Challenge research project which aims to understand the unique talent that Gifted Word Learner dogs have. The researchers encourage dog owners who believe their dogs know multiple toy names, to contact them via the Genius Dog Challenge website.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the research paper,

A citizen science model turns anecdotes into evidence by revealing similar characteristics among Gifted Word Learner dogs by Shany Dror, Ádám Miklósi, Andrea Sommese & Claudia Fugazza. Scientific Reports volume 13, Article number: 21747 (2023) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-023-47864-5 Published: 14 December 2023

This paper is open access.

The End with an origin story NORAD’s Santa Tracker and some tap dancing

At the height of Cold War tensions between the US and Russia, the red phone (to be used only by the US president or a four star genera) rang at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). Before the conversation ended, the colonel in charge had driven a child to tears and put in motion the start of a beloved Christmas tradition.

There’s a short version and a long version and if you want all the details read both,

As for the tap dancing, I have three links:

  1. Irish Dancers Face Off Against American Tap Dancers To Deliver EPIC Performance!” is an embedded 8 mins. dance off video (scroll down past a few paragraphs) in Erin Perri’s September 1, 2017 posting for themix.net. And, if you scroll further down to the bottom of Perri’s post, you’ll see an embedded video of Sammy Davis Jr.

In the video …, along with his dad and uncle, Sammy performs at an unbelievable pace. In the last 30 seconds of this routine, Sammy demonstrates more talent than other dancers are able to cram into a lifelong career! You can see these three were breakdancing long before it became a thing in the 1980s and they did it wearing tap shoes!

..

2. “Legendary Nicholas Brothers Dance Routine Was Unrehearsed and Filmed in One Take” embedded at the end of Emma Taggart’s October 4, 2019 posting on mymodernmet.com

3. Finally, there’s “Jill Biden releases extravagant dance video to celebrate Christmas at the White House” with a video file embedded (wait for it to finish loading and scroll down a few paragraphs) in Kate Fowler’s December 15, (?) 2023 article for MSN. It’s a little jazz, a little tap, and a little Christmas joy.

Joyeux Noël!

Consciousness, energy, and matter

Credit: Rice University [downloaded from https://phys.org/news/2023-10-energy-consciousness-physics-thorny-topic.html]

There’s an intriguing approach tying together ideas about consciousness, artificial intelligence, and physics in an October 8, 2023 news item on phys.org,

With the rise of brain-interface technology and artificial intelligence that can imitate brain functions, understanding the nature of consciousness and how it interacts with reality is not just an age-old philosophical question but also a salient challenge for humanity.

An October 9, 2023 University of Technology Sydney (UTS) press release (also on EurekAlert but published on October 8, 2023), which originated the news item, delves further into the subject matter, Note: Links have been removed,

Can AI become conscious, and how would we know? Should we incorporate human or animal cells, such as neurons, into machines and robots? Would they be conscious and have subjective experiences? Does consciousness reduce to physicalism, or is it fundamental? And if machine-brain interaction influenced you to commit a crime, or caused a crime, would you be responsible beyond a reasonable doubt? Do we have a free will?

AI and computer science specialist Dr Mahendra Samarawickrama, winner of the Australian Computer Society’s Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Professional of the year, has applied his knowledge of physics and artificial neural networks to this thorny topic.

He presented a peer-reviewed paper on fundamental physics and consciousness at the 11th International Conference on Mathematical Modelling in Physical Sciences, Unifying Matter, Energy and Consciousness, which has just been published in the AIP (the American Institute of Physics) Conference Proceedings. 

“Consciousness is an evolving topic connected to physics, engineering, neuroscience and many other fields. Understanding the interplay between consciousness, energy and matter could bring important insights to our fundamental understanding of reality,” said Dr Samarawickrama.

“Einstein’s dream of a unified theory is a quest that occupies the minds of many theoretical physicists and engineers. Some solutions completely change existing frameworks, which increases complexity and creates more problems than it solves.

“My theory brings the notion of consciousness to fundamental physics such that it complements the current physics models and explains the time, causality, and interplay of consciousness, energy and matter.

“I propose that consciousness is a high-speed sequential flow of awareness subjected to relativity. The quantised energy of consciousness can interplay with matter creating reality while adhering to laws of physics, including quantum physics and relativity.

“Awareness can be seen in life, AI and even physical realities like entangled particles. Studying consciousness helps us be aware of and differentiate realities that exist in nature,” he said. 

Dr Samarawickrama is an honorary Visiting Scholar in the School of Computer Science at the University of Technology Sydney, where he has contributed to UTS research on data science and AI, focusing on social impact.

“Research in this field could pave the way towards the development of conscious AI, with robots that are aware and have the ability to think becoming a reality. We want to ensure that artificial intelligence is ethical and responsible in emerging solutions,” Dr Samarawickrama said.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper Samarawickrama presented at the 11th International Conference on Mathematical Modelling in Physical Sciences, Unifying Matter, Energy and Consciousness,

Unifying matter, energy and consciousness by Mahendra Samarawickrama. AIP Conf. Proc. Volume 2872, Issue 1, 28 September 2023, 110001 (2023) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1063/5.0162815

This paper is open access.

The researcher has made a video of his presentation and further information available,

It’s a little bit over my head but hopefully repeated viewings and readings will help me better understand Dr. Samarawickrama’s work.

The sounds of recent (December 2023) seismic activity in Iceland

On the heels of yesterday’s When the rocks sing “I got rhythm” (my December 18, 2023 posting), I received (via email) a media notice/reminder/update about a Northwestern University (Chicago, Illinois, US) app that allows you to listen,

From the original November 16, 2023 Northwestern University news release by Amanda Morris (also published as a November 16, 2023 news item on phys.org),

As seismic activity intensifies ahead of an impending eruption of a fissure near Iceland’s Fagradalsfjall volcano, the island’s Reykjanes Peninsula is experiencing hundreds of earthquakes per day.

Now, listeners can follow along through Northwestern University’s Earthtunes app. Developed in 2019, the app transforms seismic frequencies into audible pitches. Whereas a classic seismometer records motions in the Earth’s surface as squiggly lines scratched across a page, Earthtunes enables users to hear, rather than see, activity.

So far, Iceland’s recent, ongoing seismic activity sounds like a jarring symphony of doors slamming, hail pelting against a tin roof or window and people cracking trays of ice cubes.

By listening to activities recorded by the Global Seismographic Network station (named BORG), located to the north-northeast of Reykjavik, people can hear how the seismic activity has changed around the Fagradalsfjall area.

In this audio clip, listeners can hear 24 hours of activity recorded from Friday, Nov. 10, into Saturday, Nov. 11. Peppered with a cacophony of sharp knocking noises, it sounds like someone is insistently banging on a door.

“The activity is formidable, exciting and scary,” said Northwestern seismologist Suzan van der Lee, who co-developed Earthtunes. “Iceland did the right thing by evacuating residents in nearby Grindavik and the nearby Svartsengi geothermal power plant, one of the world’s oldest geothermal power plants, which was the first to combine electricity generation with hot water for heating in the region.”

Van der Lee is the Sarah Rebecca Roland Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. In her research, she applies data science to millions of records of seismic waves in order to decode seismic signals, which harbor valuable information about the Earth’s interior dynamics.

As hundreds of earthquakes shake the ground, Van der Lee says the impending eruption is reminiscent of the 1973 eruption of Heimaey on Iceland’s Vestmannaeyjar archipelago.

“This level of danger is unprecedented for this area of Iceland, but not for Iceland as a whole,” said van der Lee, who hiked Fagradalsfjall in June. “While most Icelandic volcanoes erupt away from towns and other infrastructure, Icelanders share the terrible memory of an eruption 50 years ago on the island Vestmannaeyjar, during which lava covered part of that island’s town, Heimaey. The residents felt very vulnerable, as the evacuated people of Grindavik feel now. In a few days or weeks, they might no longer have their jobs, homes and most possessions, while still having to feed their families and pay their mortgages. However, partially resulting from that eruption on Vestmannaeyjar, Icelanders are well prepared for the current situation in the Fagradallsfjall-Svartsengi-Grindavik area.” 

Accelerated audio

This audio clip presents the same data, with the pitch increased by 10 octaves. Listeners will hear a long, low rumbling sound, punctuated by an occasional slamming door.

“What you’re hearing is 24 hours of seismic data — filled with earthquake signals,” van der Lee said. “The vast majority of these quakes are associated with the magma intrusion into the crust of the Fagradallsfjall-Svartsengi-Grindavik area of the Reykjanes Peninsula. Seismic data are not audible; their frequencies are too low. So, the 24 hours of data are compressed into approximately 1.5 minutes of audio data. You can hear an unprecedented intensity of earthquakes during the night from last Friday into Saturday and related to a new magma intrusion into the crust area.”

In a third audio clip, the same data is less compressed, with the pitch increased by just seven octaves

“One can hear frequent earthquakes happening at this point,” van der Lee said. “Icelandic seismologists have been monitoring these quakes and their increasing vigor and changing patterns. They recognized similar patterns to earthquake swarms that preceded the 2021-2023 eruptions of the adjacent Fagradallsfjall volcano.”

Earthtunes is supported by the American Geophysical Union and Northwestern’s department of Earth and planetary sciences. Seismic data is obtained from the Earthscope Consortium. The app was designed and developed by van der Lee, Helio Tejedor, Melanie Marzen, Igor Eufrasio, Josephine Anderson, Liam Toney, Cooper Barth, Michael Ji and Leonicio Cabrera.

Jennifer Ouellette’s November 16, 2023 article for Ars Tecnica draws heavily from the news release while delving into the topic of data sonification (making sounds from data), Note: Links have been removed,

….

Sonification of scientific data is an area of growing interest in many different fields. For instance, several years ago, a project called LHCSound built a library of the “sounds” of a top quark jet and the Higgs boson, among others. The project hoped to develop sonification as a technique for analyzing the data from particle collisions so that physicists could “detect” subatomic particles by ear. Other scientists have mapped the molecular structure of proteins in spider silk threads onto musical theory to produce the “sound” of silk in hopes of establishing a radical new way to create designer proteins. And there’s a free app for Android called the Amino Acid Synthesizer that enables users to create their own protein “compositions” from the sounds of amino acids.

The December 19, 2023 Northwestern University media update points to the latest audio file of the eruption of the svartsengi-grindavik fissure in Iceland: 24 hours as of Monday, December 18, 2023 14:00:00 UTC.

Enjoy!

One last thing, there are a number of postings about data sonification here; many but not all scientists and/or communication practitioners think to include audio files.