Thursday, June 25, 2020
I was greatly saddened this morning to learn that Rose Paterson had passed away. I had the pleasure of meeting her three years ago while we and our families were both visiting her brother in Northumberland. She was a lovely and talented person, who, among her accomplishments, once crossed Mongolia on horseback. As she lived near Ellesmere, Shropshire, here is her obituary in the Shropshire Star. My sympathy to her family.
Tuesday, June 23, 2020
Cloutier et al. (Nature, March 18, 2020) recently described a fossil fish (pardon the paraphyly), named Elpistostege watsoni, whose skeletal remains suggest the emergence of digits:
Here we report a 1.57-metre-long articulated specimen of Elpistostege watsoni from the Upper Devonian period of Canada, which represents—to our knowledge—the most complete elpistostegalian yet found. High-energy computed tomography reveals that the skeleton of the pectoral fin has four proximodistal rows of radials (two of which include branched carpals) as well as two distal rows that are organized as digits and putative digits.Never has there been a better reason to work fingers to the bone.
Monday, June 22, 2020
A June 22, 2020, article in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, entitled Extreme climate after massive eruption of Alaska’s Okmok volcano in 43 BCE and effects on the late Roman Republic and Ptolemaic Kingdom, suggests that the eruption of political unrest following the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. may have been followed by climate unrest unleashed by a massive Alaskan volcano:
The assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE triggered a power struggle that ultimately ended the Roman Republic and, eventually, the Ptolemaic Kingdom, leading to the rise of the Roman Empire. Climate proxies and written documents indicate that this struggle occurred during a period of unusually inclement weather, famine, and disease in the Mediterranean region; historians have previously speculated that a large volcanic eruption of unknown origin was the most likely cause. Here we show using well-dated volcanic fallout records in six Arctic ice cores that one of the largest volcanic eruptions of the past 2,500 [years] occurred in early 43 BCE, with distinct geochemistry of tephra deposited during the event identifying the Okmok volcano in Alaska as the source.This study, by McConnell et al., suggests that the Roman Republic may have been left quite literally on the ash heap of history.
Saturday, June 20, 2020
Thursday, June 18, 2020
The red panda turns out to be a mammal of mystery. A genetic study by Hu et al. suggests that there are not one, but, in fact, two two distinct species: the Himalayan red panda (Ailurus fulgens) and the Chinese red panda (Ailurus styani). Perhaps more surprising, red pandas seem not to be pandas at all, but, rather, a phylogenetic sister group to skunks, raccoons, and weasels. As it is wont to do, science eventually ferrets out the truth.
Wednesday, June 17, 2020
Nature magazine reports that palaeontologists may have cracked the egg-laying behavior of several prehistoric amniotes. Rather than hard, at least some terrestrial dinosaur eggs may have been soft-shelled, while it now appears possible that some prehistoric marine "reptiles" (pardon the paraphyly) laid their eggs on land. Such paradigm shifts foul the nests of prior hypotheses.
Tuesday, June 16, 2020
Monday, June 15, 2020
The United States Supreme Court ("Supremes") released a remarkable decision on June 15, 2020, concerning equality before the law. In the case of Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, a robust majority of six justices, including all four justices generally regarded as leaning leftward alongside two justices usually regarded as learning rightward (that is, Chief Justice John Glover Roberts and Associate Justice Neil McGill Gorsuch), agreed on a decision written by Justice Gorsuch. Here is the essence of their decision:
Sometimes small gestures can have unexpected consequences. Major initiatives practically guarantee them. In our time, few pieces of federal legislation rank in significance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. There, in Title VII, Congress outlawed discrimination in the workplace on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Today, we must decide whether an employer can fire someone simply for being homosexual or transgender. The answer is clear. An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.
Those who adopted the Civil Rights Act might not have anticipated their work would lead to this particular result. Likely, they weren’t thinking about many of the Act’s consequences that have become apparent over the years, including its prohibition against discrimination on the basis of motherhood or its ban on the sexual harassment of male employees. But the limits of the drafters’ imagination supply no reason to ignore the law’s demands. When the express terms of a statute give us one answer and extratextual considerations suggest another, it’s no contest. Only the written word is the law, and all persons are entitled to its benefit.Given its bipartisan nature and decisive mathematics, this decision has now settled a fundamental issue of equal rights for the foreseeable future. Justices Alito, Thomas, and Kavanaugh dissented from the majority decision.
Sunday, June 14, 2020
Friday, June 12, 2020
The environment blog YaleEnvironment360 recently published a thoughtful and timely essay, entitled When Social Distancing Ends, Will We Rethink the World We Want?, by Bill McKibben. With reference to the current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, McKibben notes that
We are on the closest thing ever to a worldwide meditation retreat, with billions finding time to think about their lives.We having examined our lives and society, McKibben considers what we might decide to make of our future.
Thursday, June 11, 2020
The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences ("PNAS") published an article entitled "Genomic determinants of pathogenicity in SARS-CoV-2 and other human coronaviruses", by Ayal B. Gussow et al., on June 10, 2020. The article explores
crucial genomic features that are unique to SARS-CoV-2 and two other deadly coronaviruses, SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV [and that] correlate with the high fatality rate of these coronaviruses...This short article is well worth reading.
Wednesday, June 10, 2020
On May 20, 2020, in Murray v. BEJ Minerals, the Supreme Court of Montana ("Montana Supremes") granted custody of a Tyrannosaurus rex and bits of a Triceratops. The legal issue, as framed by the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, is
Whether, under Montana law, dinosaur fossils constitute “minerals” for the purpose of a mineral reservation?The Montana Supremes held as follows:
We conclude that, under Montana law, dinosaur fossils do not constitute “minerals” for the purpose of a mineral reservation. The ordinary and natural meaning of “mineral”—as it is used in the context of a general mineral reservation and mineral transactions—involves resources such as hard compounds, oil, or gas, mined as a raw material, to be used for further processing, refinement, and economic exploitation. Although a material’s mineral content may render the material rare and valuable, and therefore within the ordinary and natural meaning of “mineral,” dinosaur fossils are not considered rare and valuable because of their mineral properties; rather, fossils are valuable because of characteristics other than mineral composition. Finally, dinosaur fossils’ relation to the surface, and the effect their removal has on the value of the surface estate, is the final factor in determining dinosaur fossils to be outside the ordinary and natural meaning of “mineral,” as that term was used in the [current and prior land owners'] mineral deed. We decline to stretch the term “mineral” so far outside its ordinary meaning as to include dinosaur fossils.In her vigorous dissent, Justice Ingrid Gustafson pointed out that "The dinosaur fossils here...have a 100% mineral composition." However, in Montana at least, this legal theory about such wondrous fossils has now gone the way of the dinosaurs.
Tuesday, June 9, 2020
Here is a nice study of open access journals by Professor Jevin D. West (University of Washington Information School) and colleagues. Among other conclusions, it corroborates the "so-called open-access citation advantage: accounting for age and discipline, [open access] articles receive 18% more citations than average".
Monday, June 8, 2020
The last book I was able to sign out from Dewey Library before MIT shut down in March 2020 was THE NATURE of TECHNOLOGY - What It Is and How it Evolves, by W. Brian Arthur. I love it. I do not agree with everything in his theory of the structure and evolution of technology, but I do find his schemata useful and share his admiration of Charles Darwin's contributions to evolutionary theory. Here is a lecture he gave on the origins and evolution of technology.
Sunday, June 7, 2020
I'm honoured to have been invited to join the Earth BioGenome ("EBP") Project as part of the Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues ("ELSI") Committee. The mission of the EBP Project is, rather wonderfully, "A MOONSHOT FOR BIOLOGY - Sequence the DNA of all life on Earth in 10 years", and the EPB Project team is international and impressive. Here are the three major goals of the Project:
1. Benefiting Human Welfare
2. Protecting Biodiversity
3. Understanding Ecosystems
I'm positive I'll have more to report as the EBP Project develops and evolves.
Saturday, June 6, 2020
I have a soft spot in my heart for Australasian murids. I like them so much I did my Ph.D. on their genetics and evolution. So, when I came across this article in Australian Geographic, entitled "Here are 7 clever Aussie native rodents", I had to share it.
Friday, June 5, 2020
Professor James Collins (Broad Institute and Massachusetts Institute of Technology) discusses how combining machine learning and synthetic biology can lead to great scientific discoveries.
Tuesday, June 2, 2020
Monday, June 1, 2020
Harvard Business School professors Karim Lakhani and Marco Iansiti recently published a marvelous new book entitled Competing in the Age of AI - Strategy and Leadership When Algorithms and Networks Run the World. This is the best account I have ever read of the seismic effects artificial intelligence will surely have, and, in some cases, has already had, on business, the economy, management, and public policy. I thoroughly recommend it.