Questions and Chaos

Life in the 21st Century

A Movie about Mushrooms

Saturday, September 18, 2021

How do you make a feature length film about mushrooms? Mushrooms don’t contribute much action. Still, Louie Schwartzberg has produced a beautiful film. It’s created with quality cinematography that we didn’t see in school and provides interesting educational content. While we aren’t noticing, fungi are decomposing dead material, adding and redistributing nutrients in the soil and pulling carbon from the atmosphere. Since the beginning of time fungi have also facilitated human relationship with what some call “the divine.” Although hidden and walked on, fungi are the silent influencers in the world.

Corpse Flower – Amorphophallus titanum

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Somewhere in the  tropical rain forests of Sumatra, plants like this are growing, blooming, pollinating, creating seeds, feeding birds and growing again. This plant grows for seven to ten years before  blooming.  A plant in the New York Botanical garden took forty years to finally bloom. These photographs are from the second day of blooming at the Muttart Conservatory in Edmonton, Alberta. This particular plant, which staff have named Putrella, has bloomed in 2013, 2015 and  again in 2017. The Muttart has been able to create the conditions for  growing and blooming a complex, equatorial  plant in North America’s most northern city. That is quite an accomplishment.

It is called “Corpse Flower” in its native surroundings because of the putrid smell that disperses when the spathe opens. Its scientific Latin name, Amorphophallus titanum, means “giant misshapen penis”.   The plant produces the largest flowering structure and one of the  worst odors in the plant kingdom. The smell mimics that of  something dead and decomposing. This smell attracts the beetles that are necessary to pollinate the plant and produce seeds.

The actual flowers are contained inside the round bottom part just above the ground. The spike in the middle is called the spadix and the petal like collar around it is the spathe. The bloom only lasts about thirty six hours. These photos were taken on the second day when the spathe is already closing and the scent is no longer perceptible to humans.

Amorphophallus titanum has an interesting life cycle. It grows from an underground bulb like structure called a corm. The corm of Putrella weighs over 200 pounds. The corm produces a pointed sprout that develops into either a leaf or the flower. The leaf can be over six feet tall. To the untrained eye it looks like a tree but its structure is that of a single compound leaf.

The leaf grows for a year, storing energy in the corm, then dies back. Year after year the sprout will produce another leaf until there is enough stored nutrition to produce a flower. How does a plant “know” that it has enough energy to produce a flower?  Imagine the intricate biochemistry and DNA activation that must take place to make this spectacular flower grow instead of a leaf. Imagine a six foot caterpillar   turning itself into a butterfly and also turning itself back again.

The bloom usually opens at night. At this time the plant also heats up to 98°F. The increased temperature helps to spread the smell as far as possible to attract insects.  Both male and female flowers grow in the same inflorescence.  The female flowers open the first night, then close, and the male flowers open the second night.  This prevents the plant from self pollinating. In the two days the flower structure is open it must attract enough insects to carry pollen to and from another flower somewhere in the jungle.

Once the female flowers are pollinated, they grow into many red berries. These berries are poisonous for humans but loved by birds. The birds then poop the seeds all over the jungle and the cycle begins again.

This isn’t virtual reality crafted by a computer. There’s just a seed in the dirt with sunshine and rain.  The  drama continues unabated for millennia.


Life Without Death

Friday, November 9, 2007

Every biological creature, every living thing that has ever existed eventually dies. It’s a fact of existence for all living entities of any size and shape. Whether it’s a single celled bacterium, an elephant, a sequoia tree or a human being, death is its common and unavoidable destiny. How is it that human beings have become so attached to the belief that “people shouldn’t die?”

When we imagine life without death, we imagine that we would just keep on doing what we’re doing indefinitely. However, when we look at ourselves from an evolutionary perspective it is actually death that drives life. Without the threat of death we would not be what we are. All of our experiences and activities have evolved from the need to gather energy. Life is the drive to sustain our energy and fend off death. Without the existence of death none of these activities would be necessary.

If we did not die we would not need to reproduce. All the experiences we consider most precious and meaningful would not exist. There would be no need for attraction and sex and all the drama we create with those experiences. There would be no generations of children, parents and grandparents. Family relationships and rituals would never have evolved. There would be no weddings, graduations, bar mitzvahs or family feuds. Passing our life to the next generation has created our most meaningful relationships and activities. Without death, there would be no need for any of them.

All of our needs originate from the avoidance of death. Without death there would be no need to sleep, to wake up or even to breathe. Without the need for food and security there would be no reason to work, no reason to move at all, really. We would have no need to build, to create or to develop technologies. Without a need for relationships or creativity, communication would not be necessary. There would be no languages, no songs, no stories and no religions.

If we did not die what kind of existence would we have? Would it be fair to say that we would not live? Would we perhaps have an existence more like that of a rock? In a paradoxical way it is actually death that drives life. It is our avoidance of death that fuels our creativity and our cultures and gives meaning to life.

It is ironic that our fear and hatred of death often translates into a fear and hatred of life. The war machine is sent out when people are afraid of death. Death is hidden away in our society. Death might make us notice how unhappy and empty our lives feel. Some people who have faced chronic illness have said that it was the best thing that ever happened to them, because it motivated them to appreciate and love life. Death is the boundary that makes life real and precious.

Dedicated to,and inspired by, my dear canine friend, Tara, who is hobbling about exuberantly, with terminal bone cancer.

Headlines Everywhere: Girls Love Pink

Monday, August 27, 2007

In my local paper I came across an article from Reuters London reporting a new scientific study that showed: Boys like blue, girls like pink and there isn’t much anybody can do about it, researchers said on Monday in one of the first studies to show scientifically that there are gender-based colour preferences.”

Scientific American has run the Reuters article verbatim: starting with the above quote. Newspapers everywhere are proclaiming the above line or something even more scientific sounding like that of the Toronto Star : “A new study, appearing this month in Current Biology finds for the first time that girls are hard-wired to like pink.

In this study 208 subjects age 20-26 looked at pairs of coloured rectangles and picked the one they preferred as quickly as possible. While both sexes preferred blue tones, more women picked reddish-blue tones than men. Based on the evidence, the conclusions published around the world are sheer nonsense and, sadly, people will believe those conclusions have been proven by science.

In the summary of her paper submitted to Current Biology researcher Anya Hurlbert talks about how no previous studies have found sex differences in colour preference and “This fact is perhaps surprising, given the prevalence and longevity of the notion that little girls differ from boys in preferring pink.

First off, in order for little girls to prefer pink they would need to be offered a choice. Babies and toddlers have no choice in the colours they are dressed in, girls are born surrounded by pink and boys by blue. Walk down the girls’ aisle in the toy store – what colour is everything? What would little girls play with if it wasn’t pink? How often do they have a choice between a blue, green or pink Barbie car? The choice is pink or pink or pink. Any little boy who who loves pink is quickly re-directed to the correct toys and colours. It is parents and marketers that choose pink for girls and blue for boys, not the children themselves.

It’s interesting to note the age of the subjects. Previous studies found no differences between the preferences of males and females. Subjects age 20-26 have been more heavily subjected to consumer culture, more toys and television than any other generation. Also interesting that Chinese subjects of both sexes had a greater preference for reddish tones than the British subjects. In Chinese culture red is considered a lucky colour.

Hurlbert explains these findings as having a biological basis because to her it seems logical that women would prefer reddish colours because it helped early females find fruit and be attentive to babies’ skin colour changes such as fever. However there was no evidence in her experiment that women noticed the colours faster, only that they preferred these shades.
If we’re going to look at this from an evolutionary perspective and let’s assume it’s true for a moment that women are hard-wired to prefer pink. If it were true, wouldn’t every man looking for a hot date be wearing some shade of pink?

Ben Goldacre on Bad Science points out that choosing pink for girls is only a recent cultural phenomenon. He quotes a 1918 Ladies Home Journal that says girls should wear blue and boys should wear pink because “pink being a more decided and stronger color is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”

It doesn’t really matter what colour you prefer as long as the truth remains that males are strong because they are the hunters and females are dainty because they are the berry pickers.

I abhor pink consumer goods, but I’m a darn good berry picker. So perhaps I need to accept that, perhaps, biologically I’m a Neanderthal.
In the comments Nikku said: This article is misleading as female humans preferring a slightly redder shade of blue has nothing to do with liking a pink shirt. EXACTLY! That’s my point. To use this data to say that girls are hardwired to like pink is just bad, bad science. Trouble is all the media in the English world, and maybe more, said this proved that girls liking pink is a hard-wired trait. It’s now three years later and if you Google “Girls like pink” you will read the following: “A new study, appearing this month in Current Biology, finds for the first time that girls are hard-wired to like pink.” — and that is just wrong on so many levels.


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

When you think of chaos, perhaps what comes to mind is something like a group of ten year olds at a birthday party. (yelling, falling, spilled pop, cake on the floor) A state of disorder and confusion is the traditional definition of chaos.

The science of chaos finds order and elegance in turbulent situations. defines chaos as: “A new branch of science that deals with systems whose evolution depends very sensitively upon the initial conditions. Turbulent flows of fluids (such as white water in a river) and the prediction of weather are two areas where chaos theory has been applied with some success.” The study of chaos is the study of systems where multiple variables are interacting. A tiny change in one of the initial conditions can have a disproportionate result in the outcome.

The most over-used metaphor for this phenomenon is the “Butterfly Effect”. The idea being, that a small change in initial conditions, such as a butterfly flapping it’s wings, can set in motion changes in the atmosphere that ultimately escalate into a dramatic change in weather somewhere else in the world.

According to James Gleick in Chaos:Making a New Science, “Those studying chaotic dynamics discovered that the disordered behavior of simple systems acted as a creative process. It generated complexity: richly organized patterns, sometimes stable and sometimes unstable, sometimes finite and sometimes infinite, but always with the fascination of living things.”

Chaos theory helps us understand natural processes such as the unique formation of snowflakes. A snowflake may float in the wind for an hour or more as it grows and falls to earth. The six tips of the snowflake are subjected to the same conditions so they maintain their symmetry. As the snowflake falls, it’s growth depends on such things as temperature, humidity and impurities in the air. Any two snowflakes will experience a completely different path through the turbulent air. Therefore each one will develop its own unique shape.

The pattern of a snowflake is a fractal image. Computers can be used to create fractal patterns from mathematical formulas. The site has over 300 awe-inspiring images such as the one below. (Had I known mathematics could be this beautiful I might have paid attention in high school.)

Fractal patterns exist in clouds, thunderstorms, hurricanes, in the shape of coastlines and the shape of the galaxies. They are found in frost on the window, tree branches, blood vessels, heart rhythms and the shape of the brain. Chaotic behavior exists in population growth, the spread of epidemics and the movement of the stock market.

Nature grows and moves in remarkable ways following mathematical rules and hidden patterns. Natural forms and structures are created in the same way snowflakes are created. We are only beginning to understand patterns present in our world.

Edward Lorenz, the meteorologist considered the founder of chaos theory, was running an early computer program in the 1960s attempting to model and predict weather. He found that when he entered a number rounded off to only three decimal places instead of six the result was not similar, it was completely different. He discovered the sensitivity to initial conditions that unfolds in weather

It used to be thought that given sufficient technology and computing power we could predict the weather months and even years in advance. Four days is about the best that can be done, and not always accurately. We can never measure the world to enough decimal places to accurately predict the complete movements of a chaotic system.