Life from the Unliving

“I shall never forget the sight. The vessel of crystallization was three-quarters full of slightly muddy water — that is, dilute water-glass — and from the sandy bottom there strove upwards a grotesque little landscape of variously coloured growths: a confused vegetation of blue, green, and brown shoots which reminded one of algae, mushrooms, attached polyps, also moss, then mussels, fruit pods, little trees or twigs from trees, here and there of limbs. It was the most remarkable sight I ever saw, and remarkable not so much for its appearance, strange and amazing though that was, as on account of its profoundly melancholy nature. For when Father Leverkühn asked us what we thought of it and we timidly answered him that they might be plants: ‘No’, he replied, ‘they are not, they only act that way. But do not think the less of them. Precisely because they do, because they try to as hard as they can, they are worthy of all respect’. It turned out that these growths were entirely unorganic in their origin; they existed by virtue of chemicals from the apothecary’s shop, the ‘Blessed Messengers’. Before pouring the waterglass, Jonathan had sprinkled the sand at the bottom with various crystals; if I mistake not potassium chromate and sulphate of copper. From this sowing, as the result of a physical process called ‘Osmotic pressure’, there sprang the pathetic crop for which their producer at once and urgently claimed our sympathy. He showed us that these pathetic imitations of life were light-seeking, heliotropic, as science calls it. He exposed the aquarium to the sunlight, shading three sides against it, and behold, toward that one pane through which the light fell, thither straightway slanted the whole equivocal kith and kin: mushrooms, phallic polyp-stalks, little trees, algae, half-formed limbs. Indeed, they so yearned after warmth and joy that they clung to the pane and stuck fast there. ‘And even so they are dead’, said Jonathan, and tears came in his eyes, while Adrian, as of course I saw, was shaken with suppressed laughter. For my part, I must leave it to the reader’s judgment whether that sort of thing is matter for laughter or tears.”

This passage, in Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, as Told by a Friend, by the novelist Thomas Mann (1875-1955) features the work of the French biologist Stéphane Leduc (1853–1939), who attempted to show, with his artificial life, the chemical basis of development and growth through the processes of osmosis and diffusion. In her book Making Sense of Life the philosopher of science, Evelyn Fox Keller (1936-present) dedicates a considerable portion of her first chapter to a study of Leduc’s synthetic biology in an exploration of what it means to understand organisms, as opposed to other aspects of nature.

Unlike physicists, Keller observes, biologists do not look for a “theory of everything”, strictly speaking, for:

“Just as the diversity of life, rather than its unity, has historically commanded the respect of life scientists, so too, [she proposes], the epistemological diversity of their aspirations demands our respect as historians and philosophers of science.”

This epistemic shift places a much greater emphasis on the role of description in explanation, leading Keller to conclude that:

“A description of a phenomenon counts as an explanation, I argue, if an only if it meets the needs of an individual or community. The challenge, therefore, is to understand the needs that different kinds of explanations meet.”

Since needs vary by time and place, so too do the explanatory terms that are seen to address them. “Theory”, “knowledge”, “understanding” are such fluid, historically contradictory terms, and their fluidity emerges, in part because:

“As evolutionary beings, there is some extent to which it can not make sense in its entirety.”

These observations place a much greater emphasis on analogical, metaphorical thinking, even while undermining traditional claims to the kinds of understanding they can potentially lead us to. In my previous post on the role of analogical reasoning in Anton van Leeuwenhoek’s study of microorganisms, I pointed out some of the ways in which it helped Leeuwenhoek come to terms with, and develop a working knowledge of, his microscopic observations, while at the same time, by contemporary standards, led him to draw erroneous, though understandable conclusions about the life processes of the creatures he was studying. Synthetic life, based, as it is, on an emphasis on the continuity between the organic and inorganic worlds, is another area that lends itself well to these kinds of considerations.

Whether seen in reductionistic or vitalistic terms, crystallization in particular, and the formation of minerals in the earth in general has a very ancient connection with living matter in western thought. Ancient and medieval alchemy was premised, in part, on the thought that metals gestated in the earth, and had a kind life, could be killed, and reborn in the alchemical furnace.

Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and other early modern alchemists were particularly taken by “the vegetation of metals”, chemical phenomena such as the “Tree of Diana”, Arbor Diana, a dendritic amalgam of crystallized silver, created from mercury in a solution of silver nitrate.

Johann Christian Reil (1759–1813), who coined the term psychiatry in 1808, used crystallization as a powerful metaphor in his attempts to show how knowable forces could be responsible for the existence of life, while later naturphilosophen would use it to demonstrate the vitality of all of existence, the symmetries between the human and the natural worlds, and thereby the efficacy of using analogy, metaphor and introspection in their attempts to understand it.

In 1836, Andrew Cross (1784-1855) a British electrical experimentalist claimed to have produced insects through a process of electrocrystalization and presented his findings in Bristol at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. While not the inspiration for Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein as is commonly believed, (Frankenstein was written in 1818) it did serve as evidence for the self-organization of life in Robert Chambers’ best selling and controversial work, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, published in 1844. The self-organization of nature, whether found in evolutionary or nebular theories, was considered a particularly dangerous concept in England during the 1830s and 40s because of its political connotations for the self-organization of society, instead of a top down model in which a supreme ruler, i.e. God, governed absolutely. Because of the potentially damning political consequences, Chambers chose to remain anonymous for his entire life, but his work is now credited with making evolutionary theories acceptable to the British middle class, creating an environment in which Darwin, having agonized over whether or not to publish his view for almost twenty years, could present them with far less chance of legal action being taken against him.

In an interesting way appeals to analogical or metaphorical reasoning, with all of it’s promises and pitfalls, does seem to consistently undermine established political and epistemic structures, and in some ways is to explanation what the Protestant Reformation was to Christianity, a leveling of authority as each observer is given a new sense of confidence in the validity of their own observations, no matter how seemingly aberrant.

And as for the consequences this has for the creation of living or, semi-living things? Strange, one can only hope.

For More Information:

Keller, Evelyn Fox. 2002. Making Sense of Life: Explaining Biological Development with Models, Metaphors and Machines. Cambridge: Harvard University.

Mann, Thomas. 1948. Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, as Told by a Friend. New York: A.A. Knopf.

strand beast:

Microbial Life, The Myths of Science and the Legacy of Lovecraft

Having just finished Stefan Helmreich’s Alien Oceans: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas, I was struck by a number of things, but, most fugitive, and therefore most interesting, was one parable he recorded, told to him by a postdoc at the Delong Lab at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

This postdoc, described as being interested in alternative epistemologies, spirituality, the writings of H.P. Lovecraft and the French Jesuit, paleontologist and philosopher Teilhard du Chardain, described the potential geological life cycle of methane producing microbes in a subsection entitled “Lovelock meets Lovecraft”:

“Once upon a time, when the earth was young, there was very little oxygen in the atmosphere. Instead, the atmosphere was mostly composed of methane and carbon dioxide and the oceans were warm and shallow. Life evolved to thrive under these greenhouse conditions. Methanogenic microbes feeding on carbon dioxide and other simple carbon compounds produced vast quantities of methane and this methane was in turn consumed by methane-oxidizing microbes found primarily beneath the ocean’s surface. In cooperation with sulfate-reducing organisms, the methane-oxidizing microbes built towering reef cities formed from mineralized carbonate and filled them over countless generations with their collective brood.

And affairs continued in this tranquil equilibrium for one and a half billion years, until the genesis of oxygenic-phototrophic metabolisms and the oxidation of the atmosphere. Life forms able to adapt to elevated oxygen levels thrived and radiated. Meanwhile, those content with living in anoxic places were pushed to marginal zones, to extreme environments– subterranean worlds and still waters, mud flats, and seafloor spreading centers. The great reef cities fell into ruin and were subsumed into submarine strata, a cryptic but lingering record of the lives of these ancient organisms. Despite this catastrophic reversal of fortune, these ancient ones held onto the edges of their once great empire and there they waited.

And here’s the moral of this conjectural tale: They knew, these ancient ones knew, to the very core of their genomic fiber, that it would all be okay, because through their DNA they had bequeathed the knowledge and the drive to return and rebuild. Because it turns out that all of the anthropogenic processes connected to climate change– fuel emissions, deforestation, cattle grazing– may well have the result of bringing back the ancient atmosphere. you see, these ancient organisms are patient. And here are the ironies– a good story always has ironies– they have no imperial ambitions, they have adapted to live and lurk in the marginal zones. But when the madness of humanity resurrected the ancient atmosphere they will be ready and willing to return, to rebuild their ancient dwellings beneath the sea and continue their eldritch cycling of methane. And the primordial balance will return. Until the next big catastrophe.”

The narrative helps to show the influence of Lovecraftian myths for contemporary scientists in the field, and how these myths play into the larger concerns of geological time, the “order” of nature, and critiques of anthropocentric thinking that were themselves part of the cultural milieu that Lovecraft himself was addressing at the beginning of the 20th century. Mythic thinking, is, after all, not reserved to traditional religions but plays itself out in any form of life that finds itself colliding with the uncertainties of acting in the world, even that of science. Indeed, Helmreich’s pairing of James Lovelock, one of the founding fathers of the “Gaia hypothesis”, with Lovecraft, whose myth cycle could be considered the cosmic counterpoint to it (emphasizing the extreme fragility of life and the incomprehensibility of the “inner workings” of existence) consciously plays off of the fundamental dichotomy of a secular mythology contrasting ecological “order” to “chaos”.

For More Information:

The Glassy Essence of Life

Coming to Dresden without much prior research I happened upon the Blaschka House, which, sadly, is not usually open to the public except on special occasions, but does serve as an excellent excuse for a blog post.

The collection of specimens crafted from glass by the father and son team of Leopold (1822-1895) and Rudolf Blaschka (1857-1939) was a rich and rare anomaly of biological modeling. While they largely produced elegant glass replicas of plants, they also made a number of sea anemones, squid, octopai, jellyfish and other invertebrates, several of which can be found in the art gallery at Cornell. The bulk of the collection, however, is held in Harvard after the Blaschkas signed an exclusive ten-year contract with the university in 1890.

When Rudolf died in 1939, he had no apprentices and no one to learn the craft skills behind his glass work. Many of the techniques used to create the Blaschka models were thus never revealed, and I believe they remain unknown to this day.

The choice of materials, glass, is interesting for a number of reasons. Glass was not the most immediate, or common material for such models in the nineteenth century, it was difficult to safely transport and difficult to work with when compared to wax. While it did have an advantage over more common, dead specimens, in being able to preserve the colours and structure of the living thing being modeled, it nevertheless took a great deal of time to make and perfect, and tasked the detailed memory and skill to produce a convincing replica.

There is, I suspect, an interesting, largely untold story about the quest for the basic unit connecting the organic and inorganic worlds in the nineteenth century with the Blaschka’s choice of materials. It culminates in what Bob Brain from the University of British Columbia has termed the “Protoplasmania” at the end of the century. Protoplasmania, a strand of nineteenth century culture that connects Thomas Henry Huxley’s undue excitement over Bathybius haeckelii, what he thought was the original source of all life and turned out to be a chemical artifact of specimen preservation, to french parapsychologists’ attempts to use high speed photography to capture images of ghostly ectoplasm, evidence of the ability of space itself to store memory, and Edward Munch’s “Scream”.

Ernst Haeckel (who lent his name to the short lived Bathybius haeckelii) was also invested in the glassy essence of life. His celebrated Kunsformen der Natur featured a wide array of

glassy radiolarians, whose silicate shells and startling symmetry lent them an alien, primordial appearance.

Haeckel was a friend of the Blaschkas, and lent them books from his library when they were called upon to work on a series of marine invertebrates. It is more than likely, then, that the material choice was not just an artistic statement, but was deeply embroiled in the theories about life and nature involved in protoplasmania, which tied together so much of the art and science of Fin-De-Siècle Europe.

For More Information:

Brain, Robert. (2010). “How Edvard Munch and August Strindberg Contracted Protoplasmania: Memory, Synesthesia, and the Vibratory Organism in Fin-De-Siècle Europe”. In Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, Vol. 35, No. 1.

Charles Lyell, the Sea Serpent and a Lingering Puzzle of Evolution

Most people know the British geologist Charles Lyell (1797-1875) for the role that his Principles of Geology played in helping to ground Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Along with his intellectual mentor James Hutton (1726–1797), Lyell support a principle known as uniformitarianism, the belief that the past behaved essentially in the same way as the present and that massive changes could be accounted for by smaller changes given sufficient time. The most immediate consequence of this being the development of a notion of “deep time”, the vast, almost incomprehensible age of the Earth that played such an important role in arsenal of evolutionary naturalism in the nineteenth century. Yet this was not all, it also asserted that a close study of the earth based upon uniformitarian principles revealed that it exhibited a steady state pattern of endlessly repeating cycles.

While Lyell did support Darwin’s work and was one of the early defenders of The Origin of Species, he often seemed at best lukewarm in his support for natural selection itself. This was a cause for some consternation amongst his fellows, and Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), and others in their circle were keenly aware of his position. It is a valid observation, and often commented upon, that Lyell’s ambivalence to the theory stemmed in part from his religious convictions, particularly in regards to the origin and development of the human animal. However, there were other, more theoretical reasons that also played a role in his discomfort.

Despite the fact that the evidence emerging from the fossil records hinted towards an ever increasing degree of complexity in the realm of organic development and organization, Lyell’s uniformitarian position and his observations of the actual layers of the earth directed his attention to the steady state pattern previously mentioned. How could it be that there was an apparent directionality in the evolution of species if the environments that produced them appeared to pass through essentially the same cycles? If natural selection accounted for the majority of evolutionary changes, that is, creatures changing in response to their environments, wouldn’t there be a certain, set number of variations possible? Indeed, wouldn’t it be possible for these variations to die out during a cycle that could not support them, but to reappear again when the environment returned to a previous state?

This line of questioning then, leads us to the sea serpent.

Lyell was a skeptical and cautious observer in these matters; however, in some of his published writings, and many more of his personal ones, he displayed a keen interest in every account of sea monsters and serpents that he could find. If something from the fossil records of one age could be found alive today, in effect, a living fossil, perhaps it could act as organic evidence for his more radical geological position.

Here the Atlantic provinces of Canada and the New England states of America play a particularly important role. In his A Second Visit to the United State of North America, Vol I published in the year 1849, he writes of a disappointing hoax he was led to in 1845 during his stay in Boston. It was perpetrated by a Mr. Koch, who claimed of his serpent’s skeleton that this “hydrarchos, or water king, was the leviathan of the Book of Job, chapter xli”. Lyell determined the bones to be of an extinct zeuglodon (what is today called a Basilosaurus), dug up in Alabama and arranged to resemble a serpent.

Albert Koch's "Hydrarchos" fossil skeleton from 1845.

 Yet he was forced to reconsider his position after hearing back from a friend of his in Nova Scotia:

“At the very time when I had every day to give an answer to the question whether I really believed the great fossil skeleton from Alabama to be that of the sea serpent formerly seen on the coast near Boston, I received news of the reappearance of the same serpent, in a letter from my friend Mr. J. W. Dawson, of Pictou, in Nova Scotia. This geologist, with whom I explored Nova Scotia in 1842, said he was collecting evidence for me of the appearance, in the month of August, 1845, at Merigomish, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, of a marine monster, about 100 feet long, seen by two intelligent observers, nearly aground in calm water, within 200 feet of the beach, where it remained in sight about half an hour, and then got off with difficulty.”

The creature had also been seen off the coast of Prince Edward Island, terrifying the fishermen, and a year before a similar creature troubled the natives of Arisaig on the eastern coast of Nova Scotia. Lyell provided the following image and commented on its strange, undulating movements:

He went on to describe sightings of creatures from across North America and Norway and observed that not only was it “impossible not to be struck with their numerous points of agreement”, but that a pattern could even be seen in their points of contradiction, namely, in the quality of evidence provided by those on the shore “without their imaginations being disturbed by apprehensions of personal danger”, and the consternation of those fishermen in the water who, more than anyone, should be able to tell a serpent from “an ordinary whale or shark, or a shoal of porpoises, or some other known cetacean or fish.”

However, the sheer number of people shooting the creatures in what they thought to be their heads (an all too common trope in the history of sea monsters), but who did not in fact kill them, was a cause of some puzzlement, and ultimately Lyell concluded that the creature was most likely a large, fast moving species of shark:

“It can hardly be doubted that some good marksmen, both in Norway and New England, who fired at the animal, sent bullets into what they took to be the head, and the fact that the wound seems never to have produced serious injury, although in one case blood flowed freely, accords perfectly with the hypothesis that they were firing at the dorsal prominence, and not at the head of a shark.”

A misunderstanding of the processes of decomposition of marine animals on shore, combined with the optical effects of water was the likely cause of the accounts. Yet even discounting the serpentine nature of the creature, this did not totally undermine his hopes that researches into sea monsters could bring fourth evidence of living fossils.

It is clear that Lyell did at one point believe in sea serpents, but importantly, not fully as given by the narratives he explored. As he said:

“I confess that when I left America in 1846, I was in a still more unfortunate predicament, for I believed in the sea serpent without having seen it. Not that I ever imagined the northern seas to be now inhabited by a gigantic ophidian [snake], for this hypothesis has always seemed to me in the highest degree improbable, seeing that, in the present state of the globe, there is no great development of reptile life in temperate or polar regions, whether in the northern or southern hemisphere.”

He was unsure if the sea serpent was actually a serpent at all, given the climactic conditions then prevalent in the North Atlantic, furthermore little solid proof could be found for their existence that could not be explained in some other way. Yet, like the depths of time, the depths of the oceans provided another chasm of uncertainty and he: “[questioned] whether we are as yet so well acquainted with all the tenants of the great deep as to entitle us to attach much weight to this argument from negative evidence”.

A modern reconstruction of a Basilosaurus.

Context played a crucial role in both his conclusion, and his qualifications, for: “in the first place, we must dismiss from our minds the image of a shark as it appears when out of the water, or as stuffed in a museum.” In addition to this limitation of witnesses, there was also the larger context of the geological record, for even in his dismissal of the sea serpent as a serpent, it did not rule out earlier, larger mammals and sharks.

“[I]n the geological periods, immediately antecedent to that when the present molluscous fauna came into existence, there was a similar absence of large reptiles, although there were then, as now, in colder latitudes, many huge sharks, seals, narwals, and whales. If, however, the creature observed in North America and Norway, should really prove to be some unknown species of any one of these last-mentioned families of vertebrata, I see no impropriety in its retaining the English name of sea serpent, just as one of the seals is now called a sea elephant, and a small fish of the Mediterranean, a sea horse; while other marine animals are named sea mice and urchins, although they have only a fanciful resemblance to hedgehogs or mice.”

The sea serpent could very well be a shark, and still retain its common title, what mattered to him was not so much its nomenclature, as its potential place in multiple geological periods.

Even given this concession, Lyell never found the evidence he was looking for in any of the accounts he collected throughout his life, and today his attempt to demonstrate the circularity of geological periods and the creatures to be found within them seems by many to be one of the misguided inheritances he received from his predecessor, Hutton.

Yet before we judge Lyell too harshly, consider this: Darwin’s own estimate for the age of the earth was 300 million years, based on the rate of erosion of the Weald valley in the sound of England; it was considered a terrible miscalculation by both more geologically inclined supporters of his theories as well as notable detractors such as the physicist Lord Kelvin (1824-1907). Outside of using deep time as a resource for his own theories, there is little evidence that Darwin himself struggled with the concept in any significant way, whereas Lyell, drawing from Hutton, was actively engaged in its more troubling aspects as a theory which then, as even now, demonstrates how ill equipped the human mind is to fully appreciate the consequences of eons.

In the nineteenth century the evidence of the best physics of the day consistently contradicted the vision of the earth’s history provided by the evolutionary naturalists, as well as the geologists, and it was in no ways certain whose account was inherently more coherent, for in truth, they all were, but some were looking at the sun as their guide, others at the snails, and others still at the stones themselves. By the same measure we cannot smugly smile and say: but we have found living fossils, and they do nothing to demonstrate the circularity that Lyell had anticipated, but only the stability of certain environmental conditions, for if we were more circumspect the sheer span of that statement would stagger the mind. Even in these cases, 100 million years, the age of one of the oldest unchanged species known to date, the Schizodactylidae, shown below, pails in comparison to 4.54 billion years of the earth itself.

Image from the University of Illinois.

Schizodactylus monstrosus

Everyone who has watched a BBC documentary or taken a class in biology feels that they know that the age of the earth is now fully appreciated, and its consequences largely deduced. He or she has seen the time laps videos comparing its age to the length of a day, heard the stories of how even in terms of the old measurements based on the dimensions of the King’s body, the human age would hardly account for more than a sliver off of his royal fingernail, and we feel quite comfortable with our apparent insignificance, indeed, feel it to be something familiar and emboldening. In truth we have forgotten its strangeness. Far more existential agonies are forgotten than are ever resolved, and so too it is with the notion of deep time, for we have not tamed it, but merely placed it out of sight, on an enormous rodent’s running wheel, to do its work for us – to be sure it is always an excellent weapon against facile notions of creation – but not really trouble us overmuch.

However, when it comes to the heart of the matter, we are no more capable today of explaining the apparent increase in the complexity of organisms by means of evolutionary theory than they were at the time of Lyell’s writing. The alternative, some plateau or self-contained and consistent state of complexity that is attained sometime after the development of organic beings, still begs the same questions that he was trying to come to terms with in regard to evolutionary changes within a finite series of environmental parameters.

And so, being ask to write for this, the first installment of the Cosmic Standard, I could think of no more fitting way to honour it than to help point the reader to the incredible strangeness of the cosmos, especially and above all in those things which we tend to take for granted. Explore as we may, and explore as we will, it still remains questionable how many places on the map of existence we must mark off, or fill in with fanciful illustrations and consign ourselves to the old and fearful caution: “Here be dragons.”

For More Information:

Benson, Keith Rodney and Philip F. Rehbock (eds). 2002. Oceanographic History: The Pacific and Beyond. University of Washington Press: Washington D.C..

Lyons, Sherrie Lynne. 2009. Species, Serpents, Spirits, and Skulls: Science at the Margins in the Victorian Age. State University of New York Press: Albany.

Their Squishy Intellect, the Mimic Octopus and Cephalopod Ingenuity

The above videos are of the “Mimic Octopus”, which is capable of radically changing its apparent patterns of behavior to resemble those of the animals it mimes, and the celebrated coconut octopus, whose improvisational use of tools is at least on par with that of crows. Indeed, because of displays such as these ethicists interested in animal experimentation have classed cephelopods in a fairly exclusive domain along with dogs, though for many years it was doubted if they were even capable of feeling pain.

As molluscs, cephalopods are one of the closest things to “alien” intelligences on earth, yet the discovery of the giant nerve axon of  squid by John Z. Young in the 1930s was the first opportunity researchers had to understand the electrical activity of nerve cells in action, yet recent studies suggest that a sizable section of the processing power of their own nervous system is decentralized, being located in their many limbs. Though perhaps because of their intelligence, there are some unsettling aspects that often characterize the life of a cephalopod, specifically, cannibalism. The cannibalistic Humboldt squid are known to hunt in packs, using rapid changes in their skin colour to communicate and coordinate the pursuit of prey, and some species of octopi females eat males.

For More Information:

Quantum Eyes, Minds and Mysticism

A comic description of quantum entanglement by Jim Ottaviani

There have been suggestive findings indicating that the European Robin is better able to maintain a state of quantum entanglement than can be achieved in any contemporary laboratory…. In its eyes. This has raised a bit of a hubbub since it is one of the most dramatic cases to date of the ability of biological systems to take advantage of quantum mechanical effects. Apparently, it may be what allows robins and other animals to navigate based on the Earth’s magnetic field.

Quantum entanglement is the condition whereby electrons that are spatially distant are nonetheless able to effect the behaviour of other electrons with which they are entangled. Apparently, faster than the speed of light.

The example used by Jim Ottaviani in his comic on the subject describes two dice, each in a state of quantum entanglement with the other. You could then take those two dice to opposite ends of the galaxy and, rolling one, know faster than information should be able to travel (i.e. faster than the speed of light) that whatever you rolled on the first dice would also be rolled on the second. The manipulation of this effect could make teleportation possible, but, like most things in the world of quantum mechanical effects, states of quantum entanglement are short lived, and liable to collapse.

I first came across the case of the robin’s eyes at the “Witches Voice”. For those not familiar with the popular debates surrounding quantum mechanics and biology, it may seem strange that a news agency that describes itself as “a proactive educational network providing news, information services and resources for and about Pagans, Heathens, Witches and Wiccans” would have any interest in the subject. Yet there has been an ongoing and often unkind debate surrounding the relation of quantum mechanics to biological beings in general and sentient beings in particular which has caused many politically powerful commentators to shy away from the subject as being “quantum mysticism” or “quantum biological pseudoscience”. As early as 1934 J. B. S. Haldane (F.R.S) was theorizing about the the important consequences of quantum mechanics for biology and the philosophy of mind, yet it was only in the 90s and 2000s that these linkages became popular currency.

And so from European Robins we turn to the film “What tнē #$*! D̄ө ωΣ (k)πow!?” or “What the Bleep do we know?!” (2004), which is probably the most well known representation of the kind of quantum mysticism attacked by the standard bearers of hard headed, serious science. While I myself would characterize the film as a feel good quantum fable about the powers of positive thinking, there are those in the scientific community who see it as a palpable threat.

Those who describe themselves as scientific skeptics have set out to ridicule and discredit the film’s underlying premises as soft minded pseudoscience. While I agree that this film in particular is quite light on epistemological reflexivity and care, the scorn that it has attracted belays something that is even more vexing. From the comedian Tim Minchin’s parody of the “water memory” hypothesis for the efficacy of some homeopathic cures to the constant echoing of Richard Dawkins’ 1996 assertion: “By all means let’s be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains drop out”, it is far too easy to make fun of small groups of eccentrics whose explorations and ponderings may or may not lead them anywhere productive. At best it is misguided, at worse, cruel and driven by a kind of disciplinary and social power politics.

Yet in the same way that the robin’s eyes were the occasion and not really the cause of the wild interest among internet commentators, the attacks on quantum mysticism are not fundamentally about the role of quantum mechanics in the phenomena of consciousness or whether or not water has a kind of memory as they are about the reactionary feelings of a scientific establishment that understands itself to be embattled by the forces of organized religion and irrationalism. In the United States in particular this reactionary tendency is understandable, but even then it misses the point on a number of levels, and at its worst is itself a kind of irrationalism.

Firstly, since antiquity groups claiming to be defenders of reason and religious orthodoxy alike have attacked marginalized intellectual communities such as the gnostic and hermetic philosophers to gain political capital in their larger projects, yet this has only really delivered substantial returns when they were trying to court one another’s favour. Orthodox Christians would distance themselves from the Gnostics in their exchanges with Platonists in an attempt to gain legitimacy in their eyes, while Platonist groups often distanced themselves from hermetic and mystical branches of Platonism to demonstrate how their ideas represented the religion of reason.

Secondly, even assuming that the people supporting quantum mysticism are the same supporting the Abrahamic domination of secular society, there are at least a hundred years of history showing how the traditional methods of scorn and refutation do not work (there is a worthwhile article of Dostoevsky’s and Mendeleev’s criticism of spiritualism that brings this point out well).

Thirdly, if the explorers of quantum mysticism are diving into intellectually shallow waters, why so much scorn and recrimination? It seems to speak more of a bad conscience and the aggressively territorial concerns of science as a discipline than scientific methodology and magnanimous reflection.

William Crookes helped to set the stage for the development of wireless telegraphy with his experiments to detect the electro-magnetic presence of ghost, Johannes Kepler’s astronomical discoveries cannot be separated from his astrological concerns and the discovery of the unconscious or subliminal self cannot be divorced from the interest in spiritual mediums and spirit possession in the nineteenth century, so why then should even the most practical of scientists and scientistic defenders not give the stranger and more furtive branches of exploration their own space and place of self-expression?

Most recently an episode of the series “Through the Wormhole” has been brought to my attention, where a number of interesting, quantum/consciousness parallels have been discussed. It’s certainly worth exploring for anyone, mystic, scientistic, or otherwise interested in a debate which as of yet is far from settled.

For More Information: (New! as of February 13th 2013)

Haldane, J.B.S. Jan., 1934. “Quantum Mechanics as a Basis for Philosophy”. In Philosophy of Science. Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 78-98
Gordin, Michael D. 2001. “Loose and Baggy Spirits: Reading Dostoevskii and Mendeleev.” In Slavic Review. 60 (4): 756-780.

North American Robin, Photo by Mark Noseworthy

Shell Shock and Other Associations

My enjoyment of the denizens of the deep oceans is matched by a fascination with the properties of skin, or shells and the variety of ways that nature has found for keeping the outside out, while letting in the things that need to be let in.

Thus I was quite interested to learn about the scaly-foot gastropod, native to some hydrothermal vents in the Indian Ocean. According to Wired Science its shell structure is “unlike any other known mollusk or any other known natural armor”. Making use of iron sulfide, it involves a complex variety of layers interacting which each other to create a novel and incredibly durable form of protection that can withstand heat, pressure, acidity and predation.

Of equal interest is what happens to shells when no longer attached to their original creator. From the use that hermit crabs and other animals make of discarded shells, to the very unusual devices that humans create from them, the shell, unlike most other membranes, has a lasting life outside of its original function. Scientists hope to be able to develop new forms of body armour by understanding the nuances of the scaly-foot gastropod. Aside from the modern obsession for bio-mimicry, or perhaps as a more archaic form of it, shells have been used as musical instruments for at least the past three thousand years, as well as in divination and as a form of proto-monetary exchange.

In the entire domain of human wissenschaft shells serve as an example of the uses that are made of what is unintentionally left behind, while for the organism itself, it speaks of the integrity and resistance of the individual. Psychologically, they are also emblematic of the inability to properly communicate between the inner and outside worlds once some present or imagined danger has passed.

Which brings me to the not so inevitable conclusion of this article, Supertramp.

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Arsenic and the Shadow Biosphere

At 2 O’clock today, eastern standard time, NASA announced the discovery of “alien” life on earth. Found in Mono Lake, California, this bacterial life uses arsenic in the place of phosphorus in its organic structure, making it unconnected to the rest of the biosphere as it is currently understood. Scientists have long surmised that arsenic could play some kind of role in xenobiology. In many ways the element is similar to phosphorus, but, crucially, can not be used by organic systems, and kills just about every known organism. The discovery is being lauded for opening up new spaces of possibility in the search for extra-terrestrial life, particularly on Saturn’s moon Titan. NASA scientists are also hoping that the discovery will help spur interest in future missions to Mars and Titan, and are now considering retrofitting probes to also search for the presence of arsenic.

Yet while many look up to the stars, the discovery gives me some pause to look down, back to earth, and wonder at just what other things may be living, alien, and unknown all around us.

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Statistically Tentacled, the Giant Squid and You

Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World: Monsters of the Deep (1980)

Statistics can drive you mad if you let them, so naturally, when I first switched over to WordPress from BlogSpot I was both delighted and disconcerted to learn all the various ways I can keep track of viewer interest in The Starry Messenger. Still, some interesting trends have emerged over the months, the most striking of all is the sheer number of people who are lured to these pages through the less than innocuous channel of the giant squid.

I’ve tried to keep my own chaotic corner of the internet as eclectic, dare I say eccentric as possible, but over fifty percent of the thousands of hits the site has received since its creation have been directly related to my cephelopodian benefactor. Something about giant squid, or the people who are interested in them, cause more people than any other topic to navigate here, rather than passing over the strangely titled articles on Faust, Monboddo or some esoteric artist. While I suppose this could have been expected, it wasn’t.

Today I’d like to tilt my hat to all those who’ve come here seeking mysteries of a deep and tentacled nature with this 1980s mini-documentary narrated by Arthur C. Clark as part of his World of Wonder series. They hadn’t captured living footage of one yet, nor did they know about the giant squid’s heftier relative the colossal squid, so the aura of mystery is even more profound for them than us.


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Things That Really Get Under Your Skin

I’m fascinated by the creatures which we so often find so horrible, because they can live with us. Pigeons, rats, mice, flies and other infestations. In some ways, I think, our squeamishness comes from the fact that, consciously or not, we see ourselves in competition with them. They eat what we eat, they can live where we live, indeed, they can, if left unchecked, out compete us in what we think of as our own environments.

This documentary takes this theme one step further, to the creature which not only live in the same environment, but for whom that environment is us. Some of which we could not live without, some of which can kill us, and some that are unpleasant to think about, but mostly harmless.

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