Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Bacterial Sentience? Intelligence? Civilizations?

What counts as “intelligent life” and who (or what) possesses it? These are the central questions raised in Slonczewski’s Children Star. As mentioned in class on 30 April, the difficulty we face in pinning down a definition of “intelligent life” in the novel stems from the author’s use of many different words with overlapping meanings. For example, the novel assumes that intelligent life is sentient, but not all sentient life is intelligent. The characters’ struggle to define intelligent life mirrors our own philosophical and biological struggle to decide what makes life intelligent, or at least sentient. Though sentience is roughly understood in the novel—witness the protesting electric sentients fighting for their civil rights—intelligent life is harder to recognize. Unfortunately for the creatures of Prokaryon, the answer to this question will determine the rest of their lives, intelligent or not.

Questioning the boundaries of sentience and intelligent life is not confined to science-fiction. Like Sarai in her mountain laboratory studying microzooids in hopes of understanding their behaviors, Jacob, Becker, Shapira, and Levine,[1] study bacterial growth patterns and argue that some bacteria, like Paenivacillus vortex and Paenibacillus dendritiformis (pictured top left), are not only sentient, but intelligent as well (assuming intelligent life is necessarily sentient). The researchers base this conclusion on these bacterial colonies’ abilities to “cooperatively make drastic alterations to their internal genomic state and transform into different cells (369).” Bacteria, like humans, are able to transfer genetic material between themselves, i.e. sex, however, unlike humans, bacterial “horizontal genetic transfer” does not lead to reproduction. Thus, the bacteria studied above are able to adjust the genetic composition of their colonies in order to thrive in particular environments, which, in this case, is a Petri dish.

There is nothing new about the above findings. Mircobiologists recognized the genetic capabilities of bacteria decades ago. What is novel, however, are the conclusions Jacob, Becker, Shapira, and Levine, draw from their controlled laboratory studies. One of the central questions arising from these documented bacterial genetic adaptations is how does the colony morph, as a whole, into different, more life preserving shapes? For as the study demonstrates, both bacteria, when placed in an adverse environment, selected a pattern “that maximizes the rate of colony expansion (370).” This beneficial selection, the researchers modestly claim, “hints that the colonial morphotype manipulation is applied to attain better adaptability (370).” These findings hint (show?) that bacteria choose survival and expansion over stagnation and death. Does this choice, even if it be at the genetic level, i.e. unconscious, point toward bacterial sentience?

And what about bacterial intelligence? Intelligence, like sentience, is a value laden term, more so than the term “life.” A tree that grows is alive, so is a barking dog, but are trees and dogs sentient, much less intelligent? Based upon the above findings, it is easy to conclude that the simple act of choosing life is an intelligent choice in itself. However, as Tyler Volk explains in his book Death,[2] autolysis, or self-dissolution, i.e. cellular suicide, is, in many cases, needed for a bacterial colony to continue expanding. Volk illustrates the workings of autolysis by looking at the case of myxococcus, which uses cellular suicide in order to form stalks—harder support structures made from the corpses of sacrificial cells (Volk, 29). Based upon Volk’s work with the suicidal cells of myxococcus (on left), it appears that death is sometimes the most intelligent, and dare I say it, the most telenomical choice.

At this point, after reviewing the findings of Jacob, Becker, Shapira, and Levine, and in light of Volk’s work with autolytic, and perhaps telenomic cells, the question of bacterial intelligence can be answered along two different lines of thought, one biological in nature, the other philosophical in nature. However revealing the philosophical implications of a seemingly telenomic entity might be, this route of analysis will be saved for a forthcoming essay. At present, the issue of bacterial intelligence will be considered from a biological perspective.

So how does a colony of bacteria decide which genetic mutations afford the greatest chance of survival and expansion? Jacob, Becker, Shapira, and Levine, hold that bacteria communicate among themselves, writing, “It is clearly essential to figure out how the bacteria can obtain semantic meaning, so as to initiate, for example, the proper context-dependent transitions between different operating states of the genome (370-371).” Though the researchers do not understand the process(es) by which bacteria code messages and send them, Jacob, Becker, Shapira, and Levine do conceive that bacteria have shared social communicative abilities, which, because of the nature of language, implies a shared knowledge of the semantic meanings of their codes (371). Based on these speculations, it would indeed appear that not only are bacteria sentient (by choosing), and intelligent (by communicating), but that they are also socially organized (but civilized?).

At the moment there is no definitive answer to the question of bacterial sentience, much less intelligence. Unlike the Petri dish bound bacteria above, we humans have yet to codify the semantic meanings of the words “sentience” and “intelligence.” (Which is odd, and perhaps a little telling, because we assume we possess both traits but are unable to define them.) But does there need to be a definitive answer? Biologist John Bonner, best known for his work with amoebae (left), which behave similarly to the bacteria described above, in an interview with Eduardo Punset in Mind, Life, and Universe,[3] refuses to answer the question of bacterial intelligence with a yes or no. Rather he states, “I prefer the idea of continuity and admit the difficulty in defining intelligence,” which Punset interprets as, “Therefore you believe that intelligence is a question of degrees and not, as many hold, that we are intelligent and other animals are not,” to which Bonner replies, “Exactly.” Bonner’s perspective is, I believe, more open mindedly curious and more scientifically sound than a simple yes or no. While Bonner’s non-answer to the question of bacterial intelligence would undoubtedly lead to the destruction of the fictional planet Prokaryon, his unique, and in many ways Buddhist perspective, heightens my sense of mystery and wonder about the microcosmic world I am.

Joan Slonczewski, Children Star, 2010, Phoenix Pick, Rockville, Maryland.
[1] In “Bacterial linguistic communication and social intelligence,” TRENDS in Microbiology, 12.8, August 2004.
[2] Tyler Volk, Death, 2009, Chelsea Green Publishing Co., White River Junction, Vermont.
[3] Lynn Margulis and Eduardo Punset eds. Mind, Life, and Universe: Conversations with Great Scientists of Our Time, 2007, Chelsea Green Publishing Co., White River Junction, Vermont.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Spring Break Wrenchin'

There's not much better than having five days off work to spend time with the fam, drink homebrew, and wrench on a classic truck. The time off was Spring Break, the fam was my cousins and grandparents, the brew was my cousin's homebrewed beer, and the classic truck, a 1953 Ford F-100. If you're into classic trucks, or at least classic truck axles, springs, and frames, then keep on reading.

My cousin Alan, the fiery headed mechanic/homebrewer, has been working on this truck in between his offshore work schedule for the last few months or so. He already had the original straight 6 motor machined 30 over and then painted and rebuilt it himself. Alan also rebuilt the axles and bolted on some sweet Kragar rims wrapped in fresh rubber. The truck has already come a long way from the $100 basketcase my Dad bought seven years ago. So check out the photos and enjoy watching my family and I rebuild a piece of history.
Here Alan and I are breaking down the rust encrusted leaf springs for a nice pressure wash followed by a fresh coast of black spray paint.

Here's the same springs after some long awaited tender lovin' care. The front springs have the brass spring inserts in them (on right), the rear springs still need the old worn out inserts smacked out.

And this why you need to replace the 50+ year old spring inserts. This wasn't even the worst of the old inserts; some of the inserts had done broke in half!

Tip: Always lube up your insert before pushing it in. Doing so makes the whole process go a lot smoother.Here's the suspension parts going onto the frame. The parts in baggies were bought from Mid-fifties Ford. Along with the new inserts shown above, we needed new rear u-bolts, shackles, hanger pins all around, new shocks from Autozone (front match rear), and a freshly cast rear spring hanger. This new hanger (bottom hanger left of red shocks) was a pain to work with, mainly because it was the only straight piece on the rear suspension, which meant it was crooked. A little grinding and smacking got everything lined up.

Alan lightly tapping in the bottom shackle pin. Notice the concentration and accuracy. He knows he's gotta hit this pin straight and easy so as not to deform its outer edge or rotate it inside the insert. You don't want the pin rotating because then you can't align the keeper bolt in the hole on the bottom right of the hanger.

With the springs hung front and rear, we rolled the axles underneath and bolted the whole set-up together. We decided to keep the original i-beam front axle instead of messing with all the new aftermarket IFS kits available for modern classic trucks. The suspension, drivetrain, and body will be completely rebuilt, stock equipment. I think we are gonna spring a little extra dough for power brakes and steering. Maybe even an air conditioner.

Speaking of the motor, here she is in all her oilpanless glory. We can't finish dressing out the motor because the thing is so damn heavy its slowly bending Alan's motor stand, so we support the front of the motor with a 2x4. I swear, this thing looks like goes in a tractor, not a 1/2 pick-up. The transmission is really wimpy looking compared to the motor.

So now we've got a roller. When we started working on the truck we had to carry the frame around from the backyard, but now we could roll it down the driveway if wanted to. Of course we can't steer it yet, or stop it, or start it, but hell, the point is the frame is suspended and rolling on some rebuilt axles with killer wheels. It'll probably be a while before we work on the truck together again, up next we're looking to drop in the drivetrain. Should be a blast. Till then, keep wrenchin'.

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The following blog post was brought to you by Smack Yo Moma Beer, homebrewed by Alan in sunny south Texas. [No, it's not "Smack Yo Mama," it's "Moma," pronounced like "soma," the drug of choice by many esoteric Indian explorers.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Need for Biomimicry

The following blog post is a reflection upon my Sputnik Observatory path focusing on biomimicry: the process of mimicking biological processes in human technological design.
Sputnik Observatory is an online oasis of free-thinking scientists, ecologists, architects, and artists who are committed to informing and inspiring the public with biologically and ecologically based scientific findings.

[To watch the videos online you will need the latest edition of flash. The following wander essay (path) responds to these videos.)

Embarkation: Interconnection and Human Meddling
In his conversation, “Earth is the Place to Be,” Trevor Paglen (artist/writer) speaks about the most important observable phenomenon in social, philosophical, and ecological history: reciprocity, dialectic, feedback; aka, interconnectedness. Using corn as his exemplum, Paglen states, “we have changed nature in a very fundamental way planting all this corn; but the fact that we’ve planted all this corn also changes us in a very fundamental way, too. We are turning ourselves into corn!” (0:27). Although the piece doesn’t allow Paglen to explicate how we are turning into corn, I assume it is partially due to the cattle industry force feeding corn (and other unnatural chemicals) to the cattle which in turn we eat as beef. “We are what we eat:” that feedback loop is a common phrase; however, the twice removed, less common phrase is “We are what we eat eats.”

This second phrase pushes the feedback loop between consumer and consumed deeper into the interconnected web involving farmers and veterinarians, cardiologists and morticians.

It is interesting that Paglen does not mention cattle feedlot diets as a reason why we are physically transforming into corn given the advice of Freeman Dyson (physicist), who appears later on in the same conversation video. Dyson holds that we should genetically engineer usable-energy-producing plants if we obtain the ability to do so. He encourages scientists and engineers to produce 10% more efficient plants—say by genetically programming a black leafed photosynthesizer—that would only require one tenth the land to produce the same amount of energy.

In general I am distrustful of such ideas and practices; especially given that it was logic similar to Dyson’s that brought about the creation of feedlots. By all rationale, feedlots are marvels of efficiency, requiring only 10% of the land to needed to naturally feed upwards of 60,000 cattle at a time. Unfortunately, such efficiency is unnatural and requires hormones, and a cornucopia of other chemicals in order to keep the cattle alive while reconditioning their stomachs to digest corn. Of course corn is a vegetable suitable for consumption; but not for cows. When was the last time we witnessed cattle grazing the vast open corn fields of America?

Contrasting Dyson’s idea of actually engineering plants that would produce energy for us (notice the direction the dialectic is travelling); Janine Benyus (author, biomimicker) argues that a more responsible form of artificial photosynthesis involves us as humans evolving our technologies to mimic nature’s processes of energy production. Her argument about turning our excess carbon dioxide into biodegradable plastics changes the flow of the dialectic, encouraging us to learn and mimic plants and bacteria: the true masters of turning waste into food. Let us mimic natural biological process instead of forcing those processes to meet our needs.

Step 2: Starting at Home
Instead of deluding ourselves in thinking we can control nature—from the stomachs of cattle to the biogenetic make-up of as-yet-un-crafted artificial photosynthesizers—in order to live more comfortably in the world, we should look toward nature’s evolved designs for Gaia-responsible living inspiration. Spring boarding from Benyus’s biomimetic approach, architect Andreas Vogler provides us with visions of biomemic future homes. Worldwide, 50% of all energy is consumed by our homes (0:09), with the other 50% being used by industry. Lowering the amount of energy we use in our homes can radically reduce consumption of natural resources. Yet Vogler has more than energy reduction in mind for biomimetic homes: he would like to craft homes that function as organisms do—plants in particular. Vogler envisions a home that functions not only as a human habitat, but also as air purification centers. These respiring homes can intake waste from the atmosphere, purify through techno-chemical processes, and release a newly purified bioproduct into the home and later into the atmosphere using negative feedbacks. The ultimate vision is, I suppose, to create negative ecological footprint homes; or, phrased inversely: homes that actually benefit and act in concert with emergent Gaian feedback loops. Human technology has an opportunity, and I would argue an ethical responsibility, to direct a proportion of its innovative efforts towards greener living solutions. Our technology should adapt to Gaian sensibilities.

Step 3: New Conceptions of Beauty
Despite how illogical our current use and abuse of nature is, it is apparent that logic and reason are not enough to inspire a change in worldview. One central ingredient in lasting change is positive behavior reinforcement; and no matter how fuel efficient or biomimetic a car is, if it is ugly people will not buy it. What we need is a different kind of beauty; a bio-aesthetic. Michael Hensel (architect) argues for this new look at beauty by asking us to locate beauty not only in crafted products, but in emergent biological processes as well (0:06). With this conception of beauty in mind, Hensel tries to craft dwellings in ways that utilize Vogler’s eco-friendly technologies in a style that encourage intellectual and sensual appreciation of process integrated architecture. Hensel’s idea is to make environmentally responsible productions pleasurable and attractive to participate with (through ownership and dwelling).

[The following literary application draws from Joan Slonczewski's amazing book A Door Into Ocean.]

From Gaia to Raia
Shoran verbs demonstrate the ingrained interconnected worldview of the Sharers. Their language helps them effectively communicate about the world around them, and life on Shora is life in the web. All phenomena are natural and interconnected. Hence, when the Valan colonizers use toxins to ward off sea-swallowers the entire web of life is affected. Valans (at Realgar and Jade) view the world from the for us side of the dialectic. Instead being biomimetic (copying the Shorans living rafts) and adapting their floating death camps to handle swallower season, they decide to alter the web. They prefer separation from the web rather than integration. What else can we expect, they are not sharers. Valans, like the majority of Americans, would rather alter nature than work with her; we find more beauty in material items than natural processes. This latter point is not surprising, for our pursuit of natural resources is decimating what is left of our most primordial source of beauty: nature.