Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Of farmers, soldiers, workers, and a school bus

Once upon a time Robin Hirsch of the Cornelia Street Café had been an academic, he left it to become an actor and was chosen for the role of the humble bee. Traumatized by this ‘quick descent’ from his early life, Robin was compelled to demonstrate how Mark Moffett’s new book Adventures Among Ants could be used to snap and kill bugs. If host Stuart Firestein had had his way chocolate-covered ants would have been on the menu of the Café for 2nd May. Mark Moffett aka Dr. Bugs and April Gornik, a distinguished landscape painter were the stars of the night.

Part of his motivation in studying ants, Mark Moffett admitted, was to get away talking about weird sex and violence in the pages of National Geographic! Gone are the 70s when EO Wilson’s socio-biology got him into trouble, it is now common to recognize that there really are parallels between ant and human behavior. Ants are social and groups of organisms that live together face similar problems. In his work Moffett pulls out patterns he sees in nature, he also observes ‘cool’ ants and rare ones.

Dr. Bugs made a case for the ways in which ant colonies and human societies reflect and resemble each other, prefacing his talk by telling us that ants have been managing waste and making war longer than we have.

Frenzy: Did you know that Boston beat NY as the most frenetic city in the States? Nor did we, until Mark told us. As ant colonies and human societies grow larger the pace of life increases. Small ant colonies with a few dozen members behave like hunter gatherer groups and tend to move very slowly; there is little specialization and the ants might even have a tool chest built into their face so each ant can do everything it needs. The slowest moving ant is the mud ant which eats snails; its jaw will give your drill set at home a run for the money. As human societies grow larger, people accelerate in order to gather information more quickly; this also happens among ants. Ants assess what other ants around them are doing at any moment in order to figure out what they should do. In larger ant colonies communication gets very complex and diverse; army ants move in mats communicating instantaneously. Larger ant colonies also show a great division of labor; the marauder ant, for example, has a variation in size of five hundred fold with each size having different duties. Assembly line and teamwork emerges as the number of individuals increase. Some ants might act as living road fill, others only haul weights, some only carry stuff, and one large ant ferries around the smaller members of its colony like a school bus. In smaller societies teamwork is harder to organize; Mark prove that by showing us slides of a South American ant species with a small colony size that doesn’t display efficient division of labor. Two ants trying to carry a caterpillar pull in opposite directions and manage to squeeze all its juices out like a wet cloth wrung dry. An entire chapter of Mark’s new book is devoted to agriculture. Leaf cutter ants act as fungus gardeners; they evolved agriculture exactly as we did. They weed and use pesticide by culturing their own bacteria. The smaller colonies tend to cultivate fungus that is genetically diverse while the larger colonies have huge monocultures.

Google Earth Ant: Hunter-gatherer groups don’t need infrastructure but as society gets larger these needs change. The same holds true for ant colonies; one species in Paraguay has highways and dwellings rising up 30 ft into the sky. In human terms, that’s as if each colony were living in the Empire State Building. Weaver ants build nests in trees using larvae; it seems they condone child labor.

Toxicology: Whether it is human society or an ant colony, it holds true that with size war gets less personal. Ant societies have army recruitment systems. They even have terrorism: an ant in Borneo attacks the enemy and detonates (see photo of green gooey ant on the right). It squeezes its body so hard that its gland bursts and throws out toxic material killing enemies. One big difference between the ants and us is that we might use our excess labor for art while ants only use it for war. Like the Romans who put cheap labor up front to be slaughtered, marauder ants put tiny cheap workers in the frontline of battle too. Smaller ant colonies however are more cautious, preferring to fiddle or circle in a ritual, like the honeypot ant, and then separate without mortality. To do this they use tactical deception; in one of Mark’s photo a smaller ant stands on a pebble to appear larger than a bigger ant.

I smell therefore I am: There is a spider that takes on the odor of a colony and is able to live freely amidst ants and eat the larvae of the colony. One of the largest ant colonies in the world, which is to say the largest group of ants that seamlessly merge with one another, is a colony of 1 trillion Argentinian ants in California that extends from San Francisco to San Diego. They maintain a common identity and are turning into a different kind of organism; a super organism that functions more like the cells of our body than as individuals. If you transport an ant of this colony from San Francisco to San Diego it will immediately integrate into the new colony. This colony is now waging war with other species; death toll: 1 million a week. To understand this invasive species Mark went to their original home base in Argentina. Human armies and ants that are perpetually at war will eventually settle on a border after which mortality will go down. In this region however, which is a flood plain, the water levels fluctuate a lot. This drives ant colonies up and down trees and the ants don’t know how to define a ‘no ant’s land’ or stop fighting.

Painter April Gornik who described herself as ‘part of the excess labor force,’ has spent time thinking about nature and trying to figure out the difference between nature and herself. She began as a conceptual artist and then moved to plywood before finally making paintings. Over the years her images started repeating, her obsession with light stayed constant. April’s landscapes are incredibly evocative; some of her early works like Two Rocks (1980) are reminiscent of the symbolist Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin while some others of the French master Corot.

With humor, April illuminated the difference between science and art by showing us a work with a bolt of lightning piercing a water body (Lightning and Water, 1981, Oil on Canvas, 50" x 102," taken from April's site on the right); a scientist had told her that the physics and vision of light wouldn’t work like her painting in real life. She had retorted that she was involved in poetry. Nonetheless, in thinking about art, April has taken inspiration from Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and VS Ramachandran’s work on mirror neurons.

If Mark Moffett hadn’t already put us in our place with the trillion-member alien species so like our own then April’s immense landscapes with their majestic towering rocks, the experience of nature’s fury of thunder and lightning captured on canvas certainly did. We all felt as humble as Robin must have playing a bee.

Storm in the Desert, 2002, Oil on linen, 70" x 115" (From

The discussion session with Stuart Firestein was abbreviated by a last surprise: ‘Lacerating wit’ Roy Zimmerman tuned up for his 8:30pm show in our presence. Roy recently visited the Creation Museum and gave us a quick course, Creation Science 101, on his guitar.

Mark your calendars for June 6th and join us on facebook!

-Abha Dawesar

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Monoculture in wheat and music

PROGNOSTICATING THE WORLD'S WHEAT AND BLUEGRASS on Superbowl Sunday was hosted by Dave Soldier. At the start of the evening Robin Hirsch challenged Dave to link wheat and bluegrass. According to Dave bluegrass music was always based in the idea of agriculture; it was invented by Bill Monroe in Chicago in the 40s who was remembering his home in Kentucky, the bluegrass state. More profoundly, Dave Soldier also pointed out that the real danger to our food source today is not GMO but, as Susie Dworkin’s book illuminates, monoculture. Frank Oteri and the String Messengers are protecting against the monoculture of music. Dave Soldier knows about the culture of music; he is a composer and musician whose projects include music by an orchestra of Thai elephants.

Susie Dworkin is the author, most recently, of The Viking in the Wheatfield. Her talk on wheat disease and the state of agriculture research was entirely gripping. Wheat supplies 25% of humanity’s calories, hence when Norman Borlaug developed certain kinds of wheat resistant to stem rust these were dubbed the “Wheats of the Green Revolution.” They were estimated to have saved some 1 billion people from starvation. Stem rust blows in the wind, hides in animal paws, and in pant cuffs. It descends, depending on wind and weather, into wheat fields.
The hero of The Viking in the Wheatfield is Bent Skovmand, a Danish plant scientist who came to work for Borlaug in the 70s at CIMMYT in Mexico. For 50 years the genes bred into wheat to resist stem rust worked, but in 1999 a scientist spotted the disease again. Named UG99 for Uganda where it was seen, it decimated the Rift Valley and made its way through Yemen. By 2004 it had reached Iran and spun off 4 new races. Between 80-90% of the world’s wheat would die if it were exposed to UG99. 50 million small farms in India & Pakistan grow half of the world’s wheat followed by China, Ukraine, France, and Kansas. The threat of UG99 however remained a scientific secret. Norman Borlaug, sick with leukemia, went to Washington and pleaded for more funding for research which was about to be cut; he asked for, and was given $25 million to save 25% of the world’s calories.
Luckily UG99 hit Iran during a drought buying time for agricultural scientists. Their challenge was immense: Re-breed all of the world’s wheat. They would have to use tissue culture, molecular markers, shuttle breeding, gold pellets, and all the microbiological tools of their tool box; they would have to overcome political obstacles and war. It would still take 10 years to breed a new variety to share with the world.
The big challenge to agricultural research today is the need for funds. After the Supreme Court decided that products of life could be patented, the World Bank and other public institutions started to turn agricultural research over to private companies. This also led to a brain drain among scientists. The private sector’s agriculture research interest was determined only by commercial considerations. Some of the positive outcomes of this were herbicide-resistant soybean which helped Brazil & BT Cotton which helped India become world powers. Half of American plant breeders work on corn and 70% of all the world’s breeders work on patented proprietary genes. The sad truth: A cloud of stem rust pores heading to small farms makes no bottom line difference.
With the world population touching 9 billion by 2050 and 25,000 people per day starving to death today the planet needs a secure food source. Many of the people fighting UG99 are heirs to Skovmand and are looking for the best possible genome to fight stem rust. Genes are stored in gene banks; there are over 20 in the United States alone. In a sense, Skovmand was the central librarian for the wheat breeder’s of the world and he never had enough funding. At CIMMYT he ‘collected and cataloged, multiplied, exchanged and shared thousands of varieties of wheat, its progenitors, spinoffs and its copycat weeds.’ At the Cornelia Street Café, Susie Dworkin story unfolded how the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation came to the rescue at a critical time. Skovand’s lab in Mexico has since worked successfully in collaboration with scientists everywhere. Today a nursery in Turkey has produced 100 lines resistant to UG99 and has sent that out to 30 countries.
But UG99 is still mutating and it well get resistance genes eventually; it showed us that we might actually, as a planet, destroy our ability to grow plants and deplete our resources completely. In a way UG99 was a colossal starting over. There is a doomsday vault the border of Norway and the Arctic Circle where all countries have deposited their seeds, just in case…
Susie Dworkin left us with two big questions that we must collectively answer: Who will guard us against hunger and preserve nature’s diversity? Who owns and controls plant genetic resources?
After this sobering talk we needed Frank Oteri and the String Messengers to remind us that if we might bring ourselves to the verge of depletion then maybe we might resist and survive. Our culture, our music, and our creativity are possibly all we have.
The String Messengers featured Frank York on fiddle and lead vocals; Mandola Joe York on bass vocals, mandolin; Jeff York on atomic guitar; Jon York on middle fiddle; Uncle Murphy on additional vocals and rhythm guitar; Ratzo York on the larger-than-life bass fiddle, with extra strings. The performance was so incredibly spirited that some strings even came undone from the violin and the bow of the cello.
The String Messengers nourished us with their wide repertoire. ‘Being vs Seeing’; ‘Tout va bien’; they performed a nuclear number called Atomic Power (a 1979 CBGB’s sound according to Soldier); in ‘Mole in the ground’ Ratzo York (Ratzo B. Harris) got under 40Hz with his cello (diagnosed once again by Soldier). They performed a piece by Frank Wakefield from the NY bluegrass scene.

A short trialog between Susie Dworkin, Dave Soldier, and Frank Oteri followed the performance. Metaphors of music as sustainable crop and planting new seeds abounded. Frank discussed that the String Messengers are reluctant to call themselves a Bluegrass group because they aren’t typical. Joe’s mandolin is not the typical bluegrass mandolin and the group doesn’t have a banjo player (they fight too much). They avoid being orthodox, even the fiddle is a 19th century fiddle which has been genetically modified with a pickup.
L to R: Susie Dworkin, Dave Sulzer, Frank Oteri

The evening ended with Susie Dworkin inviting the String Messengers to sing at a foreign relations event!
Mark your calendars for the 2nd of May when Stuart Firestein hosts Mark Moffett, “the Indiana Jones of entomology,” and April Gornik, one of America’s most respected landscape painters. Join us at the Cornelia Street Cafe at 6pm and on facebook.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Forbidden Experiment

Oscar night began amiably with puns on songbirds and robins (a reference to Robin Hirsch of the Cornelia Street Café) at Entertaining Science hosted, this time, by Diana Reiss, professor of Psychology at Hunter College.

Tonight’s invitees were Ofer Tchernichovski, Associate Professor of Biology at CUNY who studies the physiological brain processes than underlie birdsong and Deborah Latz who has been referred to as “one of the finest balladeers of our time.”

The convivial introduction did not foreshadow the first video shown by Professor Tchernichovski. Asked by the professor to imagine a life without culture, with no technology, no law and no language, we promptly see the title of his next slide “Feral Children,” and the video plays. We see a young woman in a canine posture bark, and lap at a water spout as a dog would. As she shakes her hands as paws and brushes her face as a would-be snout, the professor’s message couldn’t be more poignant. When Oxana Malaya was found in the Ukraine after being raised by dogs for six years she was unable to recognize herself in the mirror. In feral children, nature has performed a "forbidden experiment" that has allowed scientists to pose the questions: Is there a language instinct, and how does culture influence language and thought? Professor Tchernichovski’s forbidden experiment is to study song-learning in birds by looking at birds raised in isolation. Song birds learn to imitate complex sounds at a critical period of their development but lose this ability as they get older. Humans and songbirds are some of the few species with the ability to mimic the vocal calls of members of their group. In the case of most other animals the sounds they make are hard-wired.

To give us the background for interpreting the Tchernichovski Lab experiments we heard bunting “dialects” from different regions and then the birdsong of birds raised in isolation. These isolate songs are very different from one another, having only one thing in common, they are less structured than the songs of birds raised in normal social surroundings.

In one experiment birds raised in isolation were later exposed to each other. A year after this exposure an isolate male finally mated with a female and started a family. Professor Tchernichovski played us the song of the male isolate founder and then offspring from the first generation and after three generations. You can hear the three birdsongs here. The lab also used recursive training, exposing a young bird to an isolate and then using this young bird as the “tutor” of the next generation to see if the songs would evolve into normal song patterns. Surprisingly, they did. Unstructured songs with bizarre elements settled quickly into more normal patterns with successive generations. The lab has studied and analyzed songs looking at features like duration of syllables. They compared the song of the pupils of the isolates (who mimic the isolates) with the songs of the isolates themselves and found these were neither quite “normal” nor quite like the songs of the isolates. Across generations songs become normal in three to four generations. How so? Sounds that are very long in the isolate get shorter in the version of the pupil (a duration of 270 millisecond being the cut off point). Here.

The birds at the lab raised in a controlled social environment have also been studied by neural imaging with fMRI. These have shown that male and female brains respond differently to songs. Male isolates hearing songs of other birds showed no consistent preferences whereas female isolates reacted like the male birds who had been exposed to songs. In other words, as Professor Tchernichovski put it, “an isolate female is as good as a trained male.” Females don’t sing but they inherently like “normal” songs prior to any experience whereas males seem to need fine-tuning. “Culture is encoded in the eggs of the founder.”

After a brief break Diana Reiss confesses that she always wanted to be a singer as she introduces Deborah Latz. Deborah in turn had always been interested in studying dolphins, one of Diana’s research areas. Deborah, one of Cornela Street Café’s favorite songbirds, had us laughing when she began with a reference to the previous speaker: I am a female and I can sing as a human being! And with such verve! Deborah Latz is trilingual and sang in French, German, and English with Daniela Schaechter on piano, Oleg Osenkov on bass and Elisabeth Keledjian on drums.

The culture for music may not be encoded only in the eggs of birds but it possibly in us too. Regardless of the languages in which Ms. Latz beautifully sang, the audience resounded their applause. Birdsong evolved as a means of attracting the right mate - a kind of sexual selection that may help propel evolution. Part II of the evening made us ponder how powerful music is in the evolution of our own culture. The back and forth between pianist and singer, vocalist and cellist, the harmonies that accumulate and build on one another, creating something unique and in the moment that could never exist except then and there. And of course the appreciation of the audience as a kind of celebratory feedback that furthers art and culture. We didn’t record her at the Cornelia Street Café that night but she has performed with two of the same musicians before in NY.

Diana Reiss kicked off the Q&A section by asking Professor Tchernichovski if songbirds tune up like Deborah Latz. Yes, they do! Deborah Latz said that when she improvised she was inspired by African song. Asked what she learned first in a piece of music Deborah Latz responded that it was melody. And she always tries to make a piece her own as she did that night with “My favorite things.”

L to R: Deborah Latz, Diana Reiss & Ofer Tchernichovski

On that note our evening at Cornelia St ended. In parallel to our evening's events, the Oscar for best documentary had been awarded to The Cove, a film in which our hostess, Diana Reiss, had participated as a technical science advisor. Dolphins recognize themselves in the mirror, learn vocal signals by imitation (like songbirds and children), and can communicate using underwater keyboards with their beaks. Professor Reiss (link to interview) found out about the Dolphin Drives when she published her paper on dolphin self-recognition and later asked Louie Psihoyos the director of The Cove when she met him at a marine mammal conference to make a film on the brutal killing of dolphins in Japan; her own diplomatic efforts with the Japanese government since 2001 yielded no fruit. Though the film has not changed the harvesting of dolphins, art and science together might be able to with your help.

- Abha Dawesar

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Camera Never Lies

At ordinary resolution this may appear to be just a photo of a man's face, but zoom in on the pupil and you can recreate what his eye is looking at. As Shree K Nayar explains, it’s the closest you can get to seeing what someone else sees, short of implanting chips into their brain. Shree Nayar studies computational vision, but tonight at the Cornelia Street Café he’s explaining to a mixed group of bohemians, scientists, artists, and regulars how the very word camera is rapidly changing meaning. Professor Nayar points out that the same fundamental concept has underlain all photography to date, the camera obscura (latin for dark chamber), wherein an image is projected through a hole onto a screen (that screen is at the back of an enclosed hollow, hence the latin). Until very recently, this primary feature has been shared for all cameras, from the earliest mention in ancient times, through the first exposures of Daguerreotypes in the 1800s, through 20th century film, up to and even including the 21st century point-and-shoot digital hand-helds. But today, the stalwart camera obscura cedes to a truly new technological advance, the computational camera. By using concave and convex lenses and spheres, computational cameras can take all kinds of images. As Shree jokes, the ultra-high resolution described above can be used to tell you exactly what your significant other is looking at while your talking to them - so pay attention to the conversation! Other exotic uses are gained with mirrors. We're shown a concave mirror, fitted on the end of a lens such that there are exactly three different perspectives of the same image reaching the sensor of that camera. Before the computational algorithm kicks in, the images that the sensor "sees" look rather odd indeed. Imagine your reflection, then imagine it encircled by another reflection that is stretched like a rubber band to go around not once but twice. . After further algorithmic processing those three images are used to construct a final 3-D image of your face. On the other hand, convex mirrors can be applied to create ultra-ultra-wide angle lenses (ie beyond fish-eye) with applications such as video conferencing where a single lens can be used to video-capture a room full of people.

L to R: Jim Moore, Stuart Firestein & Shree Nayar
Since Roald Hoffmann organized the first series in 2002 with Robin Hirsch, the Cornelia Street Café has welcomed scientists and artists to dialogue together. Today, in the stead of Dr. Hoffman, Stuart Firestein, Columbia Professor of Biology, hosts a show that lives up to the series' namesake, Entertaining Science. No surprise, since Shree Nayar, the Chair of the Computer Science department at Columbia and the winner of numerous awards has also won two prizes for excellence in teaching. As Shree continues his presentation, he tells us that he's taken his passion for teaching to children, showing us one of his latest creations. The Bigshot is a nifty, colorful assemble-it-yourself and crank-it-yourself digital camera designed for children. The idea behind the Bigshot project is to give young people hands-on experience assembling a device that works while they also enthusiastically imbibe the technology behind the piece they are using.

Even if Shree Nayar was no warm-up act for Jim Moore, as he had joked in the beginning, the stage at Entertaining Science is nonetheless shared. Science having spoken, it was Art’s turn. Jim Moore has been performing, photographing, and photographing others performing for his whole career. As a mime he would climb the metal kiosk by Waverly Place and pose until the sidewalk was saturated with bystanders. Then he’d dive into his act. His performer’s act, in turn, gave him a keen eye for capturing the moment within the moment of a performance. And we got to see hundreds of examples in his collections of “Vaude Visuals.” Jim presented his projects with clowns and other performers in depth. In one brilliant shot Paul Zaloom the puppeteer is on the floor covered by baby shoes as if he’s being invaded; the tiny shoes in Moore’s pictures are utterly alive. We also see a great deal of Jim's work during preparation for Phillipe Petit's tightrope walk between the Twin Towers in 1974, including a short clip of an interview with Jim taken during the documentary, Man on Wire. In the months leading up to D-Day Jim had spent extensive time with Petit researching and photographing the roof of the Twin tower which was still under construction, shooting to get views on anchor points and pylons for Petit's soon-famed tight-rope walk. Incredible aerial images of the towers were taken by Jim leaning out of a helicopter with his Nikon while Petit tugged at his denims to make sure he made it back in one piece. From this period we see quiet, but intense drama captured, Petit's anticipation as he sits gazing on the edge of the tower, jotting in his notebook. We see Petit's famed act betrayed by rigorous, calculated premeditation, and of course some of his antics as well, like standing on the edge of the tower balancing a broom on his forehead. But above all, we see the towers. We see Jim's picture of both towers taken from the ground, a commercial airliner flying above, and it's impossible any longer to keep at bay the flood of dread that comes with the marvel of seeing them at all. At once the order of images ceases to matter as Jim shows us his picture, taken from the ground, of both towers enshrouded in fog. How impossible that the man in front of us ever stood in that space. And yet, we see a shot of Jim himself doing a handstand on the edge of the soon-to-be-completed Tower.

Entertaining Science brought together artists, musicians, magicians, writers and neuroscientists on the evening of 7th February. After the formal presentations they asked questions. After the questions they lingered, pondering, conversing, and, we suspect, anticipating the next show.

- Abha Dawesar