Book micro-review: 84K by Claire North

If the conservative vision of the corporate future is mildly annoying, this left-wing dystopia is terrifying. The main character who’s real name we never learn is called Theo. He should be called Winston. He doesn’t work in the Ministry of Truth but in Ministry for Justice assigning costs for crimes to be paid by the perpetrators.

It’s unsettling to see seeds of the dystopian future in the present. Public-private partnerships. Segregation by wealth. Monetisation of convicts’ labour. Use of apprentices as a cheap labour with short self life. Uselessness of university degrees in the absence of “connections”.
Schools curriculum being skewed by commerce – a recurrent topic in modern SF and “The Simpsons”.

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Book review: “Seveneaves” by Neal Stepehenson

“Seveneaves” are two books in one. The first 2/3 are about international efforts to escape to space after the Moon disintegrates. The last third takes place five thousand years after the event and about people repopulating the  Earth. It’s refreshing that the nature of the Agent that destroyed the Moon is never clarified, although I kept expecting that aliens will turn up at the last moment, apologise and rescue everybody. No such luck.

“Seveneaves” strong points are physics and astronomy; I enjoyed Orbital Mechanics 101. Very unfortunately for a book that is equally heavy on biology, it’s not as good.

(contains spoilers)

In the beginning, the book follows a  mostly plausible march of adaptation to mass living outside the Earth gravity with usual surmountable mishaps of technical and social nature. The characters are well developed.

Surprisingly, the death of the Earth population is not the most depressing event. The author wanted to pass the survivors via the narrowest population bottleneck – Seven Eaves of the title – and for that he described sudden and illogical deterioration of narrative and minor characters’ genocide.

The space station loses “Genetic archive” that has been collected to preserve the diversity of human heredity. It was repeatedly stated that the archive is more of a decoy project to keep the doomed Earth population in check. But then the space geneticist (there’s seemingly only one but a profusion of engineers) did not collect any genetic material from the visibly crashing population, even from the last two males.

Even overlooking that definitive majority of Eves are white, the ideas of racial purity and “hybrids [between descendants of different Eves] are fine in big cities” (but not everywhere) sound very peculiar in the second decade of 21st century. The subservient by design race is non-white, which is even more depressing.

The other niggling problems:

  • “The Cradle” won’t work due to atmosphere resistance and lightning strikes. The author had admitted as much in the afterword.
  • Epigenetic has become a buzzword just as nuclear was 50 years ago. But epigenetics cannot rewrite character and one of the races depends on this. 

Despite all of the above, the book remains not just readable but unputdownable until the very end.

 

Book mini-review: Circe by Madeline Miller

Greek gods and monsters made real. A rare book, in which a female first-person narrative rings true. I find that most books with the same point of view are either ‘a man imagines a female inner voice (‘Love after love’ by Alex Hourston) or ‘a woman internalised the convention’ (‘The last man” by Mary Shelley).

The end of “Circe” didn’t satisfy me, though, as if all Circe needed was an unambitious man.

Picking a bone with cuttlefish

 

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Common cuttlefish (Image by Magnefl via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 3.0)

After ethical concerns excluded all vertebrates from the UK school experiments, the only animals to observe are invertebrates e.g. stick insects and snails.

We buy garden snails and students sketch them and feed them various foodstuffs. Apparently, snails like cucumber or bread and don’t like tomato or carrot. We also abandoned giving them sugar as one of the tutors swears that “snails crazy on a sugar rush”.

The same tutor had collected snails and decided to keep them until needed for experiments. She keeps them in an aquarium with moss on the floor and they are so happy that they have laid eggs. Snails need calcium to maintain their shells. My colleagues had a discussion about the best source of calcium – crashed egg shells or ‘cuttlefish bones’.

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The upper side of cuttlebone – not a bone but a shell. It’s comparable to a length and width of your hand.  (Image by Mariko GODA via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Cuttlefish bones? I was surprised. Cuttlefish is a relative of octopus, a mollusk, it shouldn’t have bones. However, all mollusks used to have a shell made of calcium carbonate, it just been lost in snail evolution.  But they have a remnant inside their body called ‘cuttlebone’. I was even more surprised to learn that cuttlebone is not a useless atavism but its chambers are filled with gas and used for buoyancy.

See also: Wikipedia article about cuttlebone contains nice images made by industrial micro-computed tomography.

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Nautilus. The ancestor of cuttlefish looked like it, notice the tentacles. (Image by  J. Baecker via Wikimedia Commons)

Literature:  Rexfort, A.; Mutterlose, J. (2006). “Stable isotope records from Sepia officinalis—a key to understanding the ecology of belemnites?”. Earth and Planetary Science Letters247 (3–4): 212–212.

 

Birds do it, bees do it, even West Ham supporters do it

 

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Starling murmuration – an example of metachronal wave (Image by , via wikimedia Commons, CC-BY)

The world’s most renowned TV naturalist, Sir David Attenborough,  stands in a tropical forest. It’s dark. Suddenly a pinpoint of green light flashes underneath him, in the grass. Another flash, and another until they become too numerous to count. And then a pattern emerges – instead of random light flashes, which would create a steady background, like individual drops of rain create steady rain noise, the flashing fireflies synchronise. They create a rhythm, not unlike flashing traffic lights – or a lighthouse.

The synchronising of rhythms of individual insects is not limited to the fireflies. Perhaps less surprisingly, bees, the notorious collective, do it. Not the torch-like flashing but they shimmer in response to hornet approach.  So do starlings and fish that create mesmerising collective movements.

This type of movement is called metachronal rhythm or metachronal wave.  It’s produced by the sequential action (as opposed to synchronized) of structures such as cilia, segments of worms or legs. These movements produce the appearance of a travelling wave.

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A Mexican wave in Brazil. (Image by Danilo Borges via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY 3.0)

It’s made by reacting and repeating the movement of your neighbours be it cilia  in a single cell organism or a human.  West Ham football supporters (and all the rest of them) succumb to a metachronal rhythm during a Mexican wave.

Literature:

Restless Creatures: The Story of Life in Ten Movements by Matt Wilkinson, 
  • ASIN: B01B39IRJ2

18th century Art on Science: Joseph Wright’s “An Experiment on a Bird in an Airpump”

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“An Experiment on a Bird in an Airpump” (1768). Joseph Wright. 

Unlike his self-explanatory “Alchemist discovering phosphorus,” another painting of Joseph Wright of Derby, “An Experiment on a Bird in an Airpump” (right) is an enigma for a 21st-century viewer. Who are people surrounding the table? Why is the parrot in a glass bowl?

What is an air pump?

I don’t think I need to convince you that air has pressure and you can remove air from a vessel leaving a vacuum – or more likely thin gas – inside. But for people in pre-scientific time air was something indivisible like other elements – fire, earth, and water.

The air pump, which can suck the air out of a vessel, was invented by Otto von Guericke in 1650. One of the lucky first possessors of the air pump was “the first modern chemist” Robert Boyle. You may remember him from Boyle’s Law. Boyle conducted experiments with the pump and published a book about it in 1660. One of the experiments describes air removal effect on a bird:

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