You are being watched

By Daniel Holz | April 22, 2009 9:42 am

Today is Earth Day. We should probably all be outside celebrating Spring (or Fall, for those upside-down). But if you insist on remaining indoors, glued to a computer screen, here are two things of note:

First, befitting Earth Day, there’s a press release on the discovery of an Earth-sized planet (well, at least double the size, but that’s essentially identical by astronomical standards). The orbital period is 3 days, which means it is way too close to its sun to harbor life. But it’s just a matter of time before we find another Earth. The New York Times article has a direct link to the (unpublished, unrefereed) preprint; I guess your average NYTimes reader is expected to be able to follow an original scientific article?

treeSecond, there’s an interesting blog post by Kevin Kelly on how Nature produces “intelligence” (hat-tip to Mike Warren). The article describes how trees can “see” their environment:

Light reflected from nearby vegetation is richer in far-red wavelengths than unreflected light. Plants can use this information to not only see shade, but to anticipate the likelihood of shading by a competitor in the future. “When a change in the balance of red to far-red radiation is perceived,” says Trewavas, “an integrated adaptive response in phenotype structure [of the plant] results. New branches grow away from the putative competitor, stem growth is increased; the rate of branching diminishes, and such branches assume a more vertical direction: leaf area increases in anticipation of reduced incident flux; and the number of layers of leaf cells containing chlorophyll diminishes.”

And here’s what rock ants (with 100,000 neurons) can do:

To assess the potential of a new nesting site, rock ants will measure the dimensions of the room in total darkness and then calculate – and that is the proper word – the volume and desirability of it. For many millions of years, rock ants have used a mathematical trick that was only discovered by humans in 1733. Rock ants can estimate the volume of a space, even an irregular shaped one, by randomly laying a scent trail across the floor of the space, “recording” the length of that line, and then counting the number of times it encounters that scented line during additional diagonal runs across the floor. The calculated area is inversely proportional to the frequency of intersections times length. In other words, the ants discovered an approximate value for Π derived by intersecting diagonals.

The post then goes on to speculate about the minds we’re building into our technology. It gets a little science-fictiony for my taste, but one interesting site it links to is 20 questions. It’s quite entertaining, and can be eerily accurate. But stop playing the game, and go outside and take a long walk. And remember, the trees are watching.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Gardening, Science and Society
  • Ross

    Although the average reader probably shouldn’t be expected to follow an original scientific article, I think the New York Times should be commended for linking to a preprint. A link can be easily ignored by those who can’t or don’t want to read the paper, gives context for those who can and do, and, most importantly, makes it easier for experts (like you!) to comment on the article. Scientific journalism would be for the better if every article linked to the paper it reported on.

  • daniel

    Ross, I totally agree. This is actually one of the first times I’ve seen a paper directly linked off of a news article, which is why I remarked upon it. Many times there’s a press release, and not only is there no peer-reviewed paper, but there isn’t even a preprint. It’s just people talking. The journalists should always confirm that there is at least some substance behind the claims. And it’s very convenient to have the material linked in this way. One could argue that it should be a requirement that science articles always have links to supporting material. Perhaps all articles should?

  • JR Minkel

    The Times has been linking to scientific papers for a while now. Check their 2006 story on element 118. It inspired me to try it for a few articles I wrote on but the habit didn’t stick. Not sure but I think Wired Science or Ars Technica might link to the research articles.

  • Cobez

    Near my house is a section of redwoods. As you know, redwoods grow vertically and tall. A few oak trees have developed near these, and these oaks contrast ones not under the redwoods in that they too have grown vertically strait and have reached impressive heights, with wider, thinner leaves as stated. No doubt these oaks have “intelligence” capabilities as described. Once again, nature impresses me.

  • Ahmed

    Ok, so that stuff about the rock ants was just plain astonishing. The tree behavior was simple enough to think about in terms of evolutionary change, but the evolutionary psychology of insects (100 000 neurons is not bad) gives me a bad case of wow.

    Think about it.. how did it happen? They must have evolved the random laying down of scent trails (impulse to walk randomly and secrete stuff) at some point close to the time when the other mutation happened, otherwise it would be a disadvantage due to the waste of energy involved. A few of them then did this ‘recording’ business (another mutated behavioral quirk, probably a series of quirks) and finally there came the counting. It could have happened in a different order (a group liked to count things based on a release of positive enzymes when the counting business occurred, then the counting developed into length estimation..etc). It’s still fascinating whatever the order was, especially as this behavior occurs in ants that need it (rock ants), which is independent of the events.

    I am trying to imagine how I could write an genetic algorithm that would produce a code snippet to do this (in a high level computing language, or just psuedocode).. it’s pretty effing hard. In fact I have never thought about calculating volume this way, and I have been doing all sorts of math (including creative stuff) since the age of about 4. I’m going to look it up on wikipedia after this. And that’s just one tiny little thing these ants have evolved in that puny little brain. One thing. One group of decisions from the thousands they make every day.

    There are a lot of shocking things in nature, but sometimes one needs to sit back and marvel a little bit at how lucky we are to comprehend all this. You provided a paragraph of text that described something fascinating (and very very unlikely) inside the brain of an ant, and I sat here and tried to reflect with you about it.


    Thanks for the post! I need to to read this blog more often.


  • Ahmed


    Alright, so I usually find whatever I write Friday night to be great reading for the next day, entertainment-wise, and this is a prime case. Sorry for the overuse of parentheses folks, I hail from the world of computation (comp sci) after all. We lurrrve the little curved brackets.



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