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 The New York Times article has a direct link to the (unpublished, unrefereed) preprint; I guess your average NYTimes reader is expected to be able to follow an original scientific article?
Second, 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.