Category: Art and Culture

DNA Lego bricks produce nano-sculptures

By Ed Yong | November 29, 2012 1:17 pm

For tens of thousands of years, humans have created sculptures by carving pieces from a solid block. They have chipped away at stone, metal, wood and ceramics, creating art by subtracting material. Now, a group of scientists from Harvard University have figured out how to do the same thing with DNA.

First, Yonggang Ke builds a solid block of DNA from individual Lego-like bricks. Each one is a single strand of the famous double helix that folds into a U-shape, designed to interlock with four neighbours. You can see what happens in the diagram below, which visualises the strands as two-hole Lego bricks. Together, hundreds of them can anneal into a solid block. And because each brick has a unique sequences, it only sticks to certain neighbours, and occupies a set position in the block.

This means that Ke can create different shapes by leaving out specific bricks from the full set, like a sculptor removing bits of stone from a block. Starting with a thousand-brick block, he carved out 102 different shapes, with complex features like cavities, tunnels, and embossed symbols. Each one is just 25 nanometres wide in any direction, roughly the size of the smallest viruses.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Art and Culture, Genetics, Select

Wormholes in old books preserve a history of insects

By Ed Yong | November 20, 2012 7:15 pm

Absence can speak volumes. The lack of sediment in a flat piece of ground—a track—can testify to the footstep of a dinosaur that once walked on it. The lack of minerals in a solid shell—a hole—can reveal the presence of parasite that was once trapped in it. The world’s museums are full of such “trace fossils”, but so are many of the world’s art galleries.

The image above is taken from a woodcut currently residing in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. It was made by etching a pattern into a block of wood, so that the remaining raised edges could be dipped in ink and used to print an image. These woodcuts were the main way of illustrating European books between the 15th and 19th centuries, and were used for at least 7 million different titles.

But as you can see, the print is littered with tiny white holes. These are called wormholes, and inaccurately so—they’re actually the work of beetles. The adults laid their eggs in crevices within the trunks of trees. The grubs slowly bored their way through the wood, eventually transformed into adults, and burrowed their way out of their shelters. The artists who transformed the tree trunks into printing blocks also inherited the exit-holes of the adult beetles, which left small circles of empty whiteness when pressed onto pages.

The beetles only emerged a year or so after the blocks were carved. The holes they left must have been frustrating, but remaking them would have been expensive. So the blocks were kept and reused despite their defects, unless the beetles had really gone to town. The holes they left behind preserve a record of wood-boring beetles, across four centuries of European literature. These holes are trace fossils. They’re evidence of beetle behaviour that’s been printed into old pages, just as dinosaur tracks were printed into the earth.

Now, Blair Hedges from Pennsylvania State University has used these fossils to study the history of the beetles that made them.

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Why did people start mummifying their dead in the driest place on Earth?

By Ed Yong | August 13, 2012 3:00 pm

One does not simply start mummifying one’s dead. Mummification is a technically challenging business that involves sophisticated tricks for preparing a corpse. It’s also steeped in intricate cultural traditions. How does such a practice start?

Chilean scientist Pablo Marquet has tried to answer that question by studying the world’s oldest mummies – those created by the Chinchorro people of northern Chile. The Chinchorro were preserving their dead some two thousand years before the Egyptians started doing so. Rather than just mummifying their elites, the Chinchorro preserved all of their dead – man and woman, elderly and infants. They went to great pains to do so. They would remove the organs and muscles of their dead, reinforce the skeletons with sticks, and fill the bodies with earth and vegetation to get the right shape.  They covered the body in a mud coat and clay mask, and decorated it with colour.

Marquet thinks he knows why these practices began. Rather than simply looking at cultural factors, he has intimately tied the practice into changing climates and shifting population sizes. At the time that they started mummifying cadavers, the Chinchorro had gone through a population boom, driven by rich coastal seas. But they also lived in the Atacama Desert: the so-called driest place on Earth. In such an arid environment, any buried corpses would have taken their time to decay, if they did at all. The very land around them naturally mummified the corpses, and the Chinchorro simply followed suit.

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Why humans stand on giant shoulders, but chimps and monkeys don’t

By Ed Yong | March 1, 2012 2:00 pm

We are like dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants. This metaphor, famously used by Isaac Newton, describes how humans build on what has come before. Everything in our culture is the result of knowledge and skills that have slowly accumulated over time. Without this “cumulative culture”, we wouldn’t have our deep scientific knowledge, rich artistic traditions, or sophisticated technology. Simply put, you can’t make a car from scratch – first, you need to invent the wheel.

Are we alone in this respect? Certainly, many other animals can learn knowledge and skills from each other, and many of them have cultural traditions. But Newton’s metaphor involves not just the spread of knowledge, but its gradual improvement. We build on the past, rather than just passing it along. As generations tick by, our culture becomes more complex. Do other species show the same ‘cultural ratchet’?

Lewis Dean from the University of St Andrews tried to answer that question by presenting human children, chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys with the same task: a puzzle box with three, increasingly difficult stages, each one building on the last.

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OpenLab: The Renaissance Man, and how to become a scientist over and over again

By Ed Yong | December 29, 2011 10:00 am


I originally wrote this feature about the amazing Erez Lieberman Aiden back in June. It’s been one of the most popular posts on Not Exactly Rocket Science over the past year, and it was recently nominated for inclusion in the latest edition of Open Lab, the anthology of the world’s best science blogging. For that reason, I’m giving it another airing.

*******

Erez Lieberman Aiden is a talkative witty fellow, who will bend your ear on any number of intellectual topics. Just don’t ask him what he does. “This is actually the most difficult question that I run into on a regular basis,” he says. “I really don’t have anything for that.”

It is easy to understand why. Aiden is a scientist, yes, but while most of his peers stay within a specific field – say, neuroscience or genetics – Aiden crosses them with almost casual abandon. His research has taken him across molecular biology, linguistics, physics, engineering and mathematics. He was the man behind last year’s “culturomics” study, where he looked at the evolution of human culture through the lens of four per cent of all the books ever published. Before that, he solved the three-dimensional structure of the human genome, studied the mathematics of verbs, and invented an insole called the iShoe that can diagnose balance problems in elderly people. “I guess I just view myself as a scientist,” he says.

His approach stands in stark contrast to the standard scientific career: find an area of interest and become increasingly knowledgeable about it. Instead of branching out from a central speciality, Aiden is interested in ‘interdisciplinary’ problems that cross the boundaries of different disciplines. His approach is nomadic. He moves about, searching for ideas that will pique his curiosity, extend his horizons, and hopefully make a big impact. “I don’t view myself as a practitioner of a particular skill or method,” he tells me. “I’m constantly looking at what’s the most interesting problem that I could possibly work on. I really try to figure out what sort of scientist I need to be in order to solve the problem I’m interested in solving.”

It’s a philosophy that has paid dividends. At just 31 years of age, Aiden has a joint lab at MIT and Harvard. In 2010, he won the prestigious $30,000 MIT-Lemenson prize, awarded to people who show “exceptional innovation and a portfolio of inventiveness”. He has seven publications to his name, six of which appeared the world’s top two journals – Nature and Science. His friend and colleague Jean-Baptiste Michel says, “He’s truly one of a kind. I just wonder about what discipline he will get a Nobel Prize in!”

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Beauty is in the brain of the beholder

By Ed Yong | July 6, 2011 5:00 pm

What happens when I stare at Portrait of Madame X or listen to Air on a G String? Both at intensely beautiful to me, but they are different experiences that involve different senses. Nonetheless, the sight of Sargent’s pigments and the sound of Bach’s notes trigger something in common – a part of the brain that lights up when we experience feelings of beauty, no matter how we experience them.

Tomohiro Ishizu and Semir Zeki from University College London watched the brains of 21 volunteers as they looked at 30 paintings and listened to 30 musical excerpts. All the while, they were lying inside an fMRI scanner, a machine that measures blood flow to different parts of the brain and shows which are most active. The recruits rated each piece as “beautiful”, “indifferent” or “ugly”.

The scans showed that one part of their brains lit up more strongly when they experienced beautiful images or music than when they experienced ugly or indifferent ones – the medial orbitofrontal cortex or mOFC.

Several studies have linked the mOFC to beauty, but this is a sizeable part of the brain with many roles. It’s also involved in our emotions, our feelings of reward and pleasure, and our ability to make decisions. Nonetheless, Ishizu and Zeki found that one specific area, which they call “field A1” consistently lit up when people experienced beauty.

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The Renaissance man: how to become a scientist over and over again

By Ed Yong | June 8, 2011 8:00 am

Erez Lieberman Aiden is a talkative witty fellow, who will bend your ear on any number of intellectual topics. Just don’t ask him what he does. “This is actually the most difficult question that I run into on a regular basis,” he says. “I really don’t have anything for that.”

It is easy to understand why. Aiden is a scientist, yes, but while most of his peers stay within a specific field – say, neuroscience or genetics – Aiden crosses them with almost casual abandon. His research has taken him across molecular biology, linguistics, physics, engineering and mathematics. He was the man behind last year’s “culturomics” study, where he looked at the evolution of human culture through the lens of four per cent of all the books ever published. Before that, he solved the three-dimensional structure of the human genome, studied the mathematics of verbs, and invented an insole called the iShoe that can diagnose balance problems in elderly people. “I guess I just view myself as a scientist,” he says.

His approach stands in stark contrast to the standard scientific career: find an area of interest and become increasingly knowledgeable about it. Instead of branching out from a central speciality, Aiden is interested in ‘interdisciplinary’ problems that cross the boundaries of different disciplines. His approach is nomadic. He moves about, searching for ideas that will pique his curiosity, extend his horizons, and hopefully make a big impact. “I don’t view myself as a practitioner of a particular skill or method,” he tells me. “I’m constantly looking at what’s the most interesting problem that I could possibly work on. I really try to figure out what sort of scientist I need to be in order to solve the problem I’m interested in solving.”

It’s a philosophy that has paid dividends. At just 31 years of age, Aiden has a joint lab at MIT and Harvard. In 2010, he won the prestigious $30,000 MIT-Lemenson prize, awarded to people who show “exceptional innovation and a portfolio of inventiveness”.  He has seven publications to his name, six of which appeared the world’s top two journals – Nature and Science. His friend and colleague Jean-Baptiste Michel says, “He’s truly one of a kind. I just wonder about what discipline he will get a Nobel Prize in!”

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A child couldn’t paint that – can people tell abstract art from a child’s or chimp’s work?

By Ed Yong | March 14, 2011 10:00 am

If you wander through New York’s Museum of Modern Art, you’ll eventually come across Painting Number 2 by Franz Kline, a set of thick, unruly black lines on a white canvas. Elsewhere, you will find one of Mark Rothko’s many untitled works, consisting of various coloured rectangles. And in front of both paintings, you will inevitably find visitors saying, “A child could paint that.”

To which Angelina Hawley-Dolan and Ellen Winner replied: “Could they?”

The duo wanted to test the assertion that abstract expressionist art is devoid of talent – that it could be done by a mere child, or even an animal. With keyboards and enough time, monkeys could surely duplicate Shakespeare, but with a paintbrush and a few hours, could a monkey produce a Rothko?

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Prehistoric Brits made the world’s earliest skull-cups

By Ed Yong | February 16, 2011 4:49 pm

Here are some we made earlier...

“The skull of Wynric Lance, failed claimant to the throne of Eirea, does not make as good a wine goblet as Lord Shryke had imagined, the despot revealed Monday. “This damn thing is practically impossible to drink out of,” said Shryke at a banquet celebrating the defeat of the Army Of Light… Shryke concluded that while he might end up drinking from Lance’s skull “occasionally, for show,” he plans to retain his set of brass flutes for everyday use.” – The Onion

Stock fantasy villains might like to drink from the skulls of their enemies, but the practice has its roots in historical reality. For thousands of years, humans have turned each others’ skulls into containers and drinking cups. Now, Silvia Bello from London’s Natural History Museum has found the oldest skull-cups ever recorded in a cave in Somerset, England.

Gough’s Cave is found in the Cheddar Gorge near Bristol. It’s a treasure trove of human remains, including Cheddar Man, the country’s oldest complete human skeleton. He lived around 9,000 years ago, but the cave’s oldest human fragments date back even further.

These include three skull-cups that Bello recovered in excellent condition. Two belonged to adults and one to a 3-year-old child. All of them were made by the Magdelanian culture, a group of prehistoric people who lived in Western Europe. No one knows how they used the grisly cups, but it’s clear that they manufactured them with great control. They all bear a large series of dents and cut-marks that were precisely inflicted.

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Do young female chimps play with sticks as dolls?

By Ed Yong | December 20, 2010 12:00 pm

Chimp_stick

In Kibale National Park, Uganda, female chimps have taken to carrying sticks around with them. There’s nothing obviously unusual about that – chimps are clever tool-users, who use sticks as probes, projectiles and spears. But these chimps aren’t doing very much with their sticks – they simply hold and cradle them while they go about their usual business.

Sonya Kahlenberg and Richard Wrangham think they know why. They suggest that the stick-carrying chimps are playing at being mothers. Their sticks are the chimp equivalents of human dolls and the chimps treat them like pretend infants.

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