For my May 2006 diary, go here.

Diary - June 2006

John Baez

June 2, 2006

It's been a hectic 72 hours. On Wednesday I gave a colloquium at the Perimeter Institute (in Waterloo, Ontario). Later I had dinner with Fotini Markopoulou and Lee Smolin at a great restaurant called Jane Bond; we talked about quantum mechanics. Thursday morning I got up early and rented a car. Waiting for the car rental company to pick me up, I ran into Jeffrey Bub, who turned out to have given a talk on Tuesday about the the importance of our inability to duplicate quantum information - also a theme of my talk. He'd asked a good question at my talk, but I hadn't recognized him!

Anyway, I drove an hour and a half to the University of Western Ontario (in London, Ontario) where I spoke to Dan Christensen about homotopy theory and gave a lecture on where we stand in fundamental physics. I had dinner at a Thai restaurant with Dan, his student Igor Khavkine and his postdoc Josh Willis. We talked about spin foam models, especially Josh's new paper. I spent the night in a hotel in London, and today (Friday) I had breakfast with Dan and we talked more about our joint math projects. Then I drove back to Waterloo, took a cab to Toronto, and flew to Boston.

Insane, really - I'm not really practiced enough to stay completely calm while trying to make so many connections. I easily imagine all the things that could go wrong. But it all somehow worked, despite getting lost about 4 times while driving to London, and a flight delay due to thunderstorms in Boston.

Now I'm in Cambridge Massachusetts, in Kendall Square - right next to my old grad school, MIT. I'm here for some top-secret business that I've love to talk about, but can't. I'm staying at the Kendall Hotel. I don't think it was here back when I was a grad student (1982-1986). It may have still been a firehouse. Kendall Square was pretty dumpy back then, but part of why I wanted to come here was to see how Cambridge has changed.

I can already tell it's gotten gentrified, just like everyone says. As I was checking in here, someone walking out asked their friend "Did you know this is the most trendy boutique hotel in Cambridge?"

Woooh! I feel like a bigshot now. They probably pay some guy to keep walking in and out, saying that. Back when I was a longhaired grad student, I don't think the phrase "boutique hotel" had even been invented. There were fewer rich people; fewer poor people too.

I need some sleep, even though internet access makes me want to stay awake and have fun....

June 4, 2006

My father had a stroke. It sounded very scary in the email I got from my sister yesterday. When I called my mom yesterday she said he had already recovered to the point of being able to talk and walk. She was making him do lots of exercise. Today I called her again and my father answered. "Hi!" he said, "What a surprise!" He was expecting my uncle. I was the one who was surprised - shocked, in fact, that he sounded so hearty, and so obviously not just faking it. Whew - amazing! I was and am planning to visit them in two days. I'm relieved that it won't be a tragic occasion.

June 5, 2006

An interesting article on the rise of people who plan to remain single all their lives:

Some statistics:

June 13, 2006

I'm back at the Perimeter Institute - back from visiting my parents in DC. I was immensely relieved to find my dad hadn't suffered visibly from that stroke, or whatever it was - it's not even clear what it was. He's not much changed from how I saw him last. Unfortunately, this means that he is forgetful, arthritic, and very weak; he needs a walker to get around, and moves very slowly. He only gets out of the house when my mother drives him to the library or to his physical therapist. He finds this depressing - he says it's like he's already entered the afterlife. Somehow he manages to soldier on. I naturally found myself thinking about his future, and mine... how we'll probably all wind up in nursing homes.

When we're young we do a great job of ignoring these issues. When we're middle-aged it's easy to lose ourselves in work and raising of children. It's surprising how long we can go on pretending old age and death are things that happen to other people. But the hand of time hangs heavy on us all.

I could say much more, but I'm not quite sure how personal I want this diary to be. Here's a picture of my parents' house:

You can also see a closeup - my mom helped design this house, and she's very proud of it. Also: my dad, my mom, and a necklace my mom made - she spends a lot time creating jewelry these days.

Here are some notes from the clash of civilizations, written while reading the Washington Post when I was visiting my parents in DC:

I've been reading a quirky and fascinating book on the history of Chicago and its architecture: The energetic optimism of Chicago in the late 1800s was something really unique. It was picked up by Sullivan and others... though they rejected aspects of its rampant commercialism. It's nice thinking back on the Chicago architecture tour that Tom Fiore took me on not long ago. We saw some buildings by Sullivan.

Today I went on a little tour of Institute for Quantum Computing with Scott Aaronson. Raymond LaFlamme showed me his nuclear magnetic resonance lab, and also the lab where they create entangled photons for quantum cryptography. With any luck, at the end of June they'll beam pairs of entangled photons to the IQC and Perimeter Institute from a taller building somewhere between the two. This will allow them to communicate in a way that nobody can intercept without it being noticeable. Not that the IQC and Perimeter Institute have anything secret to talk about! Just a demonstration.

After Indian food and lunchtime discussion at the IQC, I felt a bit listless from lack of sleep the previous night, which I'd spent writing "week234". Luckily, John Moffat came by my office to talk about a fiendishly clever attempt to solve the cosmological constant problems using parastatistics. Alas, my technical understanding of parastatistics is almost zilch, but we still had an interesting conversation.

Then I whiled away the rest of the day correcting the dissertation of my student Toby Bartels and attaching emails about music theory to the Addenda of "week234".

Right now I'm listening to Miles Davis' E.S.P., wondering yet again why more people don't say this is his greatest album.

The fact that I'm sitting here listing the things I did today, instead of actually doing something, is yet another sign that I'm feeling low-energy.

June 14, 2006

At 11 am I had an appointment to talk with Howard Burton, executive director of the Perimeter Institute. Among other things, we discussed the future of fundamental physics. We agreed that dark matter, dark energy and other cosmological issues are where it's at. He wondered: will we understand them better in 20 years or so? None of our current theories seem to be making much of a dent in these questions.

I tried out my latest idea on him: finding a real solution to these questions might require years of fumbling around with crude theories that seem "insufficiently elegant" to people raised on the Standard Model, string theory or loop quantum gravity. Something more like Balmer's formula or the Bohr atom than Schrödinger equation. Balmer was a teacher at a girl's school in Switzerland who dreamt up a formula for some of of the frequencies of light emitted by hydrogen. Later Rydberg generalized it to get the other frequencies.

If some high school teacher proposed this formula today, would we dismiss it as mere coincidence, noting that it doesn't work for other atoms? We seem to think physics has progressed beyond this point now... but has it, really? MOND (modified Newtonian dynamics) has a similar jury-rigged quality: it does surprisingly well as a competitor to dark matter for explaining the anomalous rotation of many galaxies, but it does badly on other things. Maybe it has a kernel of truth. Maybe it will take a Bohr to spot that kernel of truth, and then a Schrödinger or Heisneberg to formalize it.

Later, John Donghue gave a talk about quantum gravity corrections to the 1/r2 force law, derived from effective field theory. Nice stuff! Any solid piece of information about quantum gravity is a precious gem.

Another low-energy day - apart from the above, I mainly kept myself occupied by adding comments to the Addenda section of week234, which was about the math of music. It's fascinating how many of my math friends had deep things to say about this. It seems to support the stereotype that a lot of mathematicians are into music. Like math, music can take us outside ourselves, into a beautiful world of abstract patterns, where everything is right. For a while, at least, it lifts that hand of time that lays so heavy on us.

June 15, 2006

Dan Christensen came by and we continued our work on smooth homotopy theory. The ups and downs of research: we almost decided to give up on this project, when I mentioned an idea we had at the end of our last session... we got excited, talked a bunch more, and when we had to quit, things seemed to be working just fine!

We took break for listening to talks about loop quantum gravity and black entropy by Danny Terno, Saurya Das and Arundhati Dasgupta. I think I've put in too much time working on this subject to find it interesting or even bearable anymore. It doesn't help that I have a headache.

Martin Rees writes:

Once the threshold is crossed when there is a self-sustaining level of life in space, then life's long-range future will be secure irrespective of any of the risks on Earth (with the single exception of the catastrophic destruction of space itself). Will this happen before our technical civilisation disintegrates, leaving this as a might-have-been? Will the self-sustaining space communities be established before a catastrophe sets back the prospect of any such enterprise, perhaps foreclosing it for ever? We live at what could be a defining moment for the cosmos, not just for our Earth.
This is from: He also writes:
At the moment, scientific effort is deployed sub-optimally. This seems so whether we judge in purely intellectual terms, or take account of likely benefit to human welfare. Some subjects have had the 'inside track' and gained disproportionate resources. Others, such as environmental researches, renewable energy sources, biodiversity studies and so forth, deserve more effort. Within medical research the focus is disproportionately on cancer and cardiovascular studies, the ailments that loom largest in prosperous countries, rather than on the infections endemic in the tropics. Choices on how science is applied shouldn't be made just by scientists. That's why everyone needs a 'feel' for science and a realistic attitude to risk - otherwise public debate won't get beyond sloganising. Jo Rotblat favoured a 'Hippocratic' Oath' whereby scientists would pledge themselves to use their talents to human benefit. Whether or not such an oath would have substance, scientists surely have a special responsibility. It's their ideas that form the basis of new technology.

We feel there is something lacking in parents who don't care what happens to their children in adulthood, even though it's generally beyond their control. Likewise, scientists shouldn't be indifferent to the fruits of their ideas their intellectual creations. They should plainly forgo experiments that are themselves risky or unethical. More than that, they should try to foster benign spin-offs, but resist, so far as they can, dangerous or threatening applications. They should raise public consciousness of hazards to environment or to health.

The decisions that we make, individually and collectively, will determine whether the outcomes of 21st century sciences are benign or devastating. Some will throw up their hands and say that anything that is scientifically and technically possible will be done - somewhere, sometime - despite ethical and prudential objections, and whatever the laws say - that science is advancing so fast, and is so much influenced by commercial and political pressures, that nothing we can do makes any difference. Whether this idea is true or false, it's an exceedingly dangerous one, because it's engenders despairing pessimism, and demotivates efforts to secure a safer and fairer world. The future will best be safeguarded - and science has the best chance of being applied optimally - through the efforts of people who are less fatalistic. And here I am optimistic. The burgeoning technologies of IT, miniaturisation and biotech are environmentally and socially benign. The challenge of global warming should stimulate a whole raft of manifestly benign innovations - for conserving energy, and generating it by novel 'clean' means (biofuels, innovative renewables, carbon sequestration, and nuclear fusion). Other global challenges include controlling infectious diseases; and preserving biodiversity.

These challenging scientific goals should appeal to the idealistic young. They deserve a priority and commitment from governments, akin to that accorded to the Manhattan project or the Apollo moon landing.

I've spoken as a scientist. But my special subject is cosmology - the study of our environment in the widest conceivable sense. I can assure you, from having observed my colleagues, that a preoccupation with near-infinite spaces doesn't make cosmologists specially 'philosophical' in coping with everyday life. They're not detached from the problems confronting us on the ground, today and tomorrow. For me, a 'cosmic perspective' actually strengthens my concerns about what happens here and now: I'll conclude by explaining why. The stupendous timespans of the evolutionary past are now part of common culture. We and the biosphere are the outcome of more than four billion years of evolution,but most people still somehow think we humans are necessarily the culmination of the evolutionary tree. That's not so. Our Sun is less than half way through its life. We're maybe only the half way stage. Any creatures witnessing the Sun's demise 6 billion years hence won't be human - they'll be as different from us as we are from bacteria.

But, even in this 'hyper-extended' timeline - extending billions of years into the future, as well as into the past - this century may be a defining moment. The 21st century is the first in our planet's history where one species has Earth's future in its hands, and could jeopardise life's immense potential. I'll leave you with a cosmic vignette. We're all familiar with pictures of the Earth seen from space - its fragile biosphere contrasting with the sterile moonscape where the astronauts left their footprints. Suppose some aliens had been watching our planet for its entire history, what would they have seen? Over nearly all that immense time, 4.5 billion years, Earth's appearance would have altered very gradually. The continents drifted; the ice cover waxed and waned; successive species emerged, evolved and became extinct.

But in just a tiny sliver of the Earth's history - the last one millionth part, a few thousand years - the patterns of vegetation altered much faster than before. This signaled the start of agriculture. The pace of change accelerated as human populations rose.

But then there were other changes, even more abrupt. Within fifty years - little more than one hundredth of a millionth of the Earth's age, the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere began to rise anomalously fast. The planet became an intense emitter of radio waves (the total output from all TV, cellphone, and radar transmissions.)

And something else unprecedented happened: small projectiles lifted from the planet's surface and escaped the biosphere completely. Some were propelled into orbits around the Earth; some journeyed to the Moon and planets.

If they understood astrophysics, the aliens could confidently predict that the biosphere would face doom in a few billion years when the Sun flares up and dies. But could they have predicted this unprecedented spike less than half way through the Earth's life -these human-induced alterations occupying, overall, less than a millionth of the elapsed lifetime and se emingly occurring with runaway speed?

If they continued to keep watch, what might these hypothetical aliens witness in the next hundred years? Will a final spasm be followed by silence? Or will the planet itself stabilise? And will some of the objects launched from the Earth spawn new oases of life elsewhere?

The answer depends on us.

Simple stuff, but worth remembering. This is from:

June 17, 2006

Reading a copy of The New York Review of Books in a cafe on a hot day here in Waterloo, sipping a raspberry-cranberry smoothie, I was struck by a couple of poems from this book:


Tonight, for the first time in many years
there appeared to me again
a vision of the earth's splendor:

in the evening sky
the first star seemed
to increase its brilliance
as the earth darkened

until at last it could grow no darker
And the light, which was the light of death
seemed to restore to earth

its power to console. There were
no other stars. Only the one
Whose name I knew

as in my other life I did her
injury: Venus,
star of the early evening,

to you I dedicate
my vision, since on this blank surface

you have cast enough light
to make my thought
visible again.

June 18, 2006

This was my last weekend in Waterloo. My student Jeff Morton showed up today - he couldn't make it sooner, since final exams just ended at UCR - and we talked a bit with Aristide Baratin about Freidel and Baratin's new paper describing a spin foam model that gives ordinary quantum field theory on Minkowski spacetime. I'm pretty excited, because we conjecture that this spin foam model is the same as Crane and Sheppeard's spin foam model based on a gadget I invented called the Poincaré 2-group. Higher category theory may finally be sneaking into ordinary physics!

But alas, in my conversations with Baratin and Freidel, we only made a little preliminary progress on proving this conjecture - and now I have to go. I return to Riverside on Tuesday, where Lisa awaits me. On Friday she leaves for Wuhan, for a conference on Chinese archaeology. A bit more than a week later, on Monday July 3rd, I'll meet in her in Shanghai, where we'll spend the summer.

So, Jeffrey and my other student Derek Wise will have to do their best to make sense of this stuff with Laurent and Aristide. But, I have some tricks up my sleeve which may allow me to make some progress while I'm in Shanghai.

Lisa and I hope to have wireless internet access in our apartment in Shanghai, by the way. So, with any luck, this online diary will continue. It should be an adventure - a summer in the biggest city in China!

June 20, 2006

I got back home yesterday. Ah, it's nice just to see my back yard again...

It's so peaceful here.

In the news today, the Editorial Projects in Education research center reports that the 2006 graduation rate for US high schoolers is only 70%! In Los Angeles, the figure is only 44%! I'm curious how this compares to European countries. Does anyone know? Apparently the US dropout rate has been underestimated by the states - you can see details here. So, European figures could also be misleading....

On the bright side, a study by Julio Licinio et al reports that suicide rates in the US have dropped by about 15% since 1988 - the year that Prozac went on the market. Suicide rates had been fairly stable, around 12.9 per 100,000 per year, all the way from 1870 to 1988. Since then the rate has dropped to 10.9. Nobody knows if this drop is due to the introduction of Prozac and other selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, but it's a plausible hypothesis. It would be really, really cool if suicidal despair could be reduced by rejiggering serotonin levels in the brain.

June 21, 2006

Ever wonder why the US is bickering so much with Hugo Chávez, the President of Venezuela?

One reason is that Chávez is a leftist who likes to throw his weight around. But another is that Venuzuela is sitting on top of lots of heavy oil. This is a gooey substance - a form of "unconventional oil" - that our economy will naturally turn to as conventional oil supplies start running out. Let me quote a little of this paper:

Unconventional oil is an umbrella term for oil resources that are typically more challenging to extract than conventional oil. While many unconventional oil resources cannot be economically produced at the present time, two exceptions are extra-heavy oil from Venezuela's Orinoco oil belt region and bitumen - a tar-like hydrocarbon that is abundant in Canada's tar sands. These resources are already being economically produced and are likely, in coming years, to become increasingly important to global oil supplies generally, and to U.S. oil security in particular, given their close proximity to U.S. markets.


In 2002, the Oil and Gas Journal accepted Canada's classification of 174 billion barrels of oil sands as established reserves and Canada became the second largest oil reserve-holding nation in the world after Saudi Arabia. If the 235 billion barrels of extra-heavy oil that Venezuela considers recoverable, but that are not currently acknowledged as established or proven, are re-classified in the same way as Canada's oil sands, Venezuela would be credited with the largest oil reserves in the world.

Just to give you some sense of what this means: as of 2006, the Oil and Gas Journal said the total proven worldwide oil reserves were 1,293 billion barrels. (This counts the Canadian oil sands listed above, but not the Venezuelan heavy oil.) The Energy Information Administration, run by the US government, guesses that these reserves will grow by 730 billion barrels over time, and throws in a guess of 939 billion extra completely undiscovered barrels, for a guess of 2962 billion barrels of oil left worldwide.

In 2003 the world used 29 billion barrels of oil per year. By 2030, the EIA predicts this demand will grow to 43 billion per year.

They predict that oil use will peak sometime between 2055 and 2065, and crash quite rapidly after that. If something like this comes to pass, Venezuela will be very important in the years to come... and Canada too, but I'm sure the US feels more threatened by Venezuela!

For more information, try this:

I can't see the EIA prediction that oil use will peak around 2055-2065 on their website. I found it here: The time at which peak oil will occur is highly controversial, and nobody else seems to think it will occur so late. A lot of people think it's happening soon, or even that it's already happened! I can't tell who's right. It's one of those questions that's so important that everyone likes to tell their own story about it:

June 22, 2006

Let's ponder that chart up there. Most people are arguing about when peak oil will happen, not whether. And, if we take the long view, the disagreements are minor: everyone who contributed a line on the chart says sometime between now and 2070. An updated version of the chart shows even better agreement.

So, the question is: what next?

This is actually a huge interlocking network of questions. How much does the whole "growth is good" philosophy of economics rely on the assumption of ever greater energy usage? When we hit the wall, what will happen? Can economic growth occur in ways that don't require greater energy usage?

Will we decide that perpetual economic growth is an unreasonable goal for occupants of a finite planet? Or could we revamp our concept of "economic growth" to make it a bit subtler and less destructive? There are, of course, vast untapped reaches of ethical, spiritual and intellectual growth waiting to be explored. Why are they almost neglected in our current definition of "economics"? Can we change this? Will we?

Or: are we so locked into our current course that the carbon burning economy gets pushed to its logical limit, despite the cost of global warming? On December 18, 2005 I mentioned an article in Wired listing various forms of carbon we have left to burn, measured in oil barrel equivalents. Here are the biggies:

You can see where the pro-growth folks will wind up: digging for methane hydrates under the Arctic permafrost and the bottoms of seabeds. If we burn all this stuff, we'll have a burst of carbon dioxide emission that makes what we're seeing now look puny. You can see how carbon dioxide goes hand in hand with global temperatures:

We see here the last 4 glacials (or "ice ages") in the last 400,000 years BP - "before present". Notice the incredible red spike at the far far right of the graph: that's what we're doing now! If we burn through all the methane hydrates, this will shoot way off the graph, and so will global temperatures.

To get a feel for some numbers: in 2003, people around the globe consumed about 440 quintillion joules (420 quadrillion BTU) of energy, mostly fossil fuels. This is the energy equivalent of 72 billion barrels of oil, and it caused the emission of roughly 8 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere.

Doing this sort of thing for about a century caused the red and blue spikes on the edge of that graph. Of course, energy usage started out much lower a century ago... so multiply all the numbers in the previous paragraph by about 20 or 50, and you'll get the figures for the last century.

But: to get the figures for what'll happen if we burn all the methane hydrates, you have to multiply those numbers by about a thousand!

Of course, we wouldn't burn this stuff all of a sudden, so there will be time for some CO2 to get eaten up by various processes.

Nonetheless, we're talking about a major disruption of the climate if we don't end our carbon addiction. Something orders of magnitude greater than what we've seen so far.

The moral: the oil peak may be upon us, but the end of cheap oil won't save our climate, because the carbon peak will be much bigger - unless we move towards other energy sources, or less energy consumption.

(Here are my calculations and sources, so you can catch my mistakes if you want: there are lots of weird units involved. About 420 quadrillion BTU of energy were used in 2003, according to the EIA, which doesn't use metric. A barrel of crude oil equals roughly 5.8 million BTU. So, the energy usage was equivalent to 72 billion oil barrels. The actual oil usage was about 150 quadrillion BTU, or 25 billion barrels, or 36% of all energy usage. Burning a quadrillion BTU of fossil fuel causes the emission of roughly - roughly - 20 million tons of carbon. Of course it actually depends on how much hydrogen the fuel contains - so, 26 million tons for coal, about 20 million for petroleum, versus only 15 million for natural gas. But, I'm just trying for rough estimates here, so I'm cutting all sorts of corners: I should subtract the amount of energy not coming from fossil fuels, for example - about 10% or so. More carefully prepared statistics on carbon dioxide emissions are available from the IEA. Finally, a BTU is 1055 joules, so 420 quadrillion BTU is about 440 quintillion joules, or 4.4 × 1020 joules.)

June 23, 2006

Lisa left for Wuhan at 2 a.m. today - she's going to a conference on Chinese archaeology. I spent the day catching up with James Dolan, who has been thinking a lot about an intricate web of ideas related to Dynkin diagrams, including Vaughan Jones' work on subfactors and its relation to the McKay correspondence.

I was happy to see that International Astronomical Union has officially approved names for the two newly discovered moons of Pluto - Nix and Hydra. Here's a picture of them taken by the Hubble space telescope:

While visiting my sister in DC a while ago, we saw a bunch of sparrows living in the huge mall at Tysons Corner. This made me wonder - yet again - about why some animals seem so much better than others at living around humans. Sparrows, rats, pigeons, cockroaches and coyotes do well. Turtles, frogs, manatees, passenger pigeons and lions don't. I believe all animals that don't do well around us will either go extinct or wind up living at our sufferance in zoos or game reserves.

So, we are selecting the animal kingdom for certain traits. Animals either need the traits that let them eke out an existence in a human dominated world, or they need to be cute enough that we'll take care of them. Otherwise they will die.

This is a strange new kind of selection pressure. It's part of what Bill McKibben calls The End of Nature.

So, what traits do animals need to survive well around us? My sister just sent me an interesting article about this:

Greenberg's noticed that animals differ vastly in their "neophobia" - their tendency to shy away from new things. A chestnut-sided warbler will not eat its favorite food if a new object is placed nearby. A bay-breasted warbler chows down happily:

Greenberg hypothesized that since humans create a rapidly changing environment, animals will less neophobia will fare better around us.

But, it turned out that some species closely associated with us are among the most neophobic of all! Mallards, which get along well with people, are more neophobic than wood ducks. Norway and black rats, ravens, crows, and house sparrows are all highly neophobic! This is why it's hard to trap or poison these critters. And that's part of why they do well around us.

In short, "persecuted commensals" - animals that require human presence to do well, but which we keep trying to kill - must balance adaptability with neophobia. They need to keep adapting to new environments and trying new foods, but avoid our sneaky traps. They need to be curious... but still cautious.

That's what Greenberg says. And it makes me wonder: does this balance require a kind of intelligence? Are we selecting for intelligence?

June 24, 2006

I drove to the coast with James Dolan to visit my friends Chris Lee and Meenakshi Roy. Among other things, we went on a long walk on the beach from Playa Del Rey almost down to Hermosa Beach. Chris and Meenakshi study cool stuff like alternative splicing in human genes and evolution of drug resistance in HIV. But, Chris wants to do more theoretical work on bioinformatics, and he's writing a book about it that starts with the fundamentals: Bayesian reasoning, entropy, and so on. So, we mainly talked about that sort of stuff. Chris described a conjecture about entropy maximization, and Jim came up with an interesting idea for deriving the maximum entropy principle from Bayes' law! I need to find out if someone has already worked on these ideas....

According to Chris, people in bioinformatics are expected to run "labs", following the pattern in other branches of biology. They spend lots of time managing grad students, applying for grants, and so on - leaving little time to talk with colleagues and dream up new ideas. Each lab is like a little business competing with the rest in cranking out data. It's very different in math and theoretical physics. There are reasons for this, to be sure, but it seems that now there's enough data in biology to create a niche for "theorists" who spend some time thinking about what it all means.

June 25, 2006

More about animals living with people:

A sad thing about visiting my parents' beautiful house in Great Falls, Virginia was seeing how deer have overrun the woods. With no natural predators to keep their population down, they eat every last little bit of plant life they can get find; their population must be limited by starvation. So, the forest has no brush in it... and no new saplings! It's a dying forest.

I mentioned how coyotes have moved into this area. Unfortunately, coyotes don't eat deer. At least, not often - maybe occasionally they grab an unlucky doe, but they prefer much smaller food, like mice.

Luckily, my sister said that mountain lions have entered the area! I hope they eat lots of deer and not too many people. Here's an article on a similar phenomenon in New England:

Tracking the Cats
Mountain Lions Roam Region's Forests - Origins a Mystery

Wendy Williams
Northern Sky News
June 2002

In September 2000, less than 150 miles north of Boston, hunter Roddy Glover was following a wildlife trail through the woods when a tawny-colored animal caught his eye. At first he thought it was a deer, but he soon realized it was some kind of cat. As the cat came closer, Glover saw that it was much too big for a bobcat, the only wild feline known to roam that area.

He lay low in the ferns to watch. “Then—it kinda shocked the hell out of me—I realized it was a mountain lion. And she had a kitten with her.”

Mountain lions were extirpated from New England by early in the last century, often hunted for the bounty placed on their tails. For decades, sightings of mountain lions roaming in New England’s north woods have been steeped in controversy. Those who believe in the presence of mountain lions have often been considered apt to believe in Bigfoot. Today, most wildlife biologists agree that there is increasing evidence of mountain lions in the area. But whether or not the animals —also known as catamounts, pumas, cougars or panthers—are breeding here remains unclear.

As for Roddy Glover, he wanted proof that he wasn’t crazy. Seeing tracks left by the female mountain lion in the mud, he called state biologist Keel Kemper, who arrived at the Monmouth, Maine site within the hour, looked at the tracks, took photos and made a plaster cast.

“This is a big cat print,” says Kemper of his plaster cast. “But if I had only this cat print, I would be foolish to say there was no doubt it was a mountain lion. I have Roddy Glover, experienced outdoorsman, who watched the cats for at least five minutes, from only 50 yards away. I’m about as convinced as I could be.”

A week later at the same location, Glover found another set of what he believed were mountain lion prints left on railroad ties. This time a biologist who had done mountain lion research out west came. “Yep,” Glover quotes the biologist as saying, “those are mountain lion prints.”

In over 60 years, this is the first sighting of a mountain lion roaming free through New England’s forests that is officially confirmed by accompanying physical proof (the last was a lion killed in northwest Maine in 1938). But there have been a number of credible sightings and several other tantalizing occurrences in recent years. In 1997, near Massachusetts’ Quabbin Reservoir, wildlife tracker John McCarter found a deposit of large scat covered with debris in the fashion of a mountain lion. McCarter, and tracker and teacher Paul Rezendes, sent the scat to a DNA sequencing lab at New York’s Wildlife Conservation Society. Those tests showed it to be mountain lion scat, a finding later confirmed by a second qualified DNA testing lab at Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

Rezendes, author of Tracking and the Art of Seeing, has been following up on McCarter’s finding: “We’re going to make more of a concerted effort to find something. Now we’re going to set a track line out this winter... We will be following up any credible sightings. Anybody who has tracks, scat, anything like that that sounds credible—if we find something, I’ll be ready to go.”

Massachusetts state biologists accept that the scat was probably mountain lion, but question the animal’s origins. “One could speculate that a captive cougar escaped or was released in the area and survived long enough to feed on a beaver and leave this tangible evidence,” wrote Massachusetts wildlife biologist Susan Langlois.

Throughout northern Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire, an increasing number of sightings by very credible and experienced outdoorsmen have been reported. None of these have been confirmed by physical evidence, however. Some observers have followed tracks in the snow. In the Brattleboro-Putney area of southern Vermont, in the winter of 2000, a number of independent sightings were reported over a series of several days. But to date, nothing has been confirmed.

“We have a semiformal policy of taking all sightings and all calls,” says Vermont state wildlife biologist Doug Blodgett. “We’re documenting everything we get, including misidentifications. We’re putting it on a data base and we’re keeping track.” Blodgett says that when biologists follow up on many of the calls, the animal turns out to have been a bobcat, a feral house cat, a coyote—or even a deer.

Because of the similarity in coat color, it’s quite common for the most experienced people to mistake a deer in a low-crawl for a mountain lion. “I had that experience myself once,” says Blodgett. “One night I was certain I was seeing a mountain lion, but when I checked the tracks it was a deer.” Biologists across the continent tell similar stories of mistaken identities.

Nevertheless, many regional experts agree that, on at least a few occasions, observers are reporting valid sightings. But, says Blodgett, it is not clear where the lions are coming from. “We have a lot of people who are quite cranked up about this, who really want to believe that the lions are here,” he says. “Some have speculated that there have been some intentional releases. They’re commercially available—you can buy them on the Internet.”

I keep hearing that there are mountain lions in the park behind our house, but I've never seen one - which is just fine with me. Do you know what to do if you meet one?

Some good news: Santa Monica has banned styrofoam and other non-recyclable plastics for businesses like fast-food restaurants. This stuff is virtually indestructible and accumulates on beaches and elsewhere. It's made of petroleum, so it's getting more expensive, and people are naturally turning to cups and plates made from corn starch, sugar cane, and other biodegradable materials.

Some bad news: this summer we'll probably see lots of wildfires in the western USA. It's just as dry as it was in 2002, which was the worst wildfire season ever, and the sky here was full of smoke and ash for days - it looked like Hell.

Of course, wildfires may not be all bad in the grand scheme of things. It's hard to tell... hard to tell what the "grand scheme of things" really is! That's part of what I'm trying to figure out in this diary.

From Thin Ice, where the author was interviewing climate scientist Lonnie Thompson: " There was a time about 3.5 billion years ago when there was no oxygen in the atmosphere, and a kind of anaerobic bacteria occupied all the oceans of the world. They produced oxygen just by living, the same way we produce CO2, and they multiplied until they occupied every part of the earth. But the oxygen they gave off was poisonous to them, so they eventually changed the atmosphere to the point that they killed themselves off [....]"

"I think humans are like every other organism: they try to maximize the system to their advantage, take every resource they can use to make whatever it is they're trying to produce, and they will keep doing it until that resource is no longer available to them. Our economic system is based on that: maximum production. And every country in the world wants to be like the Western countries - same lifestyle, same air-conditioning, same TVs. We have fine universities, we train people to think; but actions speak louder than words, and as long as we stay on this path I don't think we're any smarter than bacteria. We're behaving the same way they did. You can do that until you exceed the boundaries of the system, and then it will collapse."

"You mean the whole system will fall apart?" I asked.

"Oh no, the system will keep working. I'm very optimistic about the system. The system will take care of itself. This is like a cancer growing on the surface. The planet will react in a way as to stop that cancer."

"The earth will stay healthy?"

"Yes. It might be big storms; it might be wiping out Bangladesh or Africa; the world will go on, and there will be creatures that will multiply in that new world. Plants like CO2; maybe the world will be dominated by plants. Whenever a creature exceeds its resource base, its population collapses - think of lemmings - and I think that's ultimately what will happen to humans."

June 28, 2006

Yesterday I talked to Danny Stevenson and Alissa Crans about representations of Lie 2-algebras and Lie 2-groups. We were mainly battling with the puzzle of giving our 2-category of 2-vector spaces a nice tensor product and hom. The last few days I've also been talking with James Dolan about the McKay correspondence and ambidextrous adjunctions between 2-vector spaces.

In the first reported case of fatal hilarity, the Greek fortune-teller Calchas is supposed to have died of laughter on the day he was predicted to die, when the prediction didn't seem to be coming true.

Google has a new mirror site. Make sure to type in your entry backwards.

You can find many other strange things on Wikipedia:

June 30, 2006

I'm gradually gearing up for my trip to Shanghai on Monday July 3rd. This may be my last diary entry for a while, but Lisa has found an apartment with broadband internet access - apparently quite common there - so I should be back in business once we get set up.

It'll be an adventure! My 2003 summer in Hong Kong was great, so I'm not scared, but it will be quite something living in such a huge city. We'll be near Fudan University, not the heart of town. You can see it near the top of this map.

Somehow I got a subscription to Cell magazine. One issue had a neat article on the genetic origins of left-right asymmetry in vertebrates, which I've summarized in the Addendum to week73. But even more cool are these two articles:

The first article describes how bacteria communicate using chemicals. For example, in a process called quorum sensing, bacteria emit traces of a chemical, which rises to a level they can detect only when their population density reaches a certain threshold. The chemical then affects their behavior! For example, a bioluminescent bacterium in the ocean called Vibrio harveyi glows only when it reaches a certain density - and in an extreme case of this phenomenon, a glowing patch of the Indian Ocean 15,000 square kilometers in size was visible from space for three nights!

But the phenomenon of quorum sensing has recently turned out to be far more common in less exotic circumstances. It causes "competence" in Streptococcus, a state in which bacteria can pick up DNA molecules and change their genetic properties. It also controls virulence factor secretion, biofilm formation and sporulation. These are various spooky tricks bacteria like to play....

The article describes many other forms of inter-bacterial communication. For example, bacteria in water send water-insoluble molecules to each other in little packages called vesicles. And, some of these packages are fatal to bacteria of other species!

As if this weren't enough, it turns out that advanced life forms like us - eukaryotes, to be precise - are able to pass on traits not just using their DNA and RNA, but also using a trick called histone methylation. In eukaryotic cells, DNA is wound around around proteins called histones. Adding one, two or three methyl groups to these proteins controls whether and how gene will be expressed in a given cell. This is one way cells in our body get to be very different even though they have the same DNA! It's quite complicated and interesting - and in a surprising twist reminiscent of Lamarckian evolution, a mother can apparently do histone methylation to genes in her child's embryo! So, traits picked up during her life, encoded not in DNA or RNA but in histone methylation, can be passed on to her offspring.

In short, besides genetics we must also study epigenetics - the science of reversible but heritable changes in gene expression that can occur without any changes in our DNA!

Evolution is like a game that life has been playing for billions of years. The strategies in play are surely far deeper than we've been able to fathom so far. We're like kids watching grand masters play chess. We should continue to expect surprises....

For my July 2006 diary, go here.

The [...] spirit will soar eagerly into the heavenly spheres, but rarely stays there: it returns to the workaday world: it insists that ideals shall be translated into action, precept into practice, the spiritual applied to the physical, the abstract to the concrete. - Hugh Schonfield

© 2006 John Baez