Archive for the ‘coral reefs’ Tag

Happy birthday, Charles Robert Darwin

Charles Darwin, shortly after his return from the voyage of the Beagle. If he were still alive, he'd be 200 years old today

Charles Darwin, about age 30, shortly after his return from the voyage of the Beagle. If he were still alive, he'd be 200 years old today.

Today is the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin (and of Abraham Lincoln too; they were born within hours of each other).  Darwin, who I have previously blogged about here, ranks with Newton and Einstein as one of the most important scientists of all time.  So take a bit of time today to learn more about this extraordinary individual.

To humanize him and add some context and framework for his accomplishments, here is a brief time line of some notable events in Darwin’s life, which may contain some facts that you don’t yet know about the great naturalist:

12 February 1809: Charles Robert Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England, the fifth of six children to physician Robert Darwin and Susannah (née Wedgwood) Darwin, the daughter of industrialist Josiah Wedgwood (1730- 1795).

1825–1828: Studies medicine at the University of Edinburgh. He joins the Plinian Society, a group for students interested in natural history. He gives up medicine because he can’t stand the sight of blood and 19th century surgery.

1828–1831: At his father’s urging, he begins preparing for a career in the clergy; he studies theology at Christ’s College, University of Cambridge, in preparation for a career as a parish priest. He collects beetles and enrolls in a course run by Rev. John Stevens Henslow, professor of botany.

HMS Beagle surveying the coast of South America

HMS Beagle surveying the coast of South America

1831–1836: At the suggestion of Rev. Henslow, he accompanies Captain Robert FitzRoy (1805–1865), future admiral and Governor of New Zealand, on the second survey expedition of HMS Beagle as an unpaid naturalist. Originally planned to take two years, the five-year voyage takes him across the Atlantic to the southern part of South America, returning via Tahiti and Australia; the Falkland Islands, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Australia, New Zealand, Mauritius and South Africa featuring on his extensive itinerary. He observed the behavior of different plant and animal species, and analyzed his large collection of specimens for three months on his return.

1838: Moves to London and, once compiled, he begins publishing his findings in various papers and volumes.

1839: Journal and Remarks (later known as The Voyage of the Beagle) appears in print and he is elected a Fellow of the Royal Society on 24 January. Five days later he marries his cousin Emma Wedgwood (1808–1896), the youngest of seven children to potter Josiah Wedgwood II (1769–1843), and his wife Bessy. They would have 10 children, two sadly dying in infancy. George, Francis and Horace became, respectively, an astronomer, botanist and civil engineer of repute. Charles and Emma were avid backgammon players; he faithfully records the results of their nightly games for many years.

1842: The Darwins move to Downe House in the village of Downe, Kent.  He does his theorizing in his home study, in part so he can be close to his children.  He publishes his first book on a specific subject, The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs.

1853: He is awarded the Royal Society’s Gold Medal for his four volumes on barnacles.

1856: Darwin becomes aware of Alfred Russell Wallace’s theories on evolution and is persuaded to finally publish his work to establish priority.

1858: The outlines of his natural selection theories are jointly published alongside the similar theory proposed by Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913) in the Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society. His grandfather, scientist Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), was one of those who had already argued in favour of evolutionary ideas.

1859: His epic On the Origin of Species, a collection of evidence collected from the study of fossils, comparisons of anatomy and embryology, appears after more than 20 years in the making. It presents a theory in which living beings are related by common genealogical descent; discourses that life on earth adapts according to its environment; and offers views on such concepts as natural selection, adaptation and survival of the fittest.

1871: The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex is published; it links, in Part I, some of the ideas detailed in On the Origin of Species to the concept of human evolution, a topic already being discussed in detail by peers, and looks at the relationship between human sexes and races, responding to the thoughts and works of other writers in the process. In Part II and Part III, the book focuses on what he calls “sexual selection.”

1872: The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals is published; it looks at how humans and animals communicate their emotions.

1877: He is awarded an honorary degree from the University of Cambridge.

19 April 1882: He dies in Downe and is subsequently buried near Isaac Newton in Westminster Abbey following one of only five state funerals given to a non-royal in the 19th century.

Darwin continued his research throughout his life and his work was not merely confined to the biological sciences.

The first evolutionary tree ever drawn, with the words "I think" written above it, from one of Darwin's notebooks

One of the first evolutionary trees ever drawn, with the words "I think" written above it, from one of Darwin's notebooks.*

His first specific-subject book, The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs, published in 1842, set out his theory—controversial for decades but later proven correct—of how atolls form, overturning the prevailing theories of his day.  His last work, published the year before he died, The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Actions of Worms, With Observations on Their Habits, analyzed the role that worms play in soil creation.  His conclusions, once again, would be proven correct with time.

Darwin was a skilled writer and very effective at conveying his thoughts and ideas—and not just scientific ideas; his other works include interesting travelogues and an autobiography. Almost all of his writings, including some of the most speculative, have aged very well.

I cannot help including an example, and if it is a long one it is, I hope, a good one.  Consider the concluding paragraph to his best-known work, On the Origin of Species, which sums up with some degree of poetry the whole work:

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

If you want to learn more about Charles Darwin’s early life and family life, along with the discoveries that led to his formation of the theory of evolution, I highly recommend the following hour-long video of a 2005 lecture by Sean Carroll, titled (not coincidentally) “Endless forms most beautiful.”

Carroll is a great lecturer and the video includes many slides and videos that I think will hold your attention if you have even the smallest bit of interest in the subject.

darwinbadgeFor more on the Charles Darwin, see the excellent series of articles that Wikipedia has covering his whole life.  For more on the theory of evolution, which is one of the most important and central in all of science, see their introduction to evolution and the somewhat more technical article on the theory itself.  Berkeley has a nice page with explanations of evolution, the importance of the theory, and the many forms of evidence on which it is based.

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* This post originally identified Darwin’s sketch as “the first evolutionary tree ever drawn.”  However, as commenter Zen Faulkes points out (see comments below), Jean Baptiste Lamarck had previously drawn a similar sketch. This blog regrets the error.

Monday Miscellany: oceans, stars, and Gordon Brown

Here are some of the news stories that have caught my attention in the past week. If you find any of them interesting, please comment!

After a century of study, we're still finding new creatures everywhere we look in the ocean

We barely know what lives here. And don't build your house to close to this thing if you live in Texas.

The ongoing Census of Marine Life, an international effort to catalog all life in the oceans, has announced the discovery of hundreds of previously unknown species. They were found on various coral reefs and join thousands of other new species that the Census has discovered. Literally every where they look in the oceans, no matter how well previously explored, scientists are finding new species. The survey is expected to be completed circa 2010.

Speaking of the oceans and seas, hundreds of people on the Texas coast may soon lose their homes on account of Hurricane Ike and a 1959 state law that makes all coastal land between the low tide mark and the high tide mark public property and illegal to build upon. The hurricane has eroded many beaches severely, so many homes that were previously back from the water are now within that zone. Owners whose property is condemned by the state would probably get nothing in return, and it may take up to a year in some areas for the state to determine if the homes are indeed on public property now (it’ll take a while to see how the tides will act throughout the year). The law was last widely used in 1983 after Hurricane Alicia. I don’t think we should feel too bad for these people. “Every one of them was warned of that in their earnest money contract, in the deed they received, in the title policy they bought. … And whether you like it or not, neither the Constitution of the United States nor the state of Texas nor any law permits you to have a structure on state-owned property that’s subject to the flow of the tide.” These folks knew the risks and decided to take their chances. Unfortunately, they’ve lost their gamble.

If you've bought a Harry Potter book, this guy's party may have some of your money!

If you've bought a Harry Potter book, this guy's party may have some of your money!

On the other side of the pond, Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling has donated £1milllion (about $1.8 million) to the Labour Party, saying “I believe that poor and vulnerable families will fare much better under the Labour Party than they would under a Cameron-led Conservative Party.” This is the first time she has donated to the party and some cynics speculate that she is angling for a spot on the British honours list. Dame Rowling, perhaps? The Labour Party can probably use the money; they trail the Conservative Party in polls by about 12 points, though this is down from a 21 point defecit last month. Perhaps Gordon Brown’s declaration that he “wants to do better” as Prime Minister has helped his party out some? He doesn’t need to call elections until five years after the last ones, in May 2005, but they’re typically held a year before the parliament’s term expires unless the party in power is doing very poorly.

In American election news, despite none of the presidential debates having been held yet, millions of people can already cast their ballots in this years contests. In all, 36 of the 50 states have some form of early voting, though details vary by jurisdiction. In Virginia, considered an important swing state in the contest between Barack Obama and John McCain, citizens can already vote right now. In all, up to one third of voters are expected to take advantage of early voting or absentee ballots. Hopefully few of those voters get buyers remorse between now and election day. Of course, half the electorate gets buyers remorse after the election, so they’re really just doing that ahead of us too. (Note that I’m not posting a picture of Virginia’s state flag on account of it sucks really bad.)

Dark matter probably helped form these galaxies, which probably contain some super-massive stars

Dark matter probably helped form these galaxies, which probably contain some super-massive stars

Somewhat farther away, astronomers have identified the most massive star ever found in our galaxy. The previous record holder was about 83 times the mass of the Sun; this beast is 115 times the mass of our favorite star, and it happens to be orbited by the next most massive star ever discovered, which weighs in at 89 solar masses. The astronomers’ calculations have a margin of error of +/- 30 and 15 solar masses, respectively, for the two newly studied stars. Theoretically, the maximum size a star could possibly be is 150 solar masses. The larger a star is, the more quickly it burns out.

Some other astronomers have discovered a new galaxy, Segue 1, which despite orbiting the Milky Way was not previously studied on account of being only 1/1,000,000,000th as bright as our own galaxy. However, Segue 1’s gravity is about 1000 times greater than would be predicted based on it’s luminosity alone, indicating that it is chock full of way more dark matter than would be expected. Very little is known about dark matter, and there are still a few scientists who are skeptical that it exists, but the evidence is very strong. Most cosmologists think that dark matter plays an important role in the formation of galaxies, meaning we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t. It is thought that there is approximately six times as much dark matter as normal matter in the universe, but that it only makes up about 23% of the universe, with almost all the rest being even more mysterious dark energy, which drives the expansion of the universe. In other words, we don’t know what 96% of the universe is. We’ll not run out of things to learn any time soon!

I hope this helps get your week off to an interesting start. Have a good one.