View from Above

17th century celestial map by Dutch cartographer Frederik de Wit

17th century celestial map by Dutch cartographer Frederik de Wit

We’re always looking for reasons, causality, connections, in life and in science. There’s an ongoing project that might be an invaluable tool in discovering unexpected interconnectivity on the planet’s surface.

The ICARUS Initiative (“International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space”) is a scientific collaboration working towards placing a remote sensory system on the International Space Station to track tagged animals around the globe.

The Icarus team is developing tag sensors that can be placed on any kind of animal, from zebras to butterflies, and which will relay the animals’ movements to the ISS antenna for distribution and analysis.

Movebank map. Click on the image for an interactive view, which can be filtered by animal identifiers.

Movebank map.
The data will be collected and stored with Movebank.
Click on the image for an interactive view, which can be filtered by animal identifiers.

By allowing scientists combine data sets from separate studies in new ways, including meteorological and geological data, entirely new questions can be proposed and ideas tested.

Suggested uses include tracking the spread of disease, gaining insight into migration, ecological patterns and better understanding of evolutionary processes.

And then there’s the example given by Dr. Martin Wikelski, head of the ICARUS Initiative and Director at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology: By observing the movement of goats on Italy’s Mount Etna, volcanic eruptions can be predicted up to six hours in advance.

Huichol cross ('God's eye'). The four points represent the eternal processes of earth, fire, air and water. Colors carry symbolic meanings, as well.  Source: Geo-Mexico

Huichol cross (‘God’s eye’). The four points represent the eternal processes of earth, fire, air and water. Colors carry symbolic meanings, as well.
Source: Geo-Mexico

When I was a kid growing up in California, it was common to pass the pre-Internet, pre-digital time of day by making God’s eyes, stick and yarn creations that symbolize the power to see and understand the unknown. God’s eye weavings are mostly decorative now, but the basic colors represent various aspects of life. Weaving together a God’s eye can be a way of meditating on how the various strands of life work together in unseen ways.

There isn’t really a scientific equivalent to the God’s eye, but projects like the Icarus Initiative might just be a start.

Organized Curiosity

The CERN globe. Photo: PK Read

The CERN globe.
Photo: PK Read

Someone once described the work that goes on at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research that straddles the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva, as a massive exercise in “organized curiosity”. CERN is the world’s largest particle accelerator laboratory, where international researchers have been collaborating to investigate the fundamental nature of the physical universe since the early 1950’s.

It’s where some of the largest scientific equipment ever built is used to peel back the layers on the smallest elements of what makes the cosmos.

Last night, we went to a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the LHC, the Large Hadron Collider. Thousands of people, an orchestra with a hundred-strong choir, and the Alan Parsons Live Project accompanied by the full orchestra and choir, took up residence out behind the CERN facility on the French side, in the middle of a large field.

The two official languages at CERN are French and English, but standing in the crowd, there was the likelihood of hearing Korean, Greek, Russian, Japanese and some I didn’t recognize, all spoken within arm’s length. At one point I was standing next to one of the senior scientists, and he said that one of the things he values most about his decades at CERN is the sense of collaboration and working towards a common goal on a global scale. Twenty member states support CERN, with numerous non-members participating in a variety of ways.

We often hear the question: Collaboration is nice, but what good does fundamental research do on a practical level? With all the money spent by various countries – tax money, public funds – what good does this kind of investigation really serve?

There is an objective and true response to this question. The exploration undertaken at CERN often requires equipment that doesn’t yet exist, leading to innovations in everything from computing to medical technologies to materials science and electronics.

But there is also another, more subjective and true response: This demonstrates us, as humans, at our most cooperative and inquisitive. 800px-CERN_international_relations_map.svg

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Referential Gestures

Chart: 5WGraphics via Weird Science

Chart: 5WGraphics via Weird Science

Referential gestures sounds like something we might perform when paying obeisance to something, but the term actually describes what might be called ‘sign language’. For a gesture to be considered ‘referential’, it must have the following five attributes: it is directed towards an object; it is mechanically ineffective; it is directed towards a potential recipient; it receives a voluntary response and it demonstrates hallmarks of intentionality.

A study published in Nature Communications suggests that the practice of referential gesturing might not be limited to the species we currently acknowledge as performing ‘sign language’, namely, humans, other primates, and ravens. The study authors found evidence that some coral reef fish of different species – groupers and moray eels, Napoleon wrasses and octopuses, work together to optimize hunting. The fish see a prey fish hide in the coral, they signal to the eels or octopuses that a fish is hiding in a crevice, the eel or octopus reaches in and grabs the prey, which the hunters then share.

For me, this not only demonstrates that we have a lot to learn about the abilities of other species to communicate; it also shows that some animals are as good or better than humans at cross-species collaboration.

The Red Sea roving coralgrouper (Plectropomus pessuliferus marisburi), which can use "sign language" to hunt.  CREDIT: Klaus Jost via University of Michigan's Animal Diversity Web & LiveScience

The Red Sea roving coralgrouper (Plectropomus pessuliferus marisburi), which can use “sign language” to hunt.
CREDIT: Klaus Jost via University of Michigan’s Animal Diversity Web & LiveScience


Nature Communications study – Referential gestures in fish collaborative hunting by A.L. Vail, A. Manica, R. Bshary

LiveScience article on the study

Open Science

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The graphic above got me thinking about all the brainpower out there, just watching a screen and wondering which contestant might next be kicked off which show, while multitasking at all the various things which daily life requires of us beyond sleeping and eating. The graphic was inspired by the book Cognitive Surplus, by Clay Chirky.

There is a solid movement in research and problem-solving that puts to use the social networking of modern technology in collaborations to confront specific scientific challenges. Scientific inquiry has always been collaborative. If a few innovators have worked in solitude, most inquiry is the result of a ball set in motion which then gathers the bulk of others’ contribution as it rolls along a given trajectory of investigation. But until recently, the means of sharing a problem or possible solution, and in particular, the means of publishing problems and solutions, has taken place on a narrowly-defined path involving gatekeeping academic journals and research hubs.

Several alternatives have developed over the past years. A New York Times article from last year delves into this topic in detail, and points out some of the benefits and pitfalls of this approach.

Among the benefits: More eyes on any given problem, new approaches, massive data collecting potential, universal availability of solutions as well as problems.

Among the pitfalls: The same issues that vex users of all current media. A lack of oversight, a lack of confidence in the material available, disorganization, and what strikes me as the two largest hurdles, challenges in monetizing the process (either in terms of research funding or publication), and a lack of singular professional recognition for those solving a problem. There’s always that bugaboo of intellectual property with which we humans contend.

Still, this is a fascinating way forward. I think, though, that the process hasn’t yet gone far enough in its scope inclusiveness. There are a couple of projects out there for ‘citizen scientists’, where non-professional observers can go and enter data (birdwatching, star gazing, etc.) much in the way other online sites might log all the live blues clubs in a given region, or crowdfund a project, or crowdsource a petition. This is still a nascent method of dealing with information and action.

What might happen, for example, if we turned everyone’s attention – everyone with access to the collective process – to one single problem at a time? Some big, pressing problem in a given region that really needs solving.

The collaborative method could be used to ‘crowdfocus’ all manner of cognitive surplus on that problem like a lens being used to spark a fire.

A few collaborative hubs:

PLOS – Public Library of Science