Entranced by Reality

In a beautiful review of a new book on Camus, Ian Marcus Corbin writes:

In one of his most lyrical essays, “Nuptuals at Tipasa,” Camus exults in the stark beauty of an Algerian mountain town on the verge of the Mediterranean Sea: “Deep among wild scents and concerts of somnolent insects, I open my eyes and heart to the unbearable grandeur of this heat-soaked sky.” [ . . . ] One could very sensibly argue that the pleasure and vibrancy of his aesthetic experiences served as a vital counterbalance to one of the most common and dangerous pitfalls of professional thinkers: the temptation to float off into the cool, exhilarating ether of abstraction, leaving messy, mundane realities behind.

The next few sentences of “Nuptuals” aren’t quoted by Corbin but they seem particularly apposite: “It is not so easy to become what one is, to rediscover one’s deepest measure. But watching the solid backbone of the Chenoua, my heart would grow calm with a strange certainty. I was learning to breathe, I was fitting into things and fulfilling myself.”

Camus’ refusal, or perhaps inability, to lose sight of the real in the abstract accounts for much of his enduring attraction. It may not seem such a rare thing, but amongst serious thinkers I believe it is. And as Corbyn says, “it certainly was in Camus’s day. Camus’s peers, mid-century French intellectuals, were all too susceptible to the raptures of abstraction.”

His love of the sensual beauties of the world cohabited uneasily with an astringent sense of its otherness, its strangeness, its unknowability. Continue reading

The Fat Drug | NYTimes.com

American kids are prescribed on average about one course of antibiotics every year, often for ear and chest infections. Could these intermittent high doses affect our metabolism?

To find out, Dr. Blaser and his colleagues have spent years studying the effects of antibiotics on the growth of baby mice. In one experiment, his lab raised mice on both high-calorie food and antibiotics. “As we all know, our children’s diets have gotten a lot richer in recent decades,” he writes in a book, “Missing Microbes,” due out in April. At the same time, American children often are prescribed antibiotics. What happens when chocolate doughnuts mix with penicillin?

The results of the study were dramatic, particularly in female mice: They gained about twice as much body fat as the control-group mice who ate the same food. “For the female mice, the antibiotic exposure was the switch that converted more of those extra calories in the diet to fat, while the males grew more in terms of both muscle and fat,” Dr. Blaser writes. “The observations are consistent with the idea that the modern high-calorie diet alone is insufficient to explain the obesity epidemic and that antibiotics could be contributing.”

via The Fat Drug – NYTimes.com.

China smog starts to foster disastrous conditions | South China Morning Post

The warning comes as choking air is blanketing a quarter of the mainland and scientists say they are already seeing the detrimental effects. In He’s tests, chilli and tomato seeds, which normally take about 20 days to grow into seedlings under artificial light in a laboratory, took more than two months to sprout at a greenhouse farm in Beijing’s Changping district.

Membranes and pollutants sticking to the greenhouse’s surface cut the amount of light available to the plants by half, He said.

Depriving plants of light means photosynthesis – the process by which plants convert light to chemical energy – can barely be sustained.

Most seedlings at the farm were weak or sick. “They will be lucky to live at all. Now almost every farm is caught in a smog panic,” He said, adding that the poor seedling quality would cut agricultural output this year.

And if the smog persisted or intensified, the country’s food supply would face devastating consequences, He warned.

“A large number of representatives of agricultural companies have suddenly showed up at academic meetings on photosynthesis in recent months and sought desperately for solutions,” He said.

“Our overseas colleagues were shocked by the phenomenon because in their countries nothing like this had ever happened.”

Greenhouse farms, which occupy more than four million hectares and supply most of the mainland’s vegetables, would be the first to be hit.

via Agriculture feels the choke as China smog starts to foster disastrous conditions | South China Morning Post.

Monsanto moves into ‘natural’ plant breeding | Wired Science

Monsanto computer models can actually predict inheritance patterns, meaning they can tell which desired traits will successfully be passed on. It’s breeding without breeding, plant sex in silico. In the real world, the odds of stacking 20 different characteristics into a single plant are one in 2 trillion. In nature, it can take a millennium. Monsanto can do it in just a few years.

And this all happens without any genetic engineering. Nobody inserts a single gene into a single genome. They could, and in fact sometimes do, look at their crosses by engineering a plant as a kind of beta test. But those aren’t intended to leave the lab. Stark and his colleagues realized that they could use these technologies to identify a cross that would have highly desirable traits and grow the way they wanted. And they could actually charge more for it—all the benefits of a GMO with none of the stigma.

via Monsanto Is Going Organic in a Quest for the Perfect Veggie – Wired Science.

Animal Dreams

Are we alone in our self-awareness? Science long thought so but this conviction has cracked in recent decades.

In Being a Sandpiper Brendon Keim recounts his own journey from a focus on animals as types to animals as individuals:

Several months after meeting Prosek, I was walking in Jamaica Bay on a bitterly cold and cloudless day when I saw semipalmated sandpipers again, running ahead of a pounding surf that caught the afternoon sun and sprayed their retreats with prisms. As Elizabeth Bishop observed in her poem ‘Sandpiper’ (1955): ‘The roaring alongside he takes for granted,/and that every so often the world is bound to shake.’ I wondered what it would be like to be one of them, to run with the flock and feed in the surf, to experience life at their scale and society. Simply put, did they enjoy it? Were they cold? Did they remember their journeys, feel a connection to individuals with whom they’d flown, a concern for compatriots and mates?

No one who’s shared a close bond with an animal doubts their individuality so science’s blindness in this matter is a little odd. Continue reading