Why we run: a natural history/ Bernd Heinrich

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ISBN: 0060958707

Epilogue: “If modern runners were drawn around a campfire in a warm African night, they would, like any Bushman, poke the embers and relive the run all the way to the finish line and beyond. That’s what I’ve tried to do here.”

Adrian recommended this book to me. An autobiographical account of a runner, who’s also a biologist. The book is interspersed with personal anecdotal experiences of his introduction to the world of ultramarathon running, his childhood, his training, his scientific training and understanding about the human condition thorough comparisons with insects, birds and mammals.

Hawk Moths and Pronghorn Antelopes and long distance running.

P65. “The distance runner must fairly float along the ground, and sometimes for hours on end. Ideally, he has light, thin bones and long, thinly muscled limbs, like a bird. The key to the distance runner’s performance is to supply his fat-burning muscles with a sustained supply of oxygen…” consequently that requires a large support system: heart that can pump large volumes, large arteries, large fuel depots in muscles, the liver…

Mitochondria: microscopic power units with batteries of enzymes that covert fuel and oxygen to energy, used by muscles for contraction.

Muscles needed by Sprinters and throwers do not need Mitochondria and such support systems for oxygen delivery.

P66. Blood, oxygen, Hemoglobin and Myoglobin.

P73. “Gems or generalisations?”

P83. On the individual ability to get more aerobic work out of the same volume of oxygen taken in. “… it turns out that what you have is less important than what you do with it.”

P86. Champion distance runners may have traits inherited from the maternal line.

P97. Insect wings have no muscle; the flight muscles are inside the body, e.g. Thorax (contrast this with mammals like birds).

P124. “Play serves a vital function in many animals. It serves the ultimate function of practice, and it is motivated by pleasure. Pleasure is the proximate mechanism for achieving many ultimate benefits.”

P136. On camels not being fast runners over short distances. “… they provide us with a lesson: slow and steady wins the race.”

The book starts off a little slow, in that he described the scenes from one of his practice run. I thought it odd for a book to start like that. But maybe that was the point. Running is as much about conscious act of running, as well as observing and appreciating life that is around us.

I could be overanalysing it of course, but this book is definitely philosophical book several levels. Running is a mental game, as the book explains several time. Runners ultimately compete against themselves.

Having run in my youth (though not marathon) I could relate to his experiences. Especially his blow-by-blow, step-by-painful-step of his best race.

This book made me want to pick up running again. And gives one the feeling that “we can”.

Chpt 16, his views and approach on Diet, for ultramarathon races.

P255 “After all, two sets of numbers designating birth and death dates say little about a person. It is the in-between that matters”.


The science of Dune: An unauthorized exploration into the real science behind Frank Herbert’s fictional universe/ Kevin R. Grazier (editor)

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Written by writers who are scientists by training. Each article have references to sources cited, and attempts to relate the scifi in Dune to current known science.

Shows that Dune, and the related series, cover a wide range of “real-enough” science. From genetic selection and engineering, to reconstructive surgery, quantum physics (prescience/ prophesy), biology (sandworms), ecology, planetary science/ astrophysics, anthropology, political science, psychology and neurology (hallucingenics), engineering (stillsuits).

The Science of Dune: An Unauthorized Exploration into the Real Science behind Frank Herbert's Fictional Universe (Science of Pop Culture series)
ISBN: 1933771283

P1. On Melange, and relating it to real-world hallucingens; LSD experiments (see Hofmann A., “LSD: My problem child”).

P21. The science behind the human eye (Tleilaxu eye-tech).

P29. Possible biology of the Arrakis sandworm (and relationships between sand trout, sand plankton).

P52. The science and mechanics behind movement of sand dunes.

P62. 1960s Russian Institute of Cytology and Genetics: programme to study the genetics of destination by breeding silver foxes for tameness; resultant breed was remarkably dog-like in terms of behaviour.

P68. “when the first Dune book was written in 1965, genetics and the role of deoxyribonucleic (DNA) in the genetic basis of heredity were the hot topics of the day.”

P89. A quick lesson on classification of stars (Herzsprung-Russell diagram).

P141. author concludes the many current technological possibilities of a Freman Stillsuit.

P183. On Special and General Relativity. Clear and lucid explanations for the layperson.

P224. Ascension Island, and an early terraforming proposal (before the term was coined) by Joseph Dalton Hooker in 1847, for the British Admiralty. Some plans in the proposal worked better than others (with similar consequences as what Jared Diamond points out in “Collapse”, i.e. loss of native wildlife).

The rise and fall of the third chimpanzee: How our animal heritage affects the way we live/ Jared Diamond


Jared Diamond has a way of making science readable and compelling. Basically he tells good stories bound in facts.

The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee: Evolution and Human Life
ISBN: 0099913801

A 1991 publication. Preceding the content page states the theme of the book: “How the human species changed, within a short time, from just another species of big mammal to a world conqueror; and how we acquired the capacity to reverse all that progress overnight.”

P21. One view of anthropological classification sees humans as a branch of the Chimpanzee (the other two are the common chimp and the Pygmy chimp).

P25. Makes the case why if there’s a total ban on animal experiments, it should be on the chimps first.

P39. Modern genes, by themselves, are not enough to produce modern behaviours (e.g. Early homosapiens have similar genes but they did not achieve any great leap in technology).

P42. Elderly people in a pre-literate society could mean life and death. Diamond suggests the longer lifespans of Cro-magnons contributed to their success, compared to the Neantherthals.

P47. He suggests that the plausible answer (to why chimps and humans developed differently inspite of 98% similar genes) is the “anatomical basis for spoken complex language”.

P56. chapter on the evolution of human sexuality. Some questions: why human males have relatively larger penises; human women have larger breasts (even before their first pregnancy) than other animal species.

P57. Evolution of sex organs is related to the species’ social habits and lifecycle, which is related to food-gathering habits.

P62. How the size of testis is related to the breeding cycles of animals, i.e. Size has to do with competition with other males, to increase chances of passing one’s offspring.

P62/3. testis weight and penis lengths of chimps, gorillas, orangutans, humans.

P66-69. Six theories why human females do not show overt signs of ovulation, and why humans are the only animal species to have sex in private.

P74-83. A sociobiological view why humans (also a discussion of bird species) engage in extra martial sex.

P87. Studies that show “like marry like” (chapter on how we pick our marriage or sex partners, based on characteristics that were imprinted when young).

Chpt 6, on sexual selection i.e. Selection of traits because of sexual (and hence arbitrary in a sense) preferences rather than “natural selection” (or selection of traits that helps survival). Diamond supports Darwin’s case that racial characteristics are an outcome of sexual selection rather than natural selection. Also linked to the “like marry like” phenomenon.

P115. “… it is not worth as much to repair a man than to repair a woman” (on ageing; provides an evolutionary perspective why the females in most species trend to outlive males; possibly females evolve to spend more physiological resources repairing their bodies — childcare — while males, with their roles of fighting and gathering food, are better off channeling physiological resources for strength and built.)

Chpt 8. On language.
P128. Animal studies reveal how language/ verbal communication might have developed for humans. E.g. Vervets (a species of monkeys; different vocalisations consistently represent different things, actions – warnings, territory).
P131. Vervets are known to make a false call for “leopard” when their clan is losing a fight, so that the fight breaks up.
P133/ 134. Diamond suggests animal vocalisations might be much more sophisticated than we understand.

P139. On Neo-Melanesian, an independent evolved language in Papua New Guinea; a lingua franca that arose after the arrival of English-speaking traders and sailors in the early 1800s.

P145. Citing Chomsky and Bickerton; suggests language development is wired into humans following a creoles syntax (then later replaced by learned languages).
P150. Explanation of a Neo-Melanesian advertisement.

P152. Cites the positive reviews Expressionism art experts gave (unknowingly) to Siri the elephant.

P156. “Even some human art that later became famous was created by artists for their private satisfaction: the composer Charles Ives published little of his music, and Franz Kafka not only did not publish his three great novels but even forbade his executor to do so.”

P157/ 8. Makes the case that art has a purpose in sexual selection; How male bower birds weaving abilities (and attention to colours) is an indicator of survival skills, and traits of abilities like strength and mind. Diamond compares that to our often superficial reliance of a person’s appearance (Chpt 5) that our criteria for choosing mates seem “pathetic”.

Chpt 10, p163. On how agriculture, a relatively recent phenomenon in human history, is a mixed blessing. It made civilisation possible but also caused problems — social and sexual inequality, strife, disease, despotism (see Guns, Germs and Steel for a more indepth explanations).
P167. Dispels the myth that hunter-gatherer lifestyles were “short and brutish” and only focused on feeding oneself with time for little else. Cites the Australian aboriginal bushman, whose hunter-gatherer lifestyle is not necessarily more difficult; they spend relatively lesser time on feeding themselves and have more stable food consumptions than modern farmers.

P169. Work by paleopathologists showed that introduction of corn agriculture resulted in less diverse diets and more diseases and mortality rates than hunting-gathering lifestyles. P169. “In effect, the farmers gained cheap calories at the cost of poor nutrition.”

P173. On why we smoke, drink and engage in substance abuse. “drug abuse is also a hallmark virtually unique to the human species…”
P175. Interesting account of what made him think of the paradox of advertising self-defeating handicaps (e.g. drinking and smoking actually causes impotence and health problems so why advertise the fact?).
P176. Cites biologist Amotz Zahavi’s theory that advertising self-destructive signals are a fast and direct way of conveying messages (about one’s good genes) to potential mates or predators, and also conveying credibility that one does possess those traits. E.g. Grazelle’s ‘sotting’ (energy-wasting jumps) when chased by lions. But this animal instinct, Diamond suggests, has become maladaptive in modern humans.

P179. “The smoker’s kiss may taste awful, and the drinker may be impotent in bed, but he or she still hopes to impress peers or attract mates by the implicit message of superiority.”

P181. Mayan Indians ritual enema involving alcohol, drugs.

Chpt 12. On why humans may be unique in the universe, as opposed to the theory that there should be more than a few lifeforms out there.
P192. Cites how woodpeckers evolution is an example where convergence is not universal and not all evolutionary opportunities are taken. E.g. We may be the only species to develop radio or to have sustained its development.

P194. Author finds it mind-boggling that the scientists who plan to make contact with aliens don’t have a plan on what to do if it came to be so, or if aliens contacted us. Cites how humans treat our closest species the chimps badly, and suggests humans will always tend to be xenophobic (see P201).

P198. Two potential causes of our fall: our environmental destructiveness and our propensity to kill our own en mass.

P204. Descriptions of First Contact of New Guineans in 1930s.

P212. “Loss of cultural diversity may be the price that we have to pay for survival.”

Chpt 14. A concise version of Guns, Germs and Steel. P214. “In this chapter I shall argue that continental differences in level of civilization arose from geography’s effect on the development of our cultural hallmarks, not from human genetics.”

P227. Tracing lost languages.

P239. Discovery of a lost Indo-European language (now called Tocharian) on ancient documents in a hidden chamber in a Buddhist cave monastery. The documents written around 600-800 AD by Buddhist missionaries and traders.

P248. An example of a para written in Proto-Indo-European, with the English equivalent.

Chpt 16. Author makes the case that (mass) murder is “a phenomenon whose frequency few people appreciate”. Starts with an account of the systematic eradication and removal of Tasmanian aboriginals by white settlers around the 1800s. By 1869 only two adult aboriginals (a man and a woman) were left. The last died in 1876.

P256-8. tables the number of deaths, by victims (of race/ categories), the killers, the place and dates. Lists 17 entries from 1745 to 1976, from all parts of the world.

P226. “genocide has been part of our human and prehuman heritage for millions of years.”

Chpt 19. P313. Makes the case why the extinction crisis is already upon us. Explains in this manner: estimates of how many species have gone extinct since 1600 (more than 1%; cites the recording and verifIcation of bird species, and how there could be many other animal species that have yet to be recorded). Then an estimate of how many extinct species before 1600 (around 73 – 86% of large animals; cites human intrusion and overhunting). Prediction of future extinction rates (est 50% of current species).

P323. “Thus the claimed extinction crisis is neither a hysterical fantasy, nor just a serious risk for the future. Instead, it is an event that has already been accelerating for the past 50,000 years and will start to approach completion in our children’s lifetimes.”

P328. A summary of the themes in the book; traces human development over the last three million years.

Like his book, “Collapse”, this one also concludes that there is hope because the human species possess the ability to pass on our knowledge and also learn. If we choose to.

Discover magazine/ Oct 2008

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theme: fuel and alternative energy sources/ experiments (solar, ethanol, wind, fusion).

P36. Growing beef without the cow.

P51. “Rise of the cyborgs”. Brain implants (neural prosthesis) and trials with paralysed/ “locked-in syndrome” patients.

P66. Interview with William McDonough. See “”Cradle to cradle: Remaking the way we make things”.

P80. Article on the brain (Carl Zimmer), how research shows we also tend to react subconsciously.

P88. quote: Asperger believed that there is a link between mathematical and scientific genius and his syndrome, claiming that “for success in science and art, a dash of autism is essential.” (Asperger’s Syndrome: A form of autism marked by intense absorption in a very narrow range of special interests).

Asian geographic/ no. 64, issue 3, 2009

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“green edition”

P28. “The future of Singapore’s energy industry”/ Alphonsus Chen. Entrepreneur Quek Yeow Hui spent $50,000 to import and install a small wind turbine at a Marine Terrace rooftop. NEA reported as saying low wind speeds in tropical regions make it economical to harness wind on a large scale. Dr. Jiang Fan from Singapore Polytechnic suggests coastlines and rooftops of high-rise buildings may have sufficient speeds. Singapore power plants burns the cleaner natural gas (phased out heavy fuel oil). Power grid is supported by burning of domestic refuse to power steam turbines. Also mentions other Green initiatives (some more successful than others) like Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) taxis. Concludes that Singapore is unable to change overnight from an economy reliant on oil.

P46. A Nepali village (Pulimarang) powered by solar.

Discover magazine/ Feb 2009

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P15. “Nitrogen trifluoride (NF3), which is used to make retail items like microchips and flatscreen TVs… NF3 lingers in the air for 550 years, on average, and is 17,000 times better at trapping heat than CO2 on a molecule-per-molecule basis. Today the effect of NF3 object climate is just 0.04 percent that of carbon dioxide, but its role could grow dramatically if more manufacturers start using it…”

P28. on VFi (vehicle wifi). Why current wifi won’t work. Microsoft trying out a new system.

P30. Carl Zimmer argues that the internet and digital devices are allowing us to tap onto our “extended mind”. Like how our arm is an extension of our mind/ brain, so are machines.

P45. Controversy over the choice of a lab rat (Sprague Dawley) by the US Environment Protection Agency, for a chemical evaluation programme. Controversy is on the Sprague Dawley being bred to have high resistant to certain chemicals, and may defeat the aim of this trial. Also controversial is the selection process has taken more than 10 years and the trial still has not begun.

P50. Article on the “X-prize”; origins, development, future plans, criticisms (duplication of efforts) and advocates (market-driven incentives).

P59. photosynthesis explained by quantum physics.
P61. Very accessible layman explanation of quantum mechanics, without dumbing down science. “Quantum mechanics holds that any given particle has a chance of being inaugurated a whole range of locations and, in a sense, occupies all those places at once… Until a scientist measures the system, a particle exists in its multitude of locations. But at the time of measurement, the particle has to “choose” just a single spot. At that point, quantum physicists say, probability narrows to a single outcome and the wave function “collapses”, sending ripples of certainty through space-time. Imposing certainty on one particle could alter the characteristics of any others it has been connected with, even if those particles are now light-years away.”

P64. Interview with 1972 Nobel laureate and neuroscienctist Gerald Edelman. “neural darwinism”. How he defines consciousness.
P66. Explains that consciousness has two levels: one is being aware of the present; the other is being Conscious of one’s consciousness. Cites William James (who says consciousness is a process). explains that puLling a finger from a hot stove may be reflex and being aware of pain. But it is true consciousness that makes us learn a lesson and subsequently not put a finger to what appears like a hotstove. he feels it is possible to create an artificial consciousness and to verify it requires a test involving the ability to communicate with It,s and it cannot be told what is the test, and the test changes continually to watch its reaction (woah, there’s a scifi story in there somewhere!) He also adds the artificial consciousness must be an artificial construct and not a live organism.
P68. Talks about a Brain-based Device (BBD) where it’s not controlled by Artificial Intelligence (i.e. Execute a defined set of algorithms) but modelled to work like mammalian brains (firing of neurons via computer simulation and sampling of external inputs).
P69. Says they have constructed something equivalent to a cat brain, and exhibits similar characteristics like real brains.

Discover magazine/ Feb 2009

Astronomy/ Jan 2009

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Vol. 37 issue 1

Top 10 stories of 2008

  • Seeing a star’s dying gasp
  • Phoenix tastes Martian dirt
  • Brightest blast ever seen
  • The power behind aurorae
  • Fermi space telescope in orbit
  • How light makes binary asteroids
  • MESSENGER visits Mercury
  • The cosmos’ secret “dark flow”
  • A solar system just like home
  • Hot gravitational lens survey

How Johannes Kepler revolutionized astronomy (his three laws of planetary motion)
Centerfold of constellations (how to tell which star is which)


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