A Gossamer World

spider-webAugust Johann Rösel von Rosenhof (1705-1759)

Two years ago, a research team led by the University of Oxford revealed that, when plucked like a guitar string, spider silk transmits vibrations across a wide range of frequencies, carrying information about prey, mates and even the structural integrity of a web.
Now, a new collaboration between Oxford and Universidad Carlos III de Madrid has confirmed that spider webs are superbly tuned instruments for vibration transmission.

Web-dwelling spiders have poor vision and rely almost exclusively on web vibrations for their ‘view’ of the world.
The musical patterns coming from their tuned webs provide them with crucial information on the type of prey caught in the web and of predators approaching, as well as the quality of prospective mates.
Spiders carefully engineer their webs out of a range of silks to control web architecture, tension and stiffness, analogous to constructing and tuning a musical instrument.

High-powered lasers were able to experimentally measure the ultra-small vibrations, which allowed the team to generate and test computer models using mathematical finite element analysis.

Professor Fritz Vollrath, Head of the Oxford Silk Group, added: ‘It is down to the interaction of the web materials, a range of bespoke web silks, and the spider with its highly tuned behaviour and armoury of sensors that allows this virtually blind animal to operate in a gossamer world of its own making, without vision and only relying on feeling. Perhaps the web spider can teach us something new about virtual vision.’


‘Tuning the instrument: sonic properties in the spider’s web’ is published in Journal of the Royal Society http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2016-09-07-tuning-instrument-spider-webs-vibration-transmission-structures#


A Marmoset Taking Sweets on a Painted Commode

marmoset-teacupLouis Tessier (c.1719 – 1781)


“Virtually every ‘uniquely human’ characteristic has turned out not to be so”, Matthew Cobb, The Guardian


It used to happen every day at the London Zoo: Out came the dainty table and chairs, the china cups and saucers — ­afternoon tea, set out for the inhabitants of the ape enclosure to throw and smash. It was supposed to be amusing — a ­comic, reckless collision of beasts and high ­culture. But, as Frans de Waal explains in “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?”,  apes are actually innovative, agile tool-users.
Not surprisingly — to de Waal, at least — the apes in London quickly mastered the teacups and teapot too. They sat there civilly, having tea.
“When the public tea parties began to threaten the human ego, something had to be done,” de Waal writes. “The apes were retrained to spill the tea, throw food around, drink from the teapot’s spout,” and so on.
The animals had to be taught to be as stupid as we assumed they were. But, of course, the fact that they could be taught to be stupid is only more perverse evidence of their intelligence.

For centuries, our understanding of animal intelligence has been obscured in just this kind of cloud of false assumptions and human egotism.
De Waal painstakingly untangles the confusion, then walks us through research revealing what a wide range of animal species are actually capable of.
Tool use, cooperation, awareness of individual identity, theory of mind, planning, metacognition and perceptions of time — we now know that all these archetypically human, cognitive feats are performed by some animals as well.
And not just primates: By the middle of ­Chapter 6, we’re reading about cooperation among leopard coral trout.

There are many different forms of intelligence; each should be valuated only relative to its environment. And yet, there’s apparently a long history of scientists ignoring this truth.
They’ve investigated chimpanzees’ ability to recognize faces by testing whether the chimps can recognize human faces, instead of faces of other chimps. (They do the former poorly and the latter quite well.)
They’ve performed the ­famous mirror test — to gauge whether an animal recognizes the figure in a mirror as itself — on elephants using a too-small, human-size mirror.
Such blind spots are, ultimately, a failure of empathy — a failure to imagine the experiment, or the form of intelligence it’s testing for, through the animal’s eyes. De Waal compares it to “throwing both fish and cats into a swimming pool” and seeing who can swim.

We sometimes fall into what de Waal calls “neo-creationist” thinking: We accept evolution but assume “evolution stopped at the human head” — believing our bodies may have evolved from monkeys, but that our brains are their own miraculous and discrete inventions.
But cognition must be understood as an evolutionary product, like any other biological phenomenon; it exists on a spectrum, de Waal argues, with familiar forms shading into absolutely alien-looking ones. He introduces what he calls the rule of “cognitive ripples”:
We tend to notice intelligence in primates because it’s most conspicuous, it looks the most like our intelligence.
“After the apes break down the dam between the humans and the rest of the animal kingdom, the floodgates often open to include species after species.”



Like An Injured Fan

crab-grJohann Friedrich Wilhelm Herbst (1743 – 1807)
Versuch einer Naturgeschichte der Krabben und Krebse


The Fish

through black jade.
       Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps
       adjusting the ash-heaps;
              opening and shutting itself like

injured fan.
       The barnacles which encrust the side
       of the wave, cannot hide
              there for the submerged shafts of the

split like spun
       glass, move themselves with spotlight swiftness
       into the crevices—
              in and out, illuminating

turquoise sea
       of bodies. The water drives a wedge
       of iron through the iron edge
              of the cliff; whereupon the stars,

rice-grains, ink-
       bespattered jelly fish, crabs like green
       lilies, and submarine
              toadstools, slide each on the other.

       marks of abuse are present on this
       defiant edifice—
              all the physical features of
       of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns, and
       hatchet strokes, these things stand
              out on it; the chasm-side is

       evidence has proved that it can live
       on what can not revive
              its youth. The sea grows old in it.


Marianne Moore (1887 – 1972)

White Carnation

attrib. Charlotte Brontë  (1816 – 1855)


All the Strange Hours

deer-mori-sosenMori Sosen  (1747 – 1821)


I am treading deeper and deeper into leaves and silence. I see more faces watching, non-human faces.
Ironically, I who profess no religion find the whole of my life a religious pilgrimage.

Loren Eiseley (1907 – 1977)


It Could Take a Century to Recover

elephant5Portrait of an Elephant, Indian, c.1620-30

Study finds extremely slow reproduction rate unable to keep pace with deaths

African forest elephants have experienced serious poaching, driving an estimated population decline of 65% between 2002 and 2013.
Their low birth rates mean that it will take forest elephants at least 90 years to recover from these losses, according to researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Elephant Listening Project, Colorado State University, and Save the Elephants.

These findings are from the first-ever study of forest elephant demography just published in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

“Female forest elephants in the Dzanga population typically breed for the first time after 23 years of age, a markedly late age of maturity relative to other mammals. In contrast, savannah elephants typically begin breeding at age 12.
In addition, breeding female forest elephants only produced a calf once every five to six years, relative to the three to four-year interval found for savannah elephants.”
Andrea Turkalo, a Wildlife Conservation Society scientist, collected the detailed data on the elephants over several decades, in spite of tough logistical challenges and political instability.
“This work provides another critical piece of understanding regarding the dire conservation status of forest elephants.”

George Wittemyer, a professor in Wildlife Conservation at Colorado State University said, “Legislation regarding ivory trade must consider the collateral effects on forest elephants and the difficulties of protecting them. Trade in ivory in one nation can influence the pressures on elephants in other nations.”
And the forest elephant is particularly susceptible to poaching.

Forest elephants also have critical ecological roles in Central African forests, and many tree species rely on the elephants to disperse their seeds.
Those forests are vitally important for absorbing climate change gases.


Ours Blanc

polar ours bJacques de Sève (fl. 1742 – 1788)
from quadruped illustrations for Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière avec la description du Cabinet du Roi
Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707 – 1788) French naturalistmathematiciancosmologist, and encyclopédiste


The Voynich Manuscript

voy brown


The Voynich manuscript has been studied by many professional and amateur cryptographers, including American and British codebreakers from both World War I and World War II. No one has yet succeeded in deciphering the text, and it has become a famous case in the history of cryptography.

Because the text cannot be read, the illustrations are conventionally used to divide most of the manuscript into six different sections: Herbal, Astronomical, Biological, Cosmological, Pharmaceutical, and — Recipes.

The first confirmed owner was Georg Baresch (1585–1662), an obscure alchemist from Prague.
Baresch was apparently just as puzzled as modern scientists about this “Sphynx” that had been “taking up space uselessly in his library” for many years.
On learning that Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680), a Jesuit scholar from the Collegio Romano, had published a Coptic (Egyptian) dictionary and “deciphered” the Egyptian hieroglyphs,
Baresch twice sent a sample copy of the script to Kircher in Rome, asking for clues. Baresch’s 1639 letter to Kircher is the earliest confirmed mention of the manuscript that has been found to date.

Upon Baresch’s death, the manuscript passed to his friend Jan Marek Marci (1595–1667; also known as Johannes Marcus Marci), then rector of Charles University in Prague.
A few years later Marci sent the book to Kircher, his longtime friend and correspondent.
The letter was written in Latin.


Reverend and Distinguished Sir, Father in Christ:

This book, bequeathed to me by an intimate friend, I destined for you, my very dear Athanasius, as soon as it came into my possession, for I was convinced that it could be read by no one except yourself.

The former owner of this book asked your opinion by letter, copying and sending you a portion of the book from which he believed you would be able to read the remainder, but he at that time refused to send the book itself.
To its deciphering he devoted unflagging toil, as is apparent from attempts of his which I send you herewith, and he relinquished hope only with his life. But his toil was in vain, for such Sphinxes as these obey no one but their master, Kircher.
Accept now this token, such as it is and long overdue though it be, of my affection for you, and burst through its bars, if there are any, with your wonted success.

Dr. Raphael, a tutor in the Bohemian language to Ferdinand III, then King of Bohemia, told me the said book belonged to the Emperor Rudolph and that he presented to the bearer who brought him the book 600 ducats.
He believed the author was Roger Bacon, the Englishman.
On this point I suspend judgement; it is your place to define for us what view we should take thereon, to whose favor and kindness I unreservedly commit myself and remain

At the command of your Reverence,
Joannes Marcus Marci of Cronland
Prague, 19th August, 1665


The book was then given or lent to Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenecz (died 1622), the head of Rudolf’s botanical gardens in Prague, probably as part of the debt Rudolf II owed upon his death.



Brigadier John Tiltman 1967
Zandbergen, René (May 19, 2016). “Voynich MS – 17th Century letters related to the MS”

Schuster, 2009
Hogenboom, Melissa (June 21, 2013). “Mysterious Voynich manuscript has ‘genuine message'”
Jackson, David (January 23, 2015) “The Marci letter found inside the VM”
Knight, Kevin (September 2009)
Ensanian, Berj N. (February 27, 2007). “Archive of communications of the Journal Of Voynich Studies
Santos, Marcelo dos. “El Manuscrito Voynich
Neal, Philip. “The letter of Johannes Marcus Marci to Athanasius Kircher (1665)


Chrysanthemums in a jug by a tiled wall

lucie vdiLucie van Dam van Isselt  (1871 – 1949)


Beauty is not caused. It is.
–  Emily Dickinson



Carrie Gooseberries

Amanda Almira Newton (1860-1943)