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Month January 2011

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: an Urban History



Nabokov Theory on Butterfly Evolution is Vindicated

Via NY Times, by Carl Zimmer

Vladimir Nabokov may be known to most people as the author of classic novels like “Lolita” and “Pale Fire.” But even as he was writing those books, Nabokov had a parallel existence as a self-taught expert on butterflies.

He was the curator of lepidoptera at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, and collected the insects across the United States. He published detailed descriptions of hundreds of species. And in a speculative moment in 1945, he came up with a sweeping hypothesis for the evolution of the butterflies he studied, a group known as the Polyommatus blues. He envisioned them coming to the New World from Asia over millions of years in a series of waves.

Few professional lepidopterists took these ideas seriously during Nabokov’s lifetime. But in the years since his death in 1977, his scientific reputation has grown. And over the past 10 years, a team of scientists has been applying gene-sequencing technology to his hypothesis about how Polyommatus blues evolved. On Tuesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, they reported that Nabokov was absolutely right.

“It’s really quite a marvel,” said Naomi Pierce of Harvard, a co-author of the paper.

Nabokov inherited his passion for butterflies from his parents. When his father was imprisoned by the Russian authorities for his political activities, the 8-year-old Vladimir brought a butterfly to his cell as a gift. As a teenager, Nabokov went on butterfly-hunting expeditions and carefully described the specimens he caught, imitating the scientific journals he read in his spare time. Had it not been for the Russian Revolution, which forced his family into exile in 1919, Nabokov said that he might have become a full-time lepidopterist.

In his European exile, Nabokov visited butterfly collections in museums. He used the proceeds of his second novel, “King, Queen, Knave,” to finance an expedition to the Pyrenees, where he and his wife, Vera, netted over a hundred species. The rise of the Nazis drove Nabokov into exile once more in 1940, this time to the United States. It was there that Nabokov found his greatest fame as a novelist. It was also there that he delved deepest into the science of butterflies.

Nabokov spent much of the 1940s dissecting a confusing group of species called Polyommatus blues. He developed forward-thinking ways to classify the butterflies based on differences in their genitalia. He argued that what were thought to be closely related species were actually only distantly related.

At the end of a 1945 paper on the group, he mused on how they had evolved. He speculated that they originated in Asia, moved over the Bering Strait, and moved south all the way to Chile.

Allowing himself a few literary flourishes, Nabokov invited his readers to imagine “a modern taxonomist straddling a Wellsian time machine.” Going back millions of years, he would end up at a time when only Asian forms of the butterflies existed. Then, moving forward again, the taxonomist would see five waves of butterflies arriving in the New World.

Nabokov conceded that the thought of butterflies making a trip from Siberia to Alaska and then all the way down into South America might sound far-fetched. But it made more sense to him than an unknown land bridge spanning the Pacific. “I find it easier to give a friendly little push to some of the forms and hang my distributional horseshoes on the nail of Nome rather than postulate transoceanic land-bridges in other parts of the world,” he wrote.

When “Lolita” made Nabokov a star in 1958, journalists were delighted to discover his hidden life as a butterfly expert. A famous photograph of Nabokov that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post when he was 66 is from a butterfly’s perspective. The looming Russian author swings a net with rapt concentration. But despite the fact that he was the best-known butterfly expert of his day and a Harvard museum curator, other lepidopterists considered Nabokov a dutiful but undistinguished researcher. He could describe details well, they granted, but did not produce scientifically important ideas.

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Tim Hecker, The Piano Drop

Phlegm, ‘Manatee/Otter/Cat’, Sheffield

From unurth

Songbird’s Hormones Surge at Sight of Flowers

Via Wired, by Susan Milius

As summer heats up, the sight of blooming thistles may give male goldfinches a testosterone kick.

Thistle flowers could signal to American goldfinches that the seeds the songbirds prize for baby food and parent food will soon be abundant, proposes Thomas Luloff of the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada. And in lab setups, male goldfinches housed among blooming Canadian thistles underwent physiological changes that indicate the birds got the “breed now” message from the combination of summery heat and thrilling thistles, Luloff reported January 6 at the annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology.

What particularly impressed George Bentley of the University of California, Berkeley was that the birds “don’t eat the flower — they eat the seeds,” he says. Yet the precursor to food still appeared to have an effect.

Biologists still have much to learn about what tips off birds that it’s time to breed, says Bentley, who was not part of the research project. Yet, he says, the need to understand those cues is growing as climate change threatens to knock signals out of sync.

Many birds lose what they don’t use during the winter, letting hormone concentrations dwindle and reproductive organs shrink. When the breeding season returns, both males and females typically have to recharge and regrow. Much of the earlier work on breeding signals has focused on the broad role of day length or temperature, yet birds can react to other cues too. Species differ in what cues or mixes of cues rev up their breeding biology again.

To see if just looking at thistle flowers would have an effect on goldfinch breeding, Luloff and his colleagues put wild goldfinches, caught during the nonbreeding season, into either of two temperature-controlled rooms. A series of shower curtains allowed birds in both rooms to see either pots of blooming thistles or nonblooming thistles, or no plants at all.

Birds kept in the chill of Canadian spring at 13.5 degrees Celsius during lab daytime didn’t experience a testosterone surge in response to thistles. But in the room warmed to a balmy 28 degrees C, birds that could see pots of blooming thistles beside their cage developed twice the testosterone surge found in neighbors screened from blooms with a shower curtain and allowed to see only thistle plants without blooms.

In the warm room, the bloom-viewing males outpaced their bloomless neighbors in testes growth during the early stages of testes expansion. Later, though, the bloomless males caught up.

Bentley raises the question of whether the smell of the thistle blooms inspired the males. Luloff argues that he thinks it’s unlikely. Goldfinches don’t have much brain area known to be devoted to smelling, and anyway, the shower curtains may have blocked views but let odors circulate.

The idea of a visual food cue isn’t completely new, says reproductive biologist Heather E. Watts of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. A 2000 study of antbirds found that the sight of mouthwateringly desirable live crickets affected the male songbirds’ physiology and increased their singing.

Image: Flickr/RunnerJenny

Nothing to Loose

By Monsieur Qui

Lasted & La Jetée

Music: Benoît Pioulard
Direction: Church & Steak
Animation: Sean Gillane
Illustration: Rinee Shah
Treatment: Michael Grant
Adaption: “La Jetée” by Chris Marker

Archaeological Area of São Jorge Castle, by João Luís Carrilho da Graça

Video by Vítor Gabriel

Musealization of the Archaeological Site of Praça Nova of São Jorge Castle, in Lisbon

Authors: João Luís Carrilho da Graça with João Gomes da Silva landscape architect

Teamwork: Francisco Freire, Vasco Melo, Pedro Abreu, Monica Ravazzolo – architects
Paulo Barreto e Vanda Neto – models
Foundations and Structure: Estudos Betar, José Pedro Venâncio e Paulo Mendonça
Water Installations: Estudos Betar, Marta Azevedo e Jorge Pinheiro
Electrical Installations: Ruben Sobral
Security Installations: GIPIC, Alexandre Martins
Graphic Design: Henrique Cayatte, Mónica Lameiro e Pedro Gonçalves

Area: 3 500m2
Cost: 1 000 000 00€
Client: EGEAC (Empresa de Gestão de Equipamentos e Animação Cultural)
Date: 2008-2010

Two New Views of Starburst Galaxy

From Wired, by Lisa Grossman

This gorgeous new X-ray image of the nearby galaxy M82 shows a frantic burst of star formation that may have been triggered by a close encounter with a nearby galaxy.

M82 is “the prototypical starburst galaxy in the nearby universe,” said astronomer Roy Kilgard of Wesleyan University, who presented the new image in a press conference Thursday at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society. The galaxy lies just 12 million light-years from the Milky Way, and is the brightest galaxy in the sky in infrared wavelengths.

The image above was captured by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory over the course of nearly two years.

“It’s extraordinary. I’ve never seen detail like this in an X-ray image before,” Kilgard said.

More than 100 point-like X-ray sources show up in Chandra’s view of the galaxy, eight of which may be black holes stealing gas and other matter from companion stars much more massive than the sun.

NASA’s WISE (Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer) also observed M82 (the golden galaxy at the top of the image below) before the telescope ran out of coolant in October 2010. WISE’s infrared view covers an area 11 times the area of the full moon, and also captures M82’s galactic neighborhood.

The blue grand-spiral galaxy M81 dominates the bottom center of the image, and the small elliptical galaxy NGC 3077 lies to the bottom left. The faint green streaks that crisscross the image are lanes of dust in the Milky Way.

The huge burst of star-forming activity in M82 was probably triggered by a recent near-miss collision with M81, said astronomer Ned Wright of the University of California, Los Angeles. The encounter stopped M82’s rotation, and dumped a huge amount of gas into the galaxy’s center, where it collapsed into bright, young stars.

Near-miss collisions often result in distorted, wonky-looking galaxies. But for M81, the flyby with M82 may have enhanced its spiral structure.

“Eventually these things will merge into some giant mega-galaxy,” Wright said.

The data from the two space telescopes is “quite complimentary,” Kilgard said. Combining the X-ray and infrared views of M82 can help astronomers determine how star formation is related to the birth of black holes with stellar companions

Images: 1) NASA/CXC/Wesleyan/R.Kilgard et al. 2) NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

The Sleeping Pattern of an Architecture Student