Scent & Memory

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Illustration by James Taylor

Thanks to Colleen Walsh and the Harvard Gazette for this:

What the nose knows

Experts discuss the science of smell and how scent, emotion, and memory are intertwined — and exploited

Roots Of Biodiversity

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Alexandre Antonelli references the International Plant Names Index to identify specimens.
Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

Our practice was born in Costa Rica, so we sometimes may appear partisan when it comes to celebrating the sciences related to biodiversity. Costa Rica has impressive credentials in that realm, especially relative to its size as a country. But we are very clear on the fact that it would take dozens of Costa Rica-sized biodiversity hotspots to match the scale of the Amazon region, and it is no surprise that studies like those of these scholars are carried out with Amazonian data:

The Amazon as engine of diverse life

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“Most evolutionary research focuses on how new species form. But we want to understand how whole ecosystems evolve,” said Alexandre Antonelli.
 Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

A recent study says that many of the plants and animals that call Latin America home may have had their roots in the Amazon region.

The study, co-authored by Harvard Visiting Scholar Alexandre Antonelli and an international team of researchers, says that a dynamic process of colonization and speciation led to the formation of the American tropics, which is the most species-rich region on the planet. The study is described in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We were astonished to detect so much movement across such different environments and over such large distances,” said Antonelli, the study’s lead author. “Up until now, these natural dispersal events were assumed to be quite rare. Our results show how crucial these events have been in the formation of tropical America’s unique and outstandingly rich biodiversity.” Continue reading

If You Happen To Be In Cambridge

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Thanks to Jonathon Shaw and Harvard Magazine for bringing our attention to this book:

Life Beyond Sight

The microbial earth, brought into view

world.drop_.sig_IN ROCKS AND SOIL, air, ponds and oceans, life is dominated by creatures that humans cannot see. Microbes thrive everywhere, from gardens and kitchens to the harshest environments on the planet: under polar ice, in hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the sea, in hot springs that spew acid. A single gram of soil teems with billions of them, and their genetic diversity is equally impressive, dwarfing that of all the plants and animals round.microbe.2 (1)on Earth. Life at the Edge of Sight: A Photographic Exploration of the Microbial World (forthcoming from The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press), brings the planet-shaping diversity of these single-celled, microscopic organisms into view through stunning images. Co-authors Roberto Kolter, professor of microbiology and immunology, and Scott Chimileski, a research fellow in microbiology and immunology at Harvard Medical School, share their passion for the subject in part by magnifying what cannot be seen unaided, in part by revealing large-scale microbial impacts on the landscape. Kolter has long been a leader in microbial science at Harvard, while Chimileski brings to his scholarship a talent for landscape, macro, and technical photography…

Read the whole article here, and if you happen to be in Cambridge (MA, USA) this exhibition might be of interest:

World in a Drop: Photographic Explorations of Microbial Life

logofinalThe minuscule ecosystem within a single drop of water is home to an astonishing diversity of organisms busily living out their lives and interconnected by myriad complex relationships. The photographic exhibit World in a Drop is an aesthetic journey into this microbial world, as revealed through cutting-edge imaging microbe.gallery.1technologies. With expertly executed photography, videography, and poetic narration, Scott Chimileski and Roberto Kolter capture the intrinsic beauty of a mysterious world that is seldom recognized.

If You Happen To Be In The Boston Area

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Saint Barbara, attributed to the “Ghent Associates” of the Master of Mary of Burgundy, from a book of hours-missal, c. 1485-1490. Courtesy of Houghton Library/Harvard University

We check in from time to time at magazines published by universities where we have recruited. This article, which we appreciate topically because of the conservation of cultural heritage described, makes us wish we could visit the venues described in “Illuminations.”  Lily Scherlis provides a good example of why we keep coming back to this magazine–crisp, clear writing and a compelling argument in favor of looking back into history for an enriching perspective on crowdsourcing versus individual authorship (read to the end of the quoted section):

…These works were born into a world where literacy was scarce and almost universally affiliated with religion: the exhibition description refers to monasticism as, at its heart, a “cult of the book.” I imagine how compelling written religious text would have been to early readers: the words echo off the page, as if read by an invisible voice heard only by you, but are available to other readers as well. Continue reading

Seagrass In The Food Chain

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Harvard University Post-Doctoral Fellow in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Barnabas Daru, researches seagrasses of the world. He is at Carson Beach in South Boston, where he found no seagrasses. Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

Postdoctoral researchers contribute to scientific knowledge akin, perhaps, to the way seagrass contributes to the robustness of a marine ecosystem’s biodiversity:

Strong case for seagrass

Researcher behind biodiversity analysis cites key role in food chain

By Alvin Powell, Harvard Staff Writer

new analysis of a key contributor to the marine food web has turned up a surprising twist: more unique species in cooler waters than in the tropics, a reversal of the situation on land.

The findings highlight the need to direct limited conservation dollars according to science, with a focus on places where biodiversity is most at risk, said Barnabas Daru, Harvard Herbaria Postdoctoral Fellow in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, who performed the analysis on the world’s 70 species of seagrass.

Daru acknowledged that seagrass isn’t as exciting as sharks or tuna, or as marine mammals such as seals, dolphins, and manatees. But for anyone who cares about the health of marine animals, he said, the role of humble seagrass at the beginning of the marine food chain is key. Continue reading

The History of America’s National Parks through Maps

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A map depicting the three-day battle of Gettysburg. Source: Library of Congress

Later this week, on August 25th, will be the U.S. National Park Service centennial (more about that on the day in question). So for all history buffs out there, you might enjoy the following article by National Geographic that provides a historical context to several topographical maps of the national parks (a somewhat contrasting view to yesterday’s post on fictional map creation) and their uncharted contribution to historians many years later.

By Betsy Mason

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—John Badger Bachelder arrived at Gettysburg before the soldiers’ bodies were buried. He spent the next 84 days studying the battlefield by horseback and filling notebooks with the accounts of injured soldiers from both sides of the battle. He even took some of the wounded back to the scene so they could point out their positions and recount what had happened.

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Architectural Challenge

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Harvard Graduate School of Design PhD student, Lauren Friedrich’s thesis researched how architecture can facilitate physical well being and what that means for workplace design. Here she is seen in Gund Hall with her model of proposed Gund Hall renovations. Harvard University. Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Because design is frequently part of the assignments we take responsibility for, we monitor our reading lists for interesting stories about architecture, about interior spaces, about how these impact our experiences; and here is a worthy pick. It reminds us of the creative crew we had with us in India a few years back:

Design for movement

Graduate thesis explores changing relationship between architecture and healthy living

By Christina Pazzanese, Harvard Staff Writer

At a basic level, architecture is like a shoe: a useful tool designed to protect the human body from harm caused by the natural elements.

Yet over time, we can become over-reliant on its comfort, losing our dexterity and our ability to withstand even the slightest discomforts. So what is meant to help us may, in fact, hinder us by making things too easy, removing all physical challenges and other stressors that are essential for optimal health.

It doesn’t have to be that way, says Lauren Friedrich, a 2016 graduate of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD). What if instead of disconnecting the human body from the man-made landscape, architectural design used creativity and reorientation to create spaces that challenged our physical skills and encouraged, rather than minimized, a range of movements that supported better health?

That’s the question Friedrich set out to explore in her master’s thesis, a project that takes a multidisciplinary approach incorporating insights from experts across Harvard in neuroscience, biomechanics, physical therapy, choreography, and ergonomics, and ideas from people who patronize public spaces. Her thesis also cleverly reimagines GSD’s Gund Hall as a flexible fun house full of passageways that encourage circulation and “resting nets.” The Gazette spoke with Friedrich about her novel research. Continue reading

Use Nature, Not Seawalls, to Defend from Storms

A Living Shoreline replaced a failing bulkhead at the N.C. Wildlife Resource Commission’s Edenhouse boat ramp on the Chowan River. Photo by the North Carolina Coastal Federation

From the Harvard Gazette, an article by Colleen Walsh on the environmental damage and lack of success in general from manmade seawalls:

For years coastal homeowners have tried to beat back Mother Nature with seawalls, imposing structures of wood and/or concrete intended to fend off angry tides and surging storms. But emerging research suggests that in some areas, biological barriers both better protect against erosion and preserve vital ocean habitats.

Not only have seawalls in certain areas been shown repeatedly to fail when tested, but they pose a threat to the delicate ecosystems associated with wetlands and intertidal areas, Rachel Gittman, a postdoctoral research associate at Northeastern University’s Marine Science Center, said during a talk at Radcliffe on Thursday. Instead of absorbing energy generated by wind and waves, seawalls reflect that force back into the water, said Gittman, further eroding the shore and erasing important habitats for fish, crabs, and shore birds.

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Notes from a Natural History Museum

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I recently had the chance to visit the Harvard Natural History Museum. Despite having lived in Cambridge for nearly a year, and having often thought about visiting the museum when I passed by going to and from my apartment, I had not stopped in until now. What a treat! The collections are full, diverse, and well curated. On this occasion, I spent most of my time in the animal wing, but I plan to return soon to take in the flora and minerals, and spend much more time in choice display rooms (e.g. the absolutely gorgeous Mammals/Birds of the World permanent exhibit: see below for pictures).

A ground sloth skeleton. It is hard to get an idea of the size of this creature from this photo, but it probably weighed several tons while alive!

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