A Symbiotic View of Life: We Have Never Been Individuals

The notion of the “biological individual” is crucial to studies of genetics, immunology, evolution,development, anatomy, and physiology. Each of these biological subdisciplines has a specific conception of individuality, which has historically provided conceptual contexts for integrating newly acquired data. During the past decade, nucleic acid analysis, especially genomic sequencing and high-throughput RNA techniques, has challenged each of these disciplinary definitions by finding significant interactions of animals and plants with symbiotic microorganisms that disrupt the boundaries that heretofore had characterized the biological individual. Animals cannot be considered individuals by anatomical or physiological criteria because a diversity of symbionts are both present and functional in completing metabolic pathways and serving other physiological functions. Similarly, these new studies have shown that animal development is incomplete without symbionts. Symbionts also constitute a second mode of genetic inheritance, providing selectable genetic variation for natural selection. The immune system also develops, in part, in dialogue with symbionts and thereby functions as a mechanism for integrating microbes into the animal-cell community. Recognizing the “holobiont”—the multicellular eukaryote plus its colonies of persistent symbionts—as a critically important unit of anatomy, development, physiology, immunology, and evolution opens up new investigative avenues and conceptually challenges the ways in which the biological subdisciplines have heretofore characterized living entities.

Nonlinear Dynamics and Chaos – Steven Strogatz, Cornell University

This course of 25 lectures, filmed at Cornell University in Spring 2014, is intended for newcomers to nonlinear dynamics and chaos. It closely follows Prof. Strogatz’s book, “Nonlinear Dynamics and Chaos: With Applications to Physics, Biology, Chemistry, and Engineering.”

The mathematical treatment is friendly and informal, but still careful. Analytical methods, concrete examples, and geometric intuition are stressed. The theory is developed systematically, starting with first-order differential equations and their bifurcations, followed by phase plane analysis, limit cycles and their bifurcations, and culminating with the Lorenz equations, chaos, iterated maps, period doubling, renormalization, fractals, and strange attractors.

A unique feature of the course is its emphasis on applications. These include airplane wing vibrations, biological rhythms, insect outbreaks, chemical oscillators, chaotic waterwheels, and even a technique for using chaos to send secret messages. In each case, the scientific background is explained at an elementary level and closely integrated with the mathematical theory. The theoretical work is enlivened by frequent use of computer graphics, simulations, and videotaped demonstrations of nonlinear phenomena.

The essential prerequisite is single-variable calculus, including curve sketching, Taylor series, and separable differential equations. In a few places, multivariable calculus (partial derivatives, Jacobian matrix, divergence theorem) and linear algebra (eigenvalues and eigenvectors) are used. Fourier analysis is not assumed, and is developed where needed. Introductory physics is used throughout. Other scientific prerequisites would depend on the applications considered, but in all cases, a first course should be adequate preparation.

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things

In Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart present an integration of design and science that provides enduring benefits for society from safe materials, water and energy in circular economies and eliminates the concept of waste.

The book puts forward a design framework characterized by three principles derived from nature:

Everything is a resource for something else. In nature, the “waste” of one system becomes food for another. Everything can be designed to be disassembled and safely returned to the soil as biological nutrients, or re-utilized as high quality materials for new products as technical nutrients without contamination.

Use clean and renewable energy. Living things thrive on the energy of current solar income. Similarly, human constructs can utilize clean and renewable energy in many forms—such as solar, wind, geothermal, gravitational energy and other energy systems being developed today—thereby capitalizing on these abundant resources while supporting human and environmental health.

Celebrate diversity. Around the world, geology, hydrology, photosynthesis and nutrient cycling, adapted to locale, yield an astonishing diversity of natural and cultural life. Designs that respond to the challenges and opportunities offered by each place fit elegantly and effectively into their own niches.

Rather than seeking to minimize the harm we inflict, Cradle to Cradle reframes design as a positive, regenerative force—one that creates footprints to delight in, not lament. This paradigm shift reveals opportunities to improve quality, increase value and spur innovation. It inspires us to constantly seek improvement in our designs, and to share our discoveries with others.

Billions & Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium

In the final book of his astonishing career, Carl Sagan brilliantly examines the burning questions of our lives, our world, and the universe around us. These luminous, entertaining essays travel both the vastness of the cosmos and the intimacy of the human mind, posing such fascinating questions as how did the universe originate and how will it end, and how can we meld science and compassion to meet the challenges of the coming century? Here, too, is a rare, private glimpse of Sagan’s thoughts about love, death, and God as he struggled with fatal disease. Ever forward-looking and vibrant with the sparkle of his unquenchable curiosity, Billions & Billions is a testament to one of the great scientific minds of our day.