Around 1620 the Flemish chemist Jan Baptist van Helmont, often considered the father of pneumatic chemistry (the chemistry of gases), wrote the following:

“If you press a piece of underwear soiled with sweat together with some wheat in an open mouth jar, after about 21 days the odor changes and the ferment coming out of the underwear and penetrating through the husks of the wheat, changes the wheat into mice.”

This reflected the commonly held belief at that time, even among many scientists, of spontaneous generation. Life was assumed to arise spontaneously and continuously: mice from wheat, maggots from meat, frogs from mud, and so on.

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Earlier this year, the inaugural workshop of the EES Project was held at the Konrad Lorenz Institute (KLI) in Austria. The KLI is a private and independent research institute with a focus on the development and evolution of biological and cultural complexity. Housed in a beautiful baroque building in the medieval town of Klosterneuburg, it offers a place to think outside the box, escape the usual academic constraints, and work on unconventional ideas.

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Recently I went on a day trip to Brno, Czech Republic, to visit the Mendel Museum. This small museum is located in the original Augustinian abbey where Mendel lived and worked for most of his life. The museum was founded in 2007 in an effort to promote the legacy of this “humble genius”, who is considered the father of genetics. However, Mendel was known for much more than his experiments in plant breeding. For several years he was the actual Abbot of the monastery, and also conducted many experiments in for example meteorology and bee keeping, about which he published as well.

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Our ability to learn, use, and process language is something that sets us apart from other animals. Language is used for effective communication, but also allows us to express our creativity through literature, poetry, and song. However, our use of language follows strict mathematical principles as well. One of the best known of these is Zipf’s law.

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“Most scientific explanations are causal. This is also the case in evolutionary biology, where the primary goals are to explain the diversity of life and the adaptive fit between organisms and their surroundings. Yet, the nature of causation in evolutionary biology is contentious.” So starts the description of a workshop on Cause and Process in Evolution, organized by Kevin Laland and Tobias Uller. It brought together an eclectic mix of evolutionary biologists, developmental biologists, and philosophers of biology, with the aim of addressing this contention. I sat in on this workshop, like a fly on the wall, in the hope of learning a bit about the latest research and debates in evolutionary biology.

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I just spent two weeks in Mallorca (Spain), with as main goal hiking the Ruta de Pedra en Sec (GR221), a long-distance trail that crosses the entire Serra de Tramuntana, Mallorca’s beautiful mountain range. Eight days on the trail (plus one rest day in between), and sleeping most nights in “refugis” (mountain huts). But I also had some extra days to explore in and around Palma de Mallorca, including a visit to some amazing limestone caves and a bike ride along the bay of Palma. All-in-all a fantastic trip that was well worth it. Here are some brief impressions. Click any of the pics for a full-size view, or any of the links throughout the story for more images.

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In this day and age of the internet, where anyone can post anything, it is often difficult to know what is true and what is not. One person claims one thing, while another states the exact opposite. Who to believe among all this (sometimes deliberate) confusion? The upside, also thanks to the internet, is that you don’t need to be a professional scientist to find out at least some of the truth for yourself. With the increasing availability of public online databases and easy-to-use software, “citizen science” can go a long way at countering unsubstantiated claims.

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We’ve heard it all too many times: animal and plant species are currently going extinct at a rate that is higher than ever before. Climate change, over-pollution, and urban and agricultural encroachment all contribute to the rapid decline of our planet’s biodiversity. So much so, that there is a real danger that even within the next few decades, several major ecosystems worldwide (such as mangrove, alpine, and polar regions) will be seriously disrupted, with major consequences for us humans as well.

Thankfully, efforts are underway to try and curb some of these negative influences. But without knowing better what exactly their consequences are, it is almost like driving in the dark without the headlights on. Is there a way to estimate more accurately what the biodiversity consequences are of, e.g., a two-degree increase in global temperature? It turns out the answer is yes (at least to some extent), thanks to mathematics and computers.

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As part of a workshop at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (Wiko), we had the pleasure of being taken on a backstage tour at the Natural History Museum in Berlin. Our private and extremely knowledgeable guide Brandon Kilbourne turned out to be a walking encyclopedia on the evolution of mammals, so we were in for a special treat. This 2.5hr tour provided many wonderful insights into amazing adaptations over millions of years of mammalian evolution, with as cherry on the cake some unique dinosaur skeletons to marvel at.

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Le Grammont is a mountain in the Chablais Alps in Western Switzerland situated at the south-east end of Lake Geneva, close to the Swiss-French border where the Rhône River flows into the lake. With a height of 2,172 m (7,126 ft), Le Grammont is not the highest mountain in the Chablais Alps (highest point Dents du Midi 3,257m/10,686 ft), but because of its prominent location right next to Lake Geneva at the lower end of the Rhône valley in the Canton Valais, it is a popular hiking destination that offers wonderful all-round views from the top.

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Vienna by Night

Last night I took advantage of a temporary break in the extreme cold weather we’re experiencing this month, and went for a walk along the Ringstrasse in Vienna to take some shots of the various beautiful buildings located along it. This was a bit of a spontaneous experiment, but I’m actually quite pleased with how some shots came out. So here’s a nice impression of Vienna by night. Click any pic for a full-size view.

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