Monday, July 31, 2017

Didja Ever Wonder What Pluto Looks Like?

No!.  Not THAT Pluto.....


1 min. 59 sec.

Pluto Flyover from New Horizons
Credit: NASA, JHUAPL, SwRI, P. Schenk & J. Blackwell (LPI); Music Open Sea Morning by Puddle of Infinity
Explanation: What if you could fly over Pluto -- what might you see? The New Horizons spacecraft did just this in 2015 July as it shot past the distant world at a speed of about 80,000 kilometers per hour. Recently, many images from this spectacular passage have been color enhanced, vertically scaled, and digitally combined into the featured two-minute time-lapse video. As your journey begins, light dawns on mountains thought to be composed of water ice but colored by frozen nitrogen. Soon, to your right, you see a flat sea of mostly solid nitrogen that has segmented into strange polygons that are thought to have bubbled up from a comparatively warm interior. Craters and ice mountains are common sights below. The video dims and ends over terrain dubbed bladed because it shows 500-meter high ridges separated by kilometer-sized gaps. Although the robotic New Horizons spacecraft has too much momentum ever to return to Pluto, it has now been targeted at Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU 69, which it should shoot past on New Year's Day 2019.

The Buttery Goodness of Star Trek

Sculpting Star Trek Characters With Butter at the Iowa State Fair 

Atlas Obscura by Michael Waters  July 31, 2017

Sarah Pratt has the Iowa butter-sculpting niche cornered. After twenty-five years working with butter as an artistic medium, she has mastered the practice.

Since 2006, she has assumed responsibility for creating the Iowa State Fair’s iconic butter cow, which is 5.5 feet high and 8-feet-long and receives regular media coverage. Clocking in at around 600 pounds, the cow is large enough to butter roughly 19,200 pieces of toast.

The tradition of creating butter sculptures for state fairs began in Ohio in 1903 and took root in Iowa eight years later. Ever since, much hype has surrounded what beloved person—or creature—will be featured next.

In 2016, Pratt sculpted a cast of Star Trek characters in her 40-degree cooler in honor of the 50th anniversary of the show. She fashioned Captain Kirk, Spock, Uhura, and Dr. McCoy the way she best knew how.

This year at the Iowa State Fair, which begins August 10th, Pratt has a new challenge: for the 150th birthday of the Little House on the Prairie, she’ll be crafting a buttery Laura Ingalls Wilder.

The Uses and Ways of Corn

Things related to corn: nixtamalization, planting techniques (the milpa), and journeys in North America

3 Quarks Daily  by Hari Balasubramanian 7.31.17

CorncobsThere are techniques of processing food that ancient cultures everywhere seem to have arrived at through an unstructured process of trial and error, and without a formal understanding of chemistry. This is how wheat grains turned into bread loaves, milk to cheese, soybeans to tofu, fruits to alcohol. As the techniques traveled in space and time, there were adaptations to the template, the creation of new variants. Much of what we call ‘cuisine' is precisely this ongoing process of collective experimentation.  

This piece is about a millennia-old method of preparing corn which I discovered this year and which led me to other, unexpected links in history. In May I'd purchased a few pounds of corn grains. Not fresh corn on the cob that can be eaten grilled or steamed, but grains of corn that, like grains of wheat or barley or rice, have been kept dry for months after harvest. Naively I thought that cooking them should be easy: either soak them, like one soaks beans, and then, after they've softened a little, boil or pressure cook them. But the outer skin of each corn grain – the hull – was very tough. Even many hours of soaking and then cooking did not produce satisfactory results. While the cooked grains were softer, they still were somewhat difficult to chew. Something was clearly off.

I was missing an important step, a chemical process called nixtamalization. The word nixtamal comes from an indigenous Mexican language, Nahuatl. It refers to the process of cooking dried corn in an alkaline solution. This can be done easily at home. All you need is to boil corn, water and lime (not the citrus lime but the powder calcium hydroxide) together for fifteen minutes, then let it rest. After a few hours, the tough outer skin loosens, peels off easily on rinsing, leaving the kernels. The kernels can then be ground and made into a dough or masa. And it is masa that gives the remarkable aroma and taste to the freshly made tortillas, tacos, and tamales that Mexico and other Central American countries are famous for. If you mill whole corn grains without nixtamalizing them, then not only is the milling process harder because of the tough hull, but the resulting flour may not form into a dough. So much for the new fad of eating whole and unrefined grains!

But there's more to it than convenience and taste. Nixtamalization may have evolved for a specific reason. Niacin, a source of Vitamin B3, which remains trapped and inaccessible if the corn is not nixtamalized, becomes more available if it is. This vital fact, however, remained unknown for a long time. As we'll see, cultures around the world that took up a diet high in corn but without nixtamalization paid a heavy price.


Until my mid twenties, I used to think that the crops and vegetables that I knew had always been available in all parts of the world, in the same way that that air and water are everywhere. I also believed that agriculture had been humanity's primordial condition. Only after reading books like The Columbian Exchange and Guns Germs and Steel – what a thrill it was to be reoriented to this new way of looking at the world! – did I realize that each grain has a specific place of origin; that the organized cultivation of grains is relatively recent; and that the surpluses stored after harvest – the nutritional energy tightly locked in dried grains can be used months or years later – changes the structure of society itself.

Maize, known in the United States as corn (I'll use maize and corn interchangeably from here on), was cultivated about nine or ten thousand years ago, somewhere in south-central Mexico, from a wild ancestor called teosinte. Advances in the farming of maize fueled the great empires of Mexico and Central America: the Olmecs, the Mayans, the Aztecs. The organized societies that emerged in this part of the world before Spanish arrival are referred to as the Mesoamerican cultures. The Mesoamerican cultures discovered the alkaline process to treat corn – what came later to be called nixtamalization – using naturally occurring sources of slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) and ash (potassium hydroxide). How and where this happened is hard to trace, but the earliest archaeological evidence dates to 1200-1500 BC in coastal Guatemala [1].

After Columbus' arrival in 1492 inadvertently connected the long isolated Western and Eastern hemispheres, corn jumped the oceans and reached other continents. Along with wheat, rice and potatoes, it became one of the star crops of the world, with relatively high yields per acre. From Africa to Europe to China, maize farming became popular among the poor. But knowledge of nixtamalization does not appear to have traveled with the crop, though the Spanish were certainly aware of it. Nixtamalization was ignored probably because it was not considered of any value. This meant that there were populations around the world with diets that relied heavily on unprocessed corn.

A terrible disease called pellagra affected some of these populations. Pellagra resulted in a range of symptoms, from the visible degradation of skin (image of a patient), to diarrhea, to dementia. It was common in Northern Italy where the peasant population consumed polenta, a porridge made of corn flour, on a regular basis. 

In the early 20th century, the disease took on epidemic proportions in the southern United States, affecting millions of people. There too it affected people on the lower end of socioeconomic status, those who ate corn regularly and did not have the luxury of a varied diet. While pellagra was clearly linked to the consumption of corn, the precise details of this epidemiological mystery took were not unraveled until the 1930s. By this time the disease had consumed innumerable lives all around the world, 100,000 in the southern United States alone [2].

In the late 1930s, the reason became clear. Pellagra was due to a lack of niacin, which is linked to Vitamin B3. Corn happens to be relatively deficient in niacin, and without the chemical changes that nixtamalization brings about, what niacin that exists in the grain cannot be released. A diet heavily reliant on unnixtamalized corn without other food sources that could compensate for the niacin shortage can therefore cause pellagra. This simple but invaluable discovery lead to two equally simple solutions: either eat a varied diet that covers all nutritional needs; or, if corn remains a major part of the diet since the economic means for a varied diet aren't there, then have it nixtamalized. The incidence of pellagra dropped dramatically from the 1940s onwards.

It's fair, then, to hypothesize that in the millennia before Europeans arrived, pellagra outbreaks were common in Mesoamerica too, where corn was a staple – until the discovery of nixtamalization solved the problem.


IMG_20160105_122209_748There is also another interesting way in which niacin deficiency appears to have been addressed by the Mesoamerican cultures. In modern agriculture, we are used to acres of land dedicated to a single crop. The Midwestern states are famous for large scale mechanized agriculture: tracts of land dedicated to growing row upon row of corn. But in Mesoamerica, maize was not cultivated in isolation. It was one crop among many – beans, squash, avocadoes – that were simultaneously grown in a field called milpa. From Charles Mann's 1491:
"Milpa crops are nutritionally and environmentally complimentary. Maize lacks digestible niacin, the amino acids lysine and tryptophan, necessary to make proteins and diets with too much maize can lead to protein deficiency and pellagra, a disease caused by lack of niacin. Beans have both lysine and tryptophan, but not the amino acids cysteine and methionine, which are provided by maize. As a result, beans and maize make a nutritionally complete meal. Squashes, for their part, provide an array of vitamins; avocadoes fats."
Milpa has other effects too. While maize takes out nitrogen from the soil, the beans make it available, thus ensuring that the soil is not too depleted and can be used for future cultivation. Maize, which is grown first, provides the shoots which the vines of bean use as support to ascend. Meanwhile, the low-growing squash reduces the possibility of weeds gaining sunlight, and by covering the ground it keeps the soil from becoming dry. Thus the three as a team achieve what each crop individually might not have been able to on its own.

Like nixtamalization, milpa appears to have emerged through a slow process of collective experimentation, without a centralized or coordinated effort. Maize, squash and beans were each domesticated at different moments in time, and for them to come together into the same field took at least a few thousand years. But once the basic templates of milpa and nixtamalization had been perfected, they proved to be powerful. Radiating outwards from Mexico, they eventually influenced food and cultivation practices in the distant corners of North America. I'll turn to this next. 
The Massachusetts Connection 

From Oaxaca in southern Mexico, one of the centers of maize and milpa cultivation, to Amherst in western Massachusetts, where I now live, it's a distance of about 3000 miles by land. Today, Massachusetts isn't considered corn country. Except for the sweet corn stalls in rural parts or corn grown as feed for cattle, there's not the deep knowledge of or reverence for corn that exists in Oaxaca. When I looked around supermarkets and grocery stores in Amherst, I could not find slaked lime, calcium hydroxide, that I needed to nixtamalize the dried corn grains I'd purchased. No one knew what I was talking about; I had to order it online. Which makes sense: in Massachusetts, you are more likely to find artisanal bakeries, discussions about yeast and what to do with wheat and rye flour, than tortillerias and how to make masa. In other words, it's a culture largely based on adaptations to the European template rather than the indigenous North American one.

But it need not have been this way. Let's go back, for a moment, to November 1620. The group of 102 colonists that would later be called the Pilgrims have just arrived, after an arduous journey in a cramped ship called the Mayflower. After a terrible winter of sickness, only 47 of the them are alive. In March 1621, they are approached by Massasoit, the Wampanoag chief. The Wampanoag are one of the numerous Algonquin speaking people of New England. For his own reasons, Massasoit makes the decision to ally with the surviving Pilgrims. An intermediary, Tisquantum, known by the popular name Squanto, helps the Pilgrims navigate and survive. Among other things, he teaches them indigenous methods of farming. The settlers survive, gain a foothold, paving the way for the European settlement of the American Northeast.

So what exactly are the indigenous methods of farming that Tisquantum taught? Planting corn, beans and squash in the same field, exactly the idea of a milpa! So here we have a native of coastal Massachusetts who knew how cultivate an agricultural package that that was first perfected in faraway Mexico. I find this detail remarkable: it tells us how the knowledge of agriculture can transmit itself across long distances, moving from one network to the next in a relay. It tells us also how interconnected trade networks must have been in North America before European arrival.

Cahokia-illustrationThrough a slow process of dispersion – crops have to be adapted to changes in weather and seasons as they move north – corn, squash and beans made it from Mexico to Hohokam and Pueblo cultures the southwestern United States; to the American south, where it led to a flowering of the Mississippian chiefdoms and the 12th century urban center Cahokia near modern day St. Louis (right image presents an artist's recreation); to coastal Virginia, where the Jamestown settlers in 1607 encountered the expanding agricultural societies of the Tsenacomoco; and finally, a few hundred years prior to the arrival of the Pilgrims, to New England.

Contrast the hot and dry and mountain valleys of Oaxaca with the brutal winters, snows, the variations in the length of the day, the limited spring and summer growing seasons of Massachusetts, and we get a sense of the long journey that the Mesoamerican crops made. Equally striking is the fact that along with corn, the knowledge of nixtamalization traveled too. Among the dozens of North American indigenous cultures, including the Algonquin Northeast, corn was consumed after some form of alkaline treatment using naturally occurring substances such as hardwood ash and lye [3].

Thus, while the the Massachusetts that I live in today seems not so steeped in milpa and nixtamalization, it certainly was prior to European settlement. Fields of corn, squash and beans surrounded every home and towns sprawled along the major rivers of Massachusetts. While this Algonquin agricultural past – a use of the land different from the European style: fire was used creatively to burn selected portions of the landscape – is not mainstream anymore, traces of it have persisted. In the early 20th century, an ancient corn field that dated back at least to 1654 was discovered fifteen minutes from where I live, close to the meandering path of the Connecticut River [4]. And the descendants of the Wampanoag in Chilmark, Massachusetts, still teach old methods of planting corn, squash and beans to their children in grades 3-6. 

Had the trajectory of American Indian development in the northeast not been interrupted by a deluge of European immigrants and wars after the arrival of the Pilgrims, had there been an intermingling of the cultures rather than a displacement of one by the other, perhaps indigenous perspectives might have been more mainstream in Massachusetts.


As it happens, nixtamalized corn is now returning to the United States. If at one time Mesoamerica exported its ideas of cultivation north, today people from that part of the world themselves have immigrated north in large numbers, bringing their culinary practices with them. An interesting fact, though of no practical relevance, is that the mixed race (mestizo) and indigenous immigrants of Mexico and Central America, who have changed the demographic in many American states, also happen to be the closest genetic relatives of the North American Indians.

20170716_131644Even in rural western Massachusetts, there's a Mexican family that sells corn tortillas made from scratch. And walking distance from my apartment, there's a Salvadorian restaurant called El Comalito. My favorite dish there is the pupusa, which unlike the tortilla, is thicker and is stuffed with mashed beans and cheese. At El Comalito, the pupusas always take longer than other dishes – you can hear the dough getting patted in the kitchen soon after the order has been placed, then placed on the hot griddle. Once the dish arrives, there's that unmistakable aroma and taste that I'd always enjoyed and which – thanks to my own attempt at cooking corn – I now recognize can come only from nixtamalization.

What long and complicated histories are hidden in the things we eat!
1. Staller, John E.; Carrasco, Michael (2009). Pre-Columbian Foodways: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Food, Culture, and Markets in Ancient Mesoamerica. Berlin: Springer-Verlag. p. 317.
2. Bollet, Alfred Jay. "Politics and pellagra: the epidemic of pellagra in the US in the early twentieth century." The Yale journal of biology and medicine 65.3 (1992): 211. 
3. Briggs, Rachel V. "The Hominy Foodway of the Historic Native Eastern Woodlands." Native South 8.1 (2015): 112-146. Also check out Rachel Briggs' excellent website: All Things Hominy.
4. Delabarre, Edmund B., and Harris H. Wilder. "INDIAN CORN‐HILLS IN MASSACHUSETTS." American Anthropologist 22.3 (1920): 203-225.
5. Image credits: The first image is from here; the second is a picture of a milpa that I took  at the Ethnobotanic museum in Oaxaca City; the third is an artistic rendition of Cahokia from here; and the last is a picture of pupusas  that I took at El Comalito.

More Olbinski Skies

Pursuit (4K)

from Mike OlbinskiPRO  July 25, 2017
Blu-Ray discs available here:
Music by Peter Nanasi, find his work here:
Follow me: / /

Watch it HERE
On June 12th, I broke down into tears. Minutes earlier, I had been outside my truck, leaning against it, head buried in my arms, frustration and failure washing over me. I wanted to quit. I got back in the car and as I drove, the pain got the better of me and the tears came.

This past spring was a tough one. Supercell structure and beautiful tornadoes had been very hard to come by. In fact, the tornado in the opening of this film was the only good one I saw this entire year. I had been on the road longer than ever before. Driven more miles. I was away from my family for 12 straight days at one point, and when I got home, I had to tell them I was going back out 24 hours later for June 12th. It was just too good to pass up. It promised to be a day that I could get everything I had been hoping for this spring and I had no choice. My wife understood, even though I knew she wished I stayed home. And I wished it too.

I knew right where I wanted to be that day. But this year I struggled with confidence in trusting my instincts. Maybe it was because the lack of good storms this spring made me question my skills, or maybe it was something else inside of me. Whatever the case, I let myself get twisted and unsure, and found myself 80 miles away from where I had wanted to be when the tornadoes started to drop and the best structure of the year materialized in the sky. The photos from Twitter and Facebook started to roll in and I knew I had missed everything.

It may not be easy to understand why, but when you work as hard as I did this spring, a moment like that can break you. I felt like I let my wife down. But mostly I let myself down. I forgot who I was and that's not me. Or it shouldn't have been me. I failed myself. And it seemed like the easy choice to just give up and head for home.

But I didn't. I'm not sure why, but the pain slowly began to subside. I realized it was only 4pm and the storms were still ongoing. Maybe if I could get in front of them the day could be saved. Ninety minutes later, I got out ahead and saw some of the best structure I'd seen all spring and a lightning show that was so incredible it's one of the very last clips of this film.

And that's why this film is called "Pursuit." Because you can't give up. Keep chasing, keep pursuing. Whatever it is. That's the only way to get what you want.

I learned something about myself on June 12th which carried over to the final few days of chasing this spring. I trusted myself again and those days were incredibly rewarding. This was who I'd been all along but had forgotten. I can't wait for next year.

The work on this film began on March 28th and ended June 29th. There were 27 total days of actual chasing and many more for traveling. I drove across 10 states and put over 28,000 new miles on the ol' 4Runner. I snapped over 90,000 time-lapse frames. I saw the most incredible mammatus displays, the best nighttime lightning and structure I've ever seen, a tornado birth caught on time-lapse and a display of undulatus asperatus that blew my mind. Wall clouds, massive cores, supercell structures, shelf ended up being an amazing season and I'm so incredibly proud of the footage in this film. It wasn't the best year in storm chasing history...but I got to chase storms and share it with you guys. All worth it.

I wanted to do something new this year, so I worked with composer Peter Nanasi to develop a custom track for Pursuit. I'm super excited about it and loved the process of exchanging ideas and building the song as the editing of the film progressed. I am so thankful to Peter for what he came up with, I'm in love with this track!

The time away from my family turned out to be over a month all told. I'm always and continually blessed by a wife who supports what I do and backs me completely. But not only do I have her to thank this spring, but also her parents who hung around for a good chunk of May and early June, to help out wherever needed, watch the kids, run errands and generally be there for Jina. I don't have enough words to convey how appreciative I am for them being around while I was gone.

I think that's about it. I could write a lot more, but I'd rather you watch the film and hopefully have a taste of what I saw this spring. There is nothing quite like strong inflow winds, the smell of rain and the crack of thunder. I miss being out there already.

Technical Details:

I used two Canon 5DSR's along with a Canon 11-24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 135mm and Sigma Art 50mm. Manfrotto tripods. The final product was edited in Lightroom with LR Timelapse, After Effects and Premiere Pro.

Psychedellic Bridge

Montreal 375 The Jacques Cartier Bridge's Inaugural Light Show

Montreal 375 The Jacques Cartier Bridge's Inaugural Light Show
Cérémonie d'illumination du pont Jacques-Cartier pour le 375e anniversaire de Montréal

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Next Super-Veggie

Forecasting the Next Food Fad: Are ‘Kohlrabi’ and ‘Yacon’ the Next Kale?

Why do some foods start popping up everywhere from markets to restaurant menus? Here’s a glimpse into the making of an ‘It’ vegetable. Plus, recipes for the must-haves of the moment.

The Wall Street Journal   by Karen Stabiner July 27, 2017

YOU MAY NOT have heard of a yacon, but pay attention. This Andean tuber could be big. 

If you’ve ever eaten a kiwi or a kale salad, you’ve already surfed a produce wave. But there’s a new urgency to fruit and vegetable trends as a tight restaurant economy makes it more important than ever for a chef to stand out. Savvy customers want produce that’s intriguing, surprising, delicious and, if possible, wildly nutritious—not only at restaurants and stores but on our doorsteps, as grocery-delivery services such as FreshDirect expand the market.

On the local level, veteran southern California farmer Alex Weiser plants what he calls “development crops”—seasonal items that a chef might audition on his menu—to see if they warrant more acreage. On a much larger scale, companies like Los Angeles-based Frieda’s Specialty Produce scour the globe for fruits and vegetables that might come from nearby or from South America, because supermarket clients want variety year-round.

Karen Caplan, CEO of the 55-year-old Frieda’s, has never seen anything like the current scramble for marquee produce.

“Information travels at the speed of light” in the Instagram era, she said. The next big thing gets a lot more exposure, and faces a lot more competition.

The new star could be a tomato called the datterino—Italian for little date—that Pennsylvania farmer Chris Field brings to New York’s Union Square Greenmarket every Friday. “We can’t grow enough,” said Mr. Field, considering a near-empty crate only an hour after the market opened.

Or it could be a happy fluke like the Stokes purple sweet potato that Frieda’s distributes. Its debut happened to coincide with the popular Blue Zone diet; though the regimen promotes the health benefits of a different variety of purple sweet potato, the Stokes benefited from the association.

Yet for every lucky crop there’s a story of unmet potential. Remember kale sprouts, aka lollipop kale or kalettes? Back in 2013, this hybrid of kale and Brussels sprouts was touted as the next kale—the biggest produce-marketing success story in recent memory—but wasn’t.

On a postcard Sunday morning in Santa Monica, Calif., Mr. Weiser presides over his family’s stand at the farmers’ market in a well-worn “Life is Good” T-shirt. Conversations with customers invigorate him. Chatting with a couple of chefs, he learned about the yacon, the aforementioned Andean tuber, which he now cultivates alongside other newcomers at his farm at the base of the Tehachapi Mountains. The versatile vegetable “tastes like a combo of celery and apple raw, and cooked, it gets sweeter,” said Mr. Weiser. He’ll give the early yield to the chefs who told him about it, to see what kind of response they get from diners.

Collaborations between chefs and small farmers sometimes hinge on matching produce to the appropriate microclimate. Evan Funke, chef-partner at Felix Trattoria in Venice, Calif., handed out chicory seeds to Mr. Weiser and a few other farmers, to make sure he has a constant supply of the bitter green as the seasons shift. He’s a one-man chicory trendmaker: When the crops hit, there will be enough not only for him but for other local chefs.

Broccolini Salad Broccolini Salad Photo: Victor Prado for The Wall Street Journal, Food Styling by Heather Meldrom, Prop Styling by Stephanie Hanes 
Kong Thao, who has a farm in Fresno, Calif., is going to grow a thin-skinned Italian pepper called Jimmy Nardello for Mr. Funke, as is Mr. Weiser. Once the peppers hit the market, Mr. Thao expects word of mouth to expand his customer base. “Chefs try something, people see it on the menu, they want to buy it and try it at home,” he said. “And if a chef’s here buying something and another chef’s standing nearby, they have a conversation—and the second chef tries it too.”

The same synergy informs the East Coast market. Greg Vernick, who won this year’s James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic Region, said that his menu at Vernick Food & Drink in Philadelphia emphasizes vegetables because so many people, himself included, are eating more of them (or feel they should be). He’s always on the hunt for novel produce.

Like most people, Mr. Vernick thought of kohlrabi as a fall vegetable—until he found some in June at the local farmers market. The summer strains were tasty and easy to work with, Mr. Vernick found—the right combination for a potential trend. “It’s not like an artichoke, where you do all this work to get a quarter cup of vegetable,” said Mr. Vernick. His kohlrabi slaw recipe, at right, combines the zesty bulb, cut into matchsticks, with cabbage, corn, tomatoes and strawberries.

The back-and-forth among farmer, chef and market customer means more variety, and more candidates for fame. When Mr. Thao first came to the Santa Monica market 21 years ago he had about 15 crops to sell, including Chinese long beans, most of which went back on the truck at the end of the day. Now he grows about 300 produce varieties, and a bigger harvest of Chinese long beans frequently sells out in the first hour.
The back-and-forth among farmer, chef and market customer means more variety.
On the national level, big distributors take a more strategic approach to trend-building, selecting candidates that satisfy two additional criteria: volume and a decent shelf life. “Jackfruit’s the hottest,” said Ms. Caplan of Frieda’s Produce, who likens its flavor to “Juicy Fruit gum” and describes it as “big as a toddler.” It doesn’t spoil quickly, it’s unusual enough to appeal to a retailer who wants to stand out, and it works raw and cooked, frozen or canned. It also has a demographic advantage, coming from Asia: The Asian population is the fastest-growing in the U.S.

None of which was sufficient to make a shopper take a chance on an $80 whole jackfruit. Ms. Caplan said shoppers will spend about five dollars to try a new fruit or vegetable. So Frieda’s created a label to introduce the new item and got retailers to sell cut segments for a fraction of an entire jackfruit’s cost.

As with any trend, there can be backlash. Chef Missy Robbins of Lilia, in Brooklyn, said that over the last couple of seasons she saw versions of the same dish everywhere: “carrots, roasted, with some seeds and yogurt.” Instead, she used thinly sliced raw carrots in a salad with feta and boquerones. For years she embraced springtime peas and fava beans, an annual rite at New York restaurants. “Peas come in, people do them with everything; favas come in, people do them with everything,” she said. She’s over it.

“Peas and favas don’t excite me the way they used to,” she said. Vegetables have moved to the center of the plate, from the cauliflower steaks that have been so popular in recent years to Ms. Robbins’s own hearty, boldly flavored broccolini salad (recipe at right). “I like a vegetable you can eat as a meal, and people want that,” she said. “That’s the trend.” 

And the 8th, and Probably Not Final, Osprey Post

... in consequence of all the scavengers that have been turning up at the nest while the ospreys are out.
Because today is National Cheesecake Day and National Paperback Books Day...
...and National Lipstick Day.

Richmond (left) gets hip-slammed off the nest after bringing his daughter Rivet (right) a fish. 
 Rivet screaming for food.
The family is alarmed by an intruder. 
 More food-screaming from Rivet. 

 Mom and Rivet at bedtime.
Rosie (left) and Richmond (right).  Look at how much bigger Rosie's feet and talons are than her mate's.

All the Lonely Life-Forms - Where Do They All Come From?

Controversial New Theory Suggests Life Wasn't a Fluke of Biology—It Was Physics

Shayla Fish for Quanta Magazine
Wired via Quanta Magazine Natalie Wolchover 7.30.17
The biophysicist Jeremy England made waves in 2013 with a new theory that cast the origin of life as an inevitable outcome of thermodynamics. His equations suggested that under certain conditions, groups of atoms will naturally restructure themselves so as to burn more and more energy, facilitating the incessant dispersal of energy and the rise of “entropy” or disorder in the universe. England said this restructuring effect, which he calls dissipation-driven adaptation, fosters the growth of complex structures, including living things. The existence of life is no mystery or lucky break, he told Quanta in 2014, but rather follows from general physical principles and “should be as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill.”

Original story reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine, an editorially independent publication of the Simons Foundation whose mission is to enhance public understanding of science by covering research developments and trends in mathematics and the physical and life sciences.

Since then, England, a 35-year-old associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been testing aspects of his idea in computer simulations. The two most significant of these studies were published this month—the more striking result in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and the other in Physical Review Letters. The outcomes of both computer experiments appear to back England’s general thesis about dissipation-driven adaptation, though the implications for real life remain speculative.

“This is obviously a pioneering study,” Michael Lässig, a statistical physicist and quantitative biologist at the University of Cologne in Germany, said of the PNAS paper written by England and an MIT postdoctoral fellow, Jordan Horowitz. It’s “a case study about a given set of rules on a relatively small system, so it’s maybe a bit early to say whether it generalizes,” Lässig said. “But the obvious interest is to ask what this means for life.”

The paper strips away the nitty-gritty details of cells and biology and describes a simpler, simulated system of chemicals in which it is nonetheless possible for exceptional structure to spontaneously arise—the phenomenon that England sees as the driving force behind the origin of life. “That doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to acquire that structure,” England explained. The dynamics of the system are too complicated and nonlinear to predict what will happen.

The simulation involved a soup of 25 chemicals that react with one another in myriad ways. Energy sources in the soup’s environment facilitate or “force” some of these chemical reactions, just as sunlight triggers the production of ozone in the atmosphere and the chemical fuel ATP drives processes in the cell. Starting with random initial chemical concentrations, reaction rates and “forcing landscapes”—rules that dictate which reactions get a boost from outside forces and by how much—the simulated chemical reaction network evolves until it reaches its final, steady state, or “fixed point.”
Jeremy England, an associate professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, thinks he has found the physical mechanism underlying the origin of life.
Katherine Taylor for Quanta Magazine
Often, the system settles into an equilibrium state, where it has a balanced concentration of chemicals and reactions that just as often go one way as the reverse. This tendency to equilibrate, like a cup of coffee cooling to room temperature, is the most familiar outcome of the second law of thermodynamics, which says that energy constantly spreads and the entropy of the universe always increases. (The second law is true because there are more ways for energy to be spread out among particles than to be concentrated, so as particles move around and interact, the odds favor their energy becoming increasingly shared.)

But for some initial settings, the chemical reaction network in the simulation goes in a wildly different direction: In these cases, it evolves to fixed points far from equilibrium, where it vigorously cycles through reactions by harvesting the maximum energy possible from the environment. These cases “might be recognized as examples of apparent fine-tuning” between the system and its environment, Horowitz and England write, in which the system finds “rare states of extremal thermodynamic forcing.”

Living creatures also maintain steady states of extreme forcing: We are super-consumers who burn through enormous amounts of chemical energy, degrading it and increasing the entropy of the universe, as we power the reactions in our cells. The simulation emulates this steady-state behavior in a simpler, more abstract chemical system and shows that it can arise “basically right away, without enormous wait times,” Lässig said—indicating that such fixed points can be easily reached in practice.

Many biophysicists think something like what England is suggesting may well be at least part of life’s story. But whether England has identified the most crucial step in the origin of life depends to some extent on the question: What’s the essence of life? Opinions differ.

Form and Function


England, a prodigy by many accounts who spent time at Harvard, Oxford, Stanford and Princeton universities before landing on the faculty at MIT at 29, sees the essence of living things as the exceptional arrangement of their component atoms. “If I imagine randomly rearranging the atoms of the bacterium—so I just take them, I label them all, I permute them in space—I’m presumably going to get something that is garbage,” he said earlier this month. “Most arrangements [of atomic building blocks] are not going to be the metabolic powerhouses that a bacterium is.”

It’s not easy for a group of atoms to unlock and burn chemical energy. To perform this function, the atoms must be arranged in a highly unusual form. According to England, the very existence of a form-function relationship “implies that there’s a challenge presented by the environment that we see the structure of the system as meeting.”

But how and why do atoms acquire the particular form and function of a bacterium, with its optimal configuration for consuming chemical energy? England hypothesizes that it’s a natural outcome of thermodynamics in far-from-equilibrium systems.

The Nobel-Prize-winning physical chemist Ilya Prigogine pursued similar ideas in the 1960s, but his methods were limited. Traditional thermodynamic equations work well only for studying near-equilibrium systems like a gas that is slowly being heated or cooled. Systems driven by powerful external energy sources have much more complicated dynamics and are far harder to study.

The situation changed in the late 1990s, when the physicists Gavin Crooks and Chris Jarzynski derived “fluctuation theorems” that can be used to quantify how much more often certain physical processes happen than reverse processes. These theorems allow researchers to study how systems evolve—even far from equilibrium. England’s “novel angle,” said Sara Walker, a theoretical physicist and origins-of-life specialist at Arizona State University, has been to apply the fluctuation theorems “to problems relevant to the origins of life. I think he’s probably the only person doing that in any kind of rigorous way.”

Coffee cools down because nothing is heating it up, but England’s calculations suggested that groups of atoms that are driven by external energy sources can behave differently: They tend to start tapping into those energy sources, aligning and rearranging so as to better absorb the energy and dissipate it as heat. 

He further showed that this statistical tendency to dissipate energy might foster self-replication. (As he explained it in 2014, “A great way of dissipating more is to make more copies of yourself.”) England sees life, and its extraordinary confluence of form and function, as the ultimate outcome of dissipation-driven adaptation and self-replication. However, even with the fluctuation theorems in hand, the conditions on early Earth or inside a cell are far too complex to predict from first principles. That’s why the ideas have to be tested in simplified, computer-simulated environments that aim to capture the flavor of reality.

In the Physical Review Letters paper, England and his coauthors Tal Kachman and Jeremy Owen of MIT simulated a system of interacting particles. They found that the system increases its energy absorption over time by forming and breaking bonds in order to better resonate with a driving frequency. “This is in some sense a little bit more basic as a result” than the PNAS findings involving the chemical reaction network, England said.
Crucially, in the latter work, he and Horowitz created a challenging environment where special configurations would be required to tap into the available energy sources, just as the special atomic arrangement of a bacterium enables it to metabolize energy. In the simulated environment, external energy sources boosted (or “forced”) certain chemical reactions in the reaction network. The extent of this forcing depended on the concentrations of the different chemical species. As the reactions progressed and the concentrations evolved, the amount of forcing would change abruptly. Such a rugged forcing landscape made it difficult for the system “to find combinations of reactions which are capable of extracting free energy optimally,” explained Jeremy Gunawardena, a mathematician and systems biologist at Harvard Medical School.

Yet when the researchers let the chemical reaction networks play out in such an environment, the networks seemed to become fine-tuned to the landscape. A randomized set of starting points went on to achieve rare states of vigorous chemical activity and extreme forcing four times more often than would be expected. And when these outcomes happened, they happened dramatically: These chemical networks ended up in the 99th percentile in terms of how much forcing they experienced compared with all possible outcomes. As these systems churned through reaction cycles and dissipated energy in the process, the basic form-function relationship that England sees as essential to life set in.

Information Processors


Experts said an important next step for England and his collaborators would be to scale up their chemical reaction network and to see if it still dynamically evolves to rare fixed points of extreme forcing. They might also try to make the simulation less abstract by basing the chemical concentrations, reaction rates and forcing landscapes on conditions that might have existed in tidal pools or near volcanic vents in early Earth’s primordial soup (but replicating the conditions that actually gave rise to life is guesswork). Rahul Sarpeshkar, a professor of engineering, physics and microbiology at Dartmouth College, said, “It would be nice to have some concrete physical instantiation of these abstract constructs.” He hopes to see the simulations re-created in real experiments, perhaps using biologically relevant chemicals and energy sources such as glucose. But even if the fine-tuned fixed points can be observed in settings that are increasingly evocative of life and its putative beginnings, some researchers see England’s overarching thesis as “necessary but not sufficient” to explain life, as Walker put it, because it cannot account for what many see as the true hallmark of biological systems: their information-processing capacity. From simple chemotaxis (the ability of bacteria to move toward nutrient concentrations or away from poisons) to human communication, life-forms take in and respond to information about their environment.

How Does Life Come From Randomness?  2 min. 29 sec.

To Walker’s mind, this distinguishes us from other systems that fall under the umbrella of England’s dissipation-driven adaptation theory, such as Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. “That’s a highly non-equilibrium dissipative structure that’s existed for at least 300 years, and it’s quite different from the non-equilibrium dissipative structures that are existing on Earth right now that have been evolving for billions of years,” she said. Understanding what distinguishes life, she added, “requires some explicit notion of information that takes it beyond the non-equilibrium dissipative structures-type process.” In her view, the ability to respond to information is key: “We need chemical reaction networks that can get up and walk away from the environment where they originated.”

Gunawardena noted that aside from the thermodynamic properties and information-processing abilities of life-forms, they also store and pass down genetic information about themselves to their progeny. The origin of life, Gunawardena said, “is not just emergence of structure, it’s the emergence of a particular kind of dynamics, which is Darwinian. It’s the emergence of structures that reproduce. And the ability for the properties of those objects to influence their reproductive rates. Once you have those two conditions, you’re basically in a situation where Darwinian evolution kicks in, and to biologists, that’s what it’s all about.”

Eugene Shakhnovich, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard who supervised England’s undergraduate research, sharply emphasized the divide between his former student’s work and questions in biology. “He started his scientific career in my lab and I really know how capable he is,” Shakhnovich said, but “Jeremy’s work represents potentially interesting exercises in non-equilibrium statistical mechanics of simple abstract systems.” Any claims that it has to do with biology or the origins of life, he added, are “pure and shameless speculations.”

Even if England is on the right track about the physics, biologists want more particulars—such as a theory of what the primitive “protocells” were that evolved into the first living cells, and how the genetic code arose. England completely agrees that his findings are mute on such topics. “In the short term, I’m not saying this tells me a lot about what’s going in a biological system, nor even claiming that this is necessarily telling us where life as we know it came from,” he said. Both questions are “a fraught mess” based on “fragmentary evidence,” that, he said, “I am inclined to steer clear of for now.” He is rather suggesting that in the tool kit of the first life- or proto-life-forms, “maybe there’s more that you can get for free, and then you can optimize it using the Darwinian mechanism.”

Sarpeshkar seemed to see dissipation-driven adaptation as the opening act of life’s origin story. “What Jeremy is showing is that as long as you can harvest energy from your environment, order will spontaneously arise and self-tune,” he said. Living things have gone on to do a lot more than England and Horowitz’s chemical reaction network does, he noted. “But this is about how did life first arise, perhaps—how do you get order from nothing.”

Original story reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine, an editorially independent publication of the Simons Foundation whose mission is to enhance public understanding of science by covering research developments and trends in mathematics and the physical and life sciences.