Tag Archives: neat science

Embryogenesis Explained Feedback 1


We sent out a message to everyone of of the 1900+ scientists we referenced in our book. Some of the answers we have gotten back have been fun to read.

Dear Richard,

I can’t imagine why you might have cited my work in ecology in Embryogenesis Explained.  You’ve certainly piqued my curiosity, though. Can you give me a hint?  :o)
Congratulations on your achievement.  I look forward to hearing back from you.
All the best,

Dear Peter,

Well, I’ve lived in Canada long enough to know how to build a quinzhee. Here’s the paragraph in Chapter 12 ending with a reference to:

Marchand, P.J. (2014). Life in the Cold: An Introduction to Winter Ecology. Hanover,  University Press of New England, 4th.

In biology, the atom is generally the level at which we start our studies.

The energies involved in splitting atoms or fusing atomic nuclei releases

ionizing radiation which damages living organisms. So we think of

organisms as made up of stable atoms, and usually do not have to trouble

our thoughts with what is going on at lower, subatomic levels. Exceptions

are when we have to think about the key role of natural background

radiation in generating mutations, and thus in evolution23. This energy

also keeps the ground warm in winter (ref 24), permitting life to go on under

the snow (ref 25).

This is part of the background setting up reductionism vs holism in solving embryogenesis. The rub is that quantum mechanics is holistic, as I show. Had this checked by a friend who writes books on quantum mechanics.

While it’s not my forte, I have taught Pollution Biology, and learned some ecology in the process. There seems to be a nice overlapping field of ecoembryology waiting to be developed. I coined the word while writing a grant application:

Rudloe, J., N.K. Björklund-Gordon, R. Gordon, A. Hodges, M. Hodges, K. Lu, E.W. Cake & C. Rudloe (2013). A Vision for Sustainable Farming of Oysters Along Florida’s Forgotten Coast: A Restore Act Proposal. Panacea, Florida,  Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory.

which didn’t get funded. I suspect that oyster embryos differ in salinity tolerance depending on the salinity in which their mothers existed, and that seeding with spat would be more successful if this were understood.
So that’s the tale, and you might enjoy our book. Thanks.
Yours, -Dick Gordon

Embryogenesis Explained is printed!

We got an email message today from someone who had preordered their copy of our book Embryogenesis Explained. His copy has arrived and he was reading it and enjoying it! How exciting is that? Our own personal copies are somewhere in transit. Hopefully they will arrive in Alonsa shortly.

We are also sending out a personal email to every single one of the over 1900 scientists whose work is cited in the book. This assumes that they are still with us, as some have gone on to that great laboratory in the sky. And it also assumes that we can find a correct email. Some of these scientists are retired and some have vanished from academia, or are students who have graduated and gone on to other careers.

We are also sending out emails inviting book reviewers. If you are a scientist or someone interested in science written at a popular level and would like do a review for publication, we can arrange for you to have a free copy for review purposes. Just contact us and we can start the ball rolling.

If you use the code WSGSML20 you will get a 20% discount. The code is good until December 31.


Biocommunication Sign-Mediated Interactions between Cells and Organisms

Gordon&Seckbach2016 Biocommunication Table of Contents

Dick’s latest book published by World Scientific as coeditor with Joseph Seckbach is now off to the printers. It includes a chapter on the Cybernetic Embryo which is an expansion of the idea in the final chapter of our book Embryogenesis Explained. The book will be out about December 2016.

Table of Contents:

Part I Theoretical Approaches

1. Molecular Biocommunication by Alexei A. Sharov

2. Key Levels of Biocommunication by Guenther Witzany

3. Zoosemiotics, Typologies of Signs and Continuity Between Humans and Other Animals by Dario Martinelli

4. Communication as an Artificial Process by Massimo Negrotti


5. Cybernetic Embryo by Richard Gordon and Robert Stone

6. Superfast Evolution via Trans and Interspecies Biocommunication by Ille C. Gebeshuber and Mark O. Macqueen

7. Channel Capacity and Rate Distortion in Amino Acid Networks by Boaz Tamir and Avner Priel

8. Communication Languages and Agents in Biological Systems by Subhash Kak

Part II Experimental Approaches


9. Chemical Communication by Ally R. Harari and R. Sharon

10. Paenibacillus vortex — A Bacterial Guide to the Wisdom of the Crowd by Alin Finkelshtein, Alexandra Sirota-Madi, Dalit Roth, Colin J. Ingham, and Eshel Ben Jacob

11. The Crosstalk Between Plants and Their Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Symbionts: A Mycocentric View by Cristiana Sbrana, Alessandra Turrini, and Manuela Giovannetti

12. Attraction of Preferred Prey by Carnivorous Plants by Douglas W. Darnowski

13. Animal Communication: Competition for Acoustic Space in Birds and Fish by Hans Slabbekoorn

14. The Contribution of Biocommunication (BICO) to Biomedical and Tissue Engineering: A Tech Mining Study by Angela Machado Rocha, Fernando Palop, Maria Clara Melro, and Marcelo Santana Silva

15. Communication Languages and Agents in Biological Systems by Noga Gershoni-Emek, Eitan Erez Zahavi, Shani Gluska, Yulia Slobodskoy, and Eran Perlson

16. Ethical Methods of Investigation with Pan/Homo Bonobos and Chimpanzees by E. Sue Rumbaugh, Itai Roffman, Elizabeth Pugh, and Duane M. Rumbaugh

17. Conversing with Dolphins: The Holy Grail of Interspecies Communication? by Toni Frohoff and Elizabeth Oriel

On a Mathematical Limitation to Lawn Mowing

Natalie and I avoid shoveling snow by heading to the Deep South each winter. But now that we’ve acquired a wheelless house in Manitoba (to distinguish it from our wheel house, our trailer, as named by grandson Nick), we are subject to the opposite season’s green scourge, luxuriant growth of grass over the brief summer that, due to long days here up North, is faster by far than my beard growth, which I also prefer to neglect. Now this is great for our tall grass prairie quarter section, with stalks that reach over my head, but in nearby small town Alonsa the one sin no one dare yield to is not mowing one’s lawn.

The first year of sessile life we hired a fellow with his ride-on to mow our lawn. He was delayed, and the grass, not understanding the situation (despite its undoubtedly self-centered intelligence: Mancuso & Viola 2015) grew beyond its legal height. I was summoned and reported for my imminent handcuffing and arrest. I was told sternly that if I don’t cut my lawn in a timely fashion, the local government would do it and charge me $16/hour. I said “Great”, as I was already paying $20/hour, and they immediately backed off. So much for Justice. Nevertheless, in the name of civil peace, realizing that our community relations should not be left to a busy intermediary, we bought our own lawn mower.

Now despite my lifelong interest in local/global interactions (Gordon, 1966; Portegys et al., 2016), the way I mow grass is strictly local. I mow a line, and then I follow that line, then go back following that line, etc. I don’t look where I’m going. Of course, with laser guided tractors which can hoe a straight line to an accuracy of 0.6 centimeter over a track length of 220 meters (van Zuydam, Sonneveld & Naber, 1995), my approach is antiquated. But I do it deliberately, to amuse myself with a mathematical puzzle, which today I realized I can try to formulate precisely and share with you. What else is there to think about while chopping off the heads of dandelions and developing green toes, if not a green thumb (due to mowing with open toed slippers, not recommended)?


Given a semi-infinite plane (which we can approximate by a strip infinite in one dimension, with periodic boundary conditions in the other direction), we start aligned with its straight edge at, say, x=0 and mow a strip of unit width. Then we do it again. If perfection attained, sequential curves could be designated by y(i,x) = i, i.e., we would have no excuse to stop mowing until the job is done. The excuse lies in our own imperfection.

SAM_7653So we need a function to represent my inability to walk a straight line. Now, blindfolded we walk in circles as small as 20 meters in diameter (Souman et al., 2009), which would be great for limiting the duration of mowing, though I would then chop through the electric cord tethering our mower. While this fundamental result, attributed to “accumulating noise in the sensorimotor system”, has been cited 53 times already, we must look elsewhere for a function to represent noise in the mowing trajectory. For this I turn to boids.

Boids are idealizations of flocking birds and schooling fish. I actually did the first computer simulation of such “swarms”, back in the mid-1960s, while I was a graduate student corresponding with and then visiting the master of schooling fish, Charles Breder (Breder, 1929, 1951, 1954, 1965, 1967) at the Mote Marine Lab in Florida where he retired. This was 2 decades before the first boids simulation in 1986 (Reynolds, 2001). Unfortunately I didn’t think much of the result, because I placed the “fish” into a circular mill, which slowed down as they swam. Breder thought this was realistic, from his personal observations of milling fish. However, I simulated only 300 fish in a plane, on a mainframe computer so slow in those days that the “fish” didn’t get far during the computer time I could command, but a fraction of a turn. I couldn’t tell if the mill was stable, even though we knew that ants would follow each other in a mill unto their death (Schneirla, 1944).  (That’s what local rules will get you! So much for emergence.) So we didn’t publish it. Nowadays whole murmurations of hundreds of thousands of boids in full 3D can be simulated with ease (Ikegami, 2015), and milling is old hat mathematically (Lukeman et al., 2009; Calovi et al., 2014).

The relation between boids and lawn mowing is that a boid aligns with the average direction of its near neighbors, while I align with my former self, at least insofar as my nearby previous track across the grass is what I use to estimate my next direction, moment by moment. So-called “error” of alignment for boids has been discussed (Watson, John & Crowther, 2003) but not its physical and/or mental source. But we may not have to have our heads examined (except as to why we mow grass in the first place). A simple trigonometric error analysis shows that if boids make small errors in the vectorial direction of their motion, their net random motion perpendicular to the mean direction of motion is much larger than that along the direction of motion (Toner & Tu, 1998). Thus the wavy curvature of my lawn mowing will amplify, until my mowing path closes upon and crosses itself and my need to mow ceases (invoking my local-only rule and my goal of death to lawnmowing). This is what mathematics is for: justifying as little mowing as I can get away with. The only thing left to do is calculate how much alcohol I would have to consume so that my error and thus the curvature reaches this closing point before my (finite) lawn is completely mowed. For math aficionados, note that local lawnmowing is an example of a stochastic wave in an active medium, but a peculiar one, as propagation is in finite steps, opening up great new insights into discrete aspects of the continuum. I rest my case and my lawn mower, and leave it for the ambitious computer programmer and/or mathematician to work out the details, while I lounge on my lawn chair. RAASAM_7651

Breder, C.M. (1929). Certain effects in the habits of schooling fishes, as based on the observation of Jenkinsia. Amer Mus Novitates 382, 1-5.

Breder, C.M. (1951). Studies on the structure of the fish school. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 98(1), 1-28.

Breder, C.M. (1954). Equations descriptive of fish schools and other animal aggregations. Ecology 35(3), 361-370.

Breder, C.M. (1965). Vortices and fish schools. Zoologica New York 50(2), 97-114.

Breder, C.M. (1967). On survival value of fish schools. Zoologica-New York 52(2), 25.

Calovi, D.S., U. Lopez, S. Ngo, C. Sire, H. Chaté & G. Theraulaz (2014). Swarming, schooling, milling: phase diagram of a data-driven fish school model. New J. Phys. 16, #015026.

Gordon, R. (1966). On stochastic growth and form. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 56(5), 1497-1504.

Ikegami, T. (2015). A dynamics of large scale swarms. https://carnegiescience.edu/events/lectures/re-conceptualizing-origin-life

Lukeman, R., Y.X. Li & L. Edelstein-Keshet (2009). A conceptual model for milling formations in biological aggregates. Bulletin of Mathematical Biology 71(2), 352-382.

Mancuso, S. & A. Viola (2015). Brilliant Green: The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence, Island Press.

Portegys, T., G. Pascualy, R. Gordon, S. McGrew & B. Alicea (2016). Morphozoic, cellular automata with nested neighborhoods as a metamorphic representation of morphogenesis [invited]. In: Multi-Agent Based Simulations Applied to Biological and Environmental Systems. Ed.: D.F. Adamatti, IGI Global: Submitted.

Reynolds, C. (2001). Boids: Background and Update. http://www.red3d.com/cwr/boids/

Schneirla, T.C. (1944). A unique case of circular milling in ants, considered in relation to trail following and the general problem of orientation. Amer Mus Novitates(1253), 1-26.

Souman, J.L., I. Frissen, M.N. Sreenivasa & M.O. Ernst (2009). Walking straight into circles. Current Biology 19(18), 1538-1542.

Toner, J. & Y.H. Tu (1998). Flocks, herds, and schools: A quantitative theory of flocking. Physical Review E 58(4), 4828-4858.

van Zuydam, R.P., C. Sonneveld & H. Naber (1995). Weed control in sugar beet by precision guided implements. Crop Prot. 14(4), 335-340.

Watson, N.R., N.W. John & W.J. Crowther (2003). Simulation of unmanned air vehicle flocking. In:  Theory and Practice of Computer Graphics, Proceedings. Ed.: M.W. Jones: 130-137.




Near Misses: Paths not Crossed with Richard Bellman

World Scientific Publishing recently had a sale of electronic books, in which I came across and downloaded:

Bellman, Richard (1984). Eye of the Hurricane: An Autobiography,  World Scientific. Web:  https://books.google.com/books?id=6rN7QgAACAAJ; http://www.worldscientific.com/worldscibooks/10.1142/0076

for US$9.90. I had heard that Bellman had a reputation of meeting someone, having a chat, and sending them a manuscript to co-author the next day. In this way he was the applied math complement to Paul Erdös, about whom I wrote:

Gordon, R. (2011). Cosmic Embryo #1: My Erdös Number Is 2i.  http://www.science20.com/cosmic_embryo/cosmic_embryo_1_my_erd%C3%B6s_number_2i

While Bellman doesn’t discuss this story, he did love to travel, and much of the book is about the places he has been, even including in some cases the addresses of hotels he liked. He was indeed prolific: “Over the course of his career he published 619 papers and 39 books. During the last 11 years of his life [1920-1984] he published over 100 papers despite suffering from crippling complications of brain surgery” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_E._Bellman). Whoever added his CV to the end of the autobiography upped it to 620 papers and 40 books. While it was written in 1978, his autobiography seems to have been published after his death in 1984. He doesn’t even mention his medical condition in the book.

What what I found uncanny about his autobiography is how many people he names who I also knew, and one he didn’t name, but undoubtedly knew: my own father, Jack Gordon. I deduce this because both played handball at Brighton Beach near the boardwalk to Coney Island, New York, on one-wall courts. Bellman, born in 1920, was 7 months older than my father, who I recall was winning at handball at age 13, on those courts. Maybe he trounced Bellman. While my father focussed on handball all his life and became a USA national champion (Singer, Stuffy (1994). Gordon honored with Kendler Award. Handball 44(1), 18.), Bellman was an all-round jock, claiming to excel at other sports: tennis, table tennis, track, football, basketball, baseball, swimming. He even did some ballet. I can recall those courts, the boardwalk, the hot summer beach on which one could hard boil an egg, building sand castles, the lines of rocks with oysters perpendicular to the beach, out into the water, and Nathan’s hotdog stand. It was there my mother, then Diana Lazaroff, met my father. This book rang of childhood nostalgia for me. I was raised nearby until age 5, when my parents moved to Chicago about 1948.

But our lives were further intertwined. I postdoced with Stanislaw Ulam; he reviewed Ulam’s “A Collection of Mathematical Problems”, and knew him well. Three more misses: “Nixon announced that two billion dollars would be available for cancer research. The experts in the field were to gather in Warrentown, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, to divide up the pie. I was chairman of a committee on the use of mathematical methods. The other members of the committee were, John Jacques, Fred Grodins, Bob Rosen, Monas Berman, and John Hearon…. At Warrentown, we had a good time deciding how we would spend the money. Alas, it was a typical Nixon trick. He posed for TV cameras and gave away pens, but not a penny ever appeared.” I had postdoced with Bob Rosen at the Center for Theoretical Biology at SUNY/Buffalo, worked under John Hearon at the Mathematical Research Branch at NIH, and knew Monas Berman while there. Natalie and I had a strange encounter with Bellman’s former student John Casti at the Third International Workshop, Open Problems of Computational Molecular Biology, Telluride, Colorado, July 11-25, 1993, albeit after Bellman’s death. Casti, guest of honor, left the conference the first evening, when (not knowing who he was) I said to him “we can explain that” in reference to a remark about embryology by the host. Beyond that, the book is full of names of mathematicians and scientists whose work I knew, a slice in time through that culture, written by someone one generation ahead of me, but overlapping. It was quite a journey, watching Bellman’s parallel life.

It was from a couple of Bellman’s math books that I learned about concepts such as differential-delay equations and invariant embedding. The former helped me understand the 30 year cycle in academic hiring, reported going back to the 1800’s in:

Nyhart, L.K. (1995). Biology Takes Form: Animal Morphology and the German Universities, 1800-1900. Chicago,  University of Chicago Press.

Let’s say jobs are available for would-be professors. Lots of students decide to go into the open disciplines. By the time they are trained (the delay), the jobs are being snarfed up. So the next generation of students seek other disciplines. And so it goes, with no one doing long-range, 30 or more year planning, to equalize supply and demand. I suppose we could call the oscillating academic job market an emergent phenomenon! I actually hit one of those peaks, at age 33 in 1977, when I applied for 100 jobs, got a couple of interviews, and no offers. Out of luck, with 300 to 500 younger applicants per job opening at that time, I answered a phone call from Winnipeg asking me to recommend someone for a job there with “How about me?”. And so I ended up at the University of Manitoba.

Like Ulam (who is discussed in my blog on Erdös), Bellman was a mathematician first. For instance, he had a moral compunction to work on the H-bomb, but when his math didn’t prove useful to the project, he dropped out, rather than solve the problem with whatever it took. As with Ulam, we would not have seen eye to eye: “There is a subtle difference between mathematical biologists and theoretical biologists. Mathematical biologists tend to be employed in mathematical departments and to be a bit more interested in math inspired by biology than in the biological problems themselves, and vice versa” (Gordon, R. (1993). Careers in theoretical biology. Carolina Tips 56(3), 9-11, http://life.biology.mcmaster.ca/~brian/biomath/careers.theo.biol.html).

I was about to wind up this blog by adding a photo of Bellman, but came across something even better, a movie by his grandson:

Bellman, G.L. (2011). The Bellman Equation [movie].  http://www.bellmanequation.com; http://www.amazon.com/Equation-Goldstein-Betty-Jo-Dreyfuss-Landauer/dp/B00C6WHRM4

So rather than color my blog by the movie, I’ll post this first, and enjoy the movie tonight with Natalie.

20% off our book thanks to GSML

Thank you Gulf Specimen Marine Lab!

Big news at Gulf Specimen     
“Embryogenesis Explained”
Now available for pre-order!!
Announcing the newest book by co-authors Dick and Natalie Gordon, about embryology; that Gulf Specimen fully recommends to anyone interested in conception of life and the development of cells.
Here’s a video directly from the author herself, explaining the purpose behind their book, “Embryogenesis Explained”

For years, these Canadian scientists have been involved as volunteers and advisors on a wide variety of technical subjects.  Such as digitizing all of Jack & Anne Rudloe’s book to be available on Kindle, applying for government grants to improve the facility, helping  with the success of our online fundraising campaigns and studying the behavior of octopuses and their human interactions.

They also have decades of experience of raising aquatic life in captivity, including disease control and nutrition. Over the past few months, Dick and Natalie have spent their evenings finalizing their book, ” Embryogenesis Explained” right here in Panacea, FL.

Now is your chance to get in on the ground floor of this unique and easy to understand book.  Pre-order your copy today and use the code “WSGSML20” and receive an extra 20% off.
Click the link below to find out more:


Our latest publication!

Gordon, N.K. & R. Gordon (2016). The organelle of differentiation in embryos: the cell state splitter [invited review]. Theoretical Biology and Medical Modelling 13(Special issue: Biophysical Models of Cell Behavior, Guest Editor: Jack A. Tuszynski), #11. (The publication is open source, no fee to read.)


The cell state splitter is a membraneless organelle at the apical end of each epithelial cell in a developing embryo. It consists of a microfilament ring and an intermediate filament ring subtending a microtubule mat. The microtubules and microfilament ring are in mechanical opposition as in a tensegrity structure. The cell state splitter is bistable, perturbations causing it to contract or expand radially. The intermediate filament ring provides metastability against small perturbations. Once this snap-through organelle is triggered, it initiates signal transduction to the nucleus, which changes gene expression in one of two readied manners, causing its cell to undergo a step of determination and subsequent differentiation. The cell state splitter also triggers the cell state splitters of adjacent cells to respond, resulting in a differentiation wave. Embryogenesis may be represented then as a bifurcating differentiation tree, each edge representing one cell type. In combination with the differentiation waves they propagate, cell state splitters explain the spatiotemporal course of differentiation in the developing embryo. This review is excerpted from and elaborates on “Embryogenesis Explained” (World Scientific Publishing, Singapore, 2016).

The Problems with the Gradient of Morphogen Models of Embyrogenesis


A superb illustration of the morphogen gradient model.

Physiological gradients do exist in embryos. The best known example is the bicoid gradient in Drosophila. Given the discovery of physiological gradients in embryos, it then became common for embryologists and molecular biologists to speak of a “morphogen gradient” across developing tissue that begins at the site of induction, creating a gradient of gene products or “morphogens” across tssue. Morphogens are the basis for the concept of positional information which presumes that a cell can know its position by “reading” the concentration of the molecules of the gradients and then deciding what it is supposed to do, by “looking up” its coordinates in some sort of stored table in its DNA. With these epicycles the problem of embryogenesis was “solved” and, like the far more quantitative Ptolemaic version of the solar system, permeated textbooks and teaching for an extended period of the history of science. Morphogens are still widely taught, along with gene regulatory networks, as if they are a full explanation of embryogenesis.

There are numerous problems with the morphogen gradient model:

  1. In order to maintain a gradient at steady state, besides a steady, spatially defined source for the diffusing molecules, there has to be a sink. This means there must be a way in which diffusing molecules are destroyed or removed along the way and/or at some boundaries. Most people who invoke gradients don’t bother with analyzing and solving the partial differential equations for diffusion of molecules to show how the gradients work. Sinks are rarely, if ever, even considered when the gradient model is invoked.
  2. A common supposition is that the molecules diffuse outside cells instead of through them. This is a convenient assumption, because it permits one to ignore the cellularized structure of space inside an embryo, But even so diffusion must occur in a confined space, if a gradient is to be established. Otherwise the molecules will just diffuse away. If the diffusion is extracellular, then its course is critically dependent on the existence of such confining boundaries. Most of the early development of the axolotl occurs in the outside layer of cells, and is normal whether or not the jelly layers and vitelline membrane are present. So in this case no such confined space exists.
  3. The speed of development may not permit steady state to be reached. This is sometimes considered an advantage in cases where the steady state could not possibly lead to the correct morphology. So we have a steady state invoked except when we don’t want it. In any case, the rate of development varies substantially with temperature over a species’ temperature range for normal development. This would have to be matched to the temperature dependence of diffusion of the molecule which is itself dependent on the temperature variation of the viscosity of the medium.
  4. Ordinary diffusion gradients do not scale well. The consequence for embryos is that for embryos of different sizes there should be widely different proportions of parts but we know that is not the case. There is a limit on the “range” of a morphogen gradient. Such range limits also limit their potential role in growing tissues. Amphibian embryo eggs vary from 0.75 mm to 35 mm, and yet produce adults with substantially the same body plan. As we have a common ancestor with amphibians, our own eggs at 0.07 mm extend the linear size range down by another order of magnitude.
  5. Diffusion gradients follow the superposition principle. This means that a gradient of one substance in, say the x-direction, and a gradient of the same substance in the y-direction, result in a single one-dimensional gradient in the diagonal direction, not a two dimensional gradient. Yet biologists frequently invoke a two dimensional gradient to get the gradient model to fit their data. If you want a two dimensional gradient system you have to have two morphogen gradients with two different sources and sinks placed approximately perpendicular to one another, and three to invoke the third spatial dimension. That’s 6 unidentified sources and sinks.
  6. The fundamental principal of gradients is that cells in high concentrations will respond in one way, while those at low concentrations respond in a different way while those in the middle respond in yet another way. Fluctuations in gradients always occur, especially if the number of diffusing molecules is low. Fluctuations of purported morphogen concentrations make response to particular concentration thresholds problematic.
  7. Each cell has to be able to “read” the morphogen concentration accurately, lest boundaries between tissues become ragged. Gradients are frequently invoked without any explanation how a cell measures a concentration. Yet in embryos boundaries between tissues are generally sharp, at the cellular level.

    Many doubts about the functioning or existence of these so-called “morphogen” gradients have been raised, with alternatives and elaborations, and transport mechanisms other than diffusion being proposed. Like epicycles, multiple, overlapping gradients in the same direction are sometimes required. We won’t review the numerous molecules that have been proposed to be morphogens, but as new biologically active molecules are discovered, they tend to be added to the list and then later sometimes removed. While gradients such as bicoid in Drosophila one-cell embryos are indeed found, the existence of polyembryonic wasps reasonably similar to Drosophila in adult appearance, whose fertilized eggs split into up to 2000 embryos, raises doubts as to the importance of even these intracellular maternal gradients for embryogenesis.

This post contains excerpts from our book Embryogenesis Explained and also from our  article “The organelle of differentiation in embryos: the cell state splitter”, Theoretical Biology and Medical Modelling  (invited review) (Biophysical Models of Cell Behaviour) 2016 in press. We did ask permission to use the gradient model image but they haven’t replied so we hope simply giving them full credit and linking to their website location will do.

Let a hundred flowers bloom: Mao & Bill Gates


A small bit of tall grass prairie in “Silver Bog” in bloom. Photo by Dick Gordon

I am presently reading the magnum opus of philosopher of science Michael Ruse, Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology (http://www.amazon.com/Monad-Man-Concept-Progress-Evolutionary/dp/0674032489). He told me when we met recently at Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory & Aquarium (http://www.gulfspecimen.org/) that he is working on another book on Progress (or perhaps P/progress, human/biological, as he puts it) and I sent him our chapter from Embryogenesis Explained on Why evolution is progressive. The concept of progress has been a conundrum, ever since the ancient Greek atomists conceived the world as a collection of particles rattling around, bumping into one another and occasionally sticking. The idea was decried as leading to atheism. It is at the root of the much maligned reductionism, which itself may be at the root of much of successful science modelled on mathematics. We start with a set of assumptions and deduce the rest.

Atomism led to the problem of “How can there be anything new in the world?”. In other words, what are the sources of innovation? In social terms, how can we make a better world? Concepts of P/progress are indeed intimately entwined, as Ruse observes.

Yesterday (February 28, 2016) I read Bill Gates’ 2016 annual letter: More energy after hearing him talk about it on CNN. He and a number of lesser billionaires have decided that:

“…we need an energy miracle…. We need a massive amount of research into thousands of new ideas—even ones that might sound a little crazy—if we want to get to zero emissions by the end of this century. New ways to make solar and wind power available to everyone around the clock could be one solution. Some of the crazier inventions I’m excited about are a possible way to use solar energy to produce fuel, much like plants use sunlight to make food for themselves, and batteries the size of swimming pools with huge storage capacity.”

So I tested the waters:

Bill Gates
Breakthrough Energy Coalition
Dear Bill,
​Heard you on CNN this morning. In 2009 I published:
Ramachandra, T.V., D.M. Mahapatra, Karthick B. & R. Gordon (2009). Milking diatoms for sustainable energy: biochemical engineering versus gasoline-secreting diatom solar panels. Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research 48(19, Complex Materials II special issue, October), 8769-8788.(http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/ie900044j)

and have since gathered an international group of scientists (USA, France, India, Egypt) ​working on various aspects of the project. If we ever get the efficiency of artificial photosynthesis to an acceptable level compared to diatoms, we could then go the next step. For now diatom biofuel solar panels would use live diatoms.

Our primary goal is nothing less than replacing fossil fuels by diatom biofuel. Advantages of diatom biofuel solar panels ​are:

  1. Local, rooftop production of gasoline.
  2. Storable energy for transportation, heating, cooling, cooking, etc., riding through the day/night cycle and wind/no wind that plague electric solar and wind energy. No batteries needed. Gasoline has 44x the energy density of the best batteries.
  3. Estimated 10-200x oil production per unit area compared to seed oil crops.
  4. Retention of the matured gasoline engine technology, including well known methods for safe storage.
  5. No competition with food production (the bane of much ethanol production).
  6. Zero carbon footprint.
  7. Diatom biofuel solar panels may prove to be of low maintenance.
  8. Total energy independence for everyone, disrupting the current geopolitics of oil.


Yours, -Dick Gordon <DickGordonCan@gmail.com>​


Now Natalie and I had previously run a workshop explicitly suggesting to Bill Gates how to spend the billions he wanted to use to stop HIV/AIDS, which resulted in a special issue:

Smith?, R.J. & R. Gordon (2009). The OptAIDS project: towards global halting of HIV/AIDS [Preface]. BMC Public Health 9(Suppl. 1: OptAIDS Special Issue), S1 (5 pages). Web:  http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2458/9/S1/S1; http://www.biomedcentral.com/bmcpublichealth/supplements/9/S1

We didn’t ask him for any money, just that he send someone to hear us out. I broached the idea with and wrote to his representatives at the 2006 AIDS Conference in Toronto. No one came. I have no idea if he ever heard our request that he send a participant, nor if he read our articles. I had to conclude that he surrounds himself with gatekeepers, who filter out potentially innovative ideas. Sure enough, here is the reply to my present missive:


Breakthrough Energy Coalition<info@breakthroughenergycoalition.com>

Automatic reply: Diatom biofuel solar panels

Thank you for contacting the Breakthrough Energy Coalition.  This is an automatic response acknowledging receipt of your email.

Due to the high volume of interest, we are not able to respond to each inquiry individually.  If you have contacted us regarding opportunities for funding, collaboration, or employment, we will keep your information on file.


So much for the support of innovative ideas. Then I read the fine print: “I recently helped launch an effort by more than two dozen private citizens that will complement government research being done by several countries. It’s all aimed at delivering energy miracles.” In the name of innovation, ideas screened by big governments will be passed on to the billionaires, or at least their gatekeepers, who will thereby receive the sifted wisdom of layers and layers of sifting out of (good) ideas. Yes, in my experience it is rare that good ideas, let alone the best ideas, survive such massive bureaucracy. Bill Gates has merely added another layer, a globalized layer, to the suppression of innovation. This is what I meant when I wrote:

Gordon, R. (1993). Grant agencies versus the search for truth. Accountability in Research: Policies and Quality Assurance 2(4), 297-301.http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08989629308573824?journalCode=gacr20

I woke up early this morning realizing I had heard Bill Gates’ words 60 years ago: “Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend”, espoused by Chairman Mao. The resulting cacophony in China was swiftly followed by a “crackdown… against those who were critical of the regime and its ideology. Those targeted were publicly criticized and condemned to prison labor camps” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hundred_Flowers_Campaign). The innovators, the intellectuals, were humiliated, as they were in the subsequent Red Guard movement in China (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Guards_(China)). We live in a milder time now, at least in places where beheadings and labor camps are no longer in style, new ideas being dismissed with “Automatic reply”.




Interacting with Octopuses

Common octopus (Octopus vulgaris) at Gulf Specimen Marine Lab and Aquarium.

Common octopus (Octopus vulgaris) at Gulf Specimen Marine Lab and Aquarium. Photo part of the Joel Sartore PhotoArk collection and used with permission.


One of the fun things at Gulf Specimen Marine Lab is they occasionally have octopus. There are several species of octopuses (being a Greek root word the plural is octopuses not octopi) and one normally found in the Panacea area is the common octopus (Octopus vulgaris). There is not a lot known about this fascinating creature but they do seem to possess intelligence and an ability to react to their environment beyond what we would normally consider to a mollusk to be capable of.

The octopus begins life as a carefully tended eggs washed with constant fresh flowing water by its mother. The egg hatches and the mystery begins. The baby octopus is very squid like in appearance. The mystery is what happens next. The tiny octopus vanishes from view and the younger stages of the organism are almost unknown. In spite of numerous attempts there are almost no successful culturing of these babies. They must have very specific dietary and environmental needs. I suspect they likely make their home in the sargassum sea weed beds much like young turtles do.

At some point they are big enough and have attained an adult form and they make their home on the bottom of the Gulf. They often learn how to raid crab traps and that is how the typically end up at Gulf Specimen Marine Lab. Local crabbers will pull up their trap and the octopus inside is unable to make its escape before the crab trap is up. Often the octopus are injured. The crabber then delivers the octopus to GSML.

Octopus have a short life span. Within a year they die. The octopus at GSML present a fascinating opportunity to observe this intelligent animal in action. I have two personal stories of the octopus of my own.

The first was a smaller male octopus who for some inexplicable reason appeared to take a fancy to me. I wanted to make sure that none of my interactions were about food and so I never fed the octopus nor was present when the person doing the feeding was there. I would come into the lab when a new octopus arrived and talk to them and wave. They would initially be very shy but after a period of not being harmed, they begin to relax and get curious about their surroundings. This little guy, after getting over his initial fright. reacted to the sight of me with appeared to be happy joyful recognition. He was far more interested in me than in any other person on staff. I think I know why. One day I bent over the water and he reached up and tied to grab my hair. So I lowered it down below the water and let him grab a lock. His reaction was astonishing.

After feeling the hair he flushed red, the colour they take before the fight, and he swam away. He was in a huff. From that day forward he refused to interact with me. If he was out visiting with tourists he would spot me and swim as fast as he good to the other side. What did I do? I think I offended him. I think he thought my long hair was some kind of tentacle and he was trying to communicate to me the way octopuses do by reaching and touching tentacles. I cheated and lied about who I was. That octopus never got over his huff. I have seen other octopuses get offended. One time a boy was commenting how ugly octopuses are, how disgusting, and the octopus responded by squirted him right in the face with a well place stream of water. The other octopuses soon learned how to do it as well and that year visitors got squirted on a regular basis. They learn by observation.


My second encounter was even stranger. In the wild octopuses decorate their caves with coloured shells, bright objects, and pretty rocks. In an effort to observe this behaviour we offered the octopuses a whole variety of things to play with. They had opportunities to play with beads, marbles, pool balls, and toys of all descriptions. One of the toys was a small plastic octopus. This bright red toy octopus resulted in many frenzied battles and a lot of theft and stealthy retrievals. They all wanted it and they all wanted it in front of their own home.

In order to check their reaction I purchased a variety of other toys and among them was a toy giraffe. I presented the toy giraffe and octopus took it and examined it very carefully and then very obviously and deliberately handed it back. If I were to put it into words I would say “No thank you, not interested in that.” While a tiny red octopus toy practically caused a war, the giraffe was just boring.

I wish I could say I figured them out. I didn’t. They are fascinating. They are intelligent. They adapt and learn and interact. But we don’t speak octopus and they haven’t learned to speak back. Someday….