Quick Questions for Günter P. Wagner, author of Homology, Genes, and Evolutionary Innovation

Wagner_Homology_au photo jpgGünter P. Wagner is the Alison Richard Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale University and a pioneer of the field of evolutionary developmental biology. He is the editor of The Character Concept in Evolutionary Biology. Dr. Wagner received training in biochemical engineering, zoology, and mathematics from the University of Vienna, Austria, where he completed his Ph.D. in zoology.

He then spent six postdoctoral years at the Max Planck Institutes for Biophysical Chemistry (Goettingen, Germany) and for Developmental Biology (Tübingen, Germany) before assuming a full professorship in the Biology department at Yale University. His research focuses predominantly on the study of homology, or character identity, one of the most difficult concepts in evolutionary biology. His latest book, Homology, Genes, and Evolutionary Innovation (Princeton) provides a fresh and compelling definition of homology and how it arises in evolution.

Now, on to the questions!

PUP: What inspired you to get into your field?
Günter P. Wagner: I received my initial scientific training in chemistry, and I still love chemistry. It is a beautiful system of ideas and practices with wide applicability and utility. Part of its beauty lies in the fact that chemistry can explain a vast array of facts from the combinatorial richness of a quite limited set of basic elements. In contrast, in biology we are confronted with a vast diversity of life forms that defy a simple combinatorial explanation. Biology has to deal with radically different kinds of things, from viruses to blue whales, where one cannot escape the conclusion that radically new things have originated in evolution: humans with culture and language from non-human primates, animals from single-celled organisms, and ultimately life from non-life. Understanding how these novel forms of existence can originate became my obsession in my professional life. This book is my answer – though a partial and limited one – to this question.

What do you think is the book’s most important contribution?
Homology, the notion that different organisms can be composed of corresponding building blocks, is one of the fundamental scientific concepts that also induce a lot of frustration among those who truly want to understand them. Homology shares this dubious distinction with concepts like species, gene, time, and space, to name a few. The frustration has one main source: the fact that it is hard to pin down how two homologous parts can be the same in spite of differences in shape, function, and underlying developmental genetic mechanisms. In particular linking character identity with our mechanistic understanding of development proved difficult. I think the main contribution of this book is to show that it is possible to forge such a link. I say possible, since it is likely that much of what I say in the book might be wrong, but it never the less shows that such a mechanistic understanding of homology is possible if we ask the right questions and give answers that are constrained by large amounts of empirical knowledge already available.

What is your next project?
I am thinking of writing a textbook on “Comparative Developmental Anatomy of Vertebrates” together with three colleagues. The idea is to recast the vast knowledge of the structure, variation, and development of the vertebrate body in light of the recent progress in comparative developmental biology and also in light of the ideas developed in this book.


“Dealing with the intellectual challenges was the reward, not the obstacle, in this project.”


What was the best piece of advice you ever received?
Be myself! In the sciences there is an enormous pressure to conform, which is in part necessary to make science the coherent communal effort that it is. But it also has the potential to kill creativity and thus the search for answers where there have not even been good questions before.

What was the biggest challenge involved with bringing this book to life?
Certainly the biggest challenge was to find a way to have the focus and the continuity of effort for writing the book, while at the same time running a lab, teaching courses, and responding to the needs of the University. It is not so much time, per se, that is hard to come by – but a predictable continuity of quality time for thinking and writing. Dealing with the intellectual challenges was the reward, not the obstacle, in this project.

Why did you write this book?
The topic of homology and innovation has fascinated me for many decades, but at one point I had to accept that the subject matter was way too complex to adequately be dealt with even in a very long article. The complexity of the subject results from the large amount of factual, relevant information and from the many facets it has from genetics, developmental biology, anatomy, and evolutionary biology, and even philosophical issues. There was no way I could deal with this in any other format than in a book.

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Günter P. Wagner is the author of:

5-29 Wagner Homology, Genes, and Evolutionary Innovation by Günter P. Wagner
Hardcover | 2014 | $60.00 / £41.95 | ISBN: 9780691156460
496 pp. | 6 x 9 | 25 halftones. 105 line illus. 4 tables. | eBook | ISBN: 9781400851461 |Reviews Table of Contents Introduction[PDF]

Wassim Haddad Wins the 2014 Pendray Aerospace Literature Award

Wassim Haddad, Winner of the 2014 Pendray Aerospace Literature Award, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics

Professor Wassim Haddad of the School of Aerospace Engineering and chair of the Flight Mechanics and Control Discipline at Georgia Institute of Technology “has been selected to receive the 2014 Pendray Aerospace Literature Award. This is the highest honor in literature bestowed by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). The award is presented for an outstanding contribution or contributions to aeronautical and astronautical literature in the relatively recent past.”

The citation of Prof. Haddad’s award reads “Paramount and fundamental contributions to the literature of dynamical systems and control for large-scale aerospace systems.”

Prof. Haddad’s award is given in part for the research in his book, co-authored with Sergey G. Nersesov and published by PUP in 2011: Stability and Control of Large-Scale Dynamical Systems: A Vector Dissipative Systems Approach

k9762Modern complex large-scale dynamical systems exist in virtually every aspect of science and engineering, and are associated with a wide variety of physical, technological, environmental, and social phenomena, including aerospace, power, communications, and network systems, to name just a few. This book develops a general stability analysis and control design framework for nonlinear large-scale interconnected dynamical systems, and presents the most complete treatment on vector Lyapunov function methods, vector dissipativity theory, and decentralized control architectures.

Wassim M. Haddad is a professor in the School of Aerospace Engineering and chair of the Flight Mechanics and Control Discipline at Georgia Institute of Technology.

Fall Warbler Sighting!

Scott Whittle and Tom Stephenson, authors of The Warbler Guide, are busy all month with events (see here), but that won’t stop us from keeping their awesome warbler images coming!

The photo below from The Warbler Guide is of a female Black-and-white Warbler in the fall, snapped by none other than Scott Whittle himself. And don’t worry, we promise the bird is upside down, not your computer!

Black-and-white warbler
Have you spotted any interesting birds this migration season? Let us know in the comments below!

Martin Gardner’s Birthday Bash Celebration

Undiluted Hocus PocusMartin Gardner, an acclaimed popular mathematics and science writer and author of Undiluted Hocus-Pocus: The Autobiography of Martin Gardner, would have had his 99th birthday this month. In honor of this special occasion, the mathematical community is putting together a number of birthday celebrations.

MoMath joins the fun on October 26th from 10:00 – 5:00 with a Celebration of the Mind.

At this family-friendly event, math fans of all ages will enjoy some close-up magic tricks, explore favorite Gardner puzzles, and make their own hexaflexagon to take home (how many people can say they have their own hexaflexagon?!). As an added challenge, try to spot the two exhibits that Gardner asked Museum directors to include in MoMath.

Later that evening, MoMath will welcome Martin Gardner’s son James Gardner and a panel of experts for a discussion:

Event: Who is Martin Gardner? A Conversation with Friends, Colleagues, and Family
Date and Time: Saturday, October 26, 6:30 pm
What is it? A panel of people who knew Martin Gardner well will share their favorite stories about him and reveal just how important his contributions have been to mathematics and to math lovers around the world. Ask questions, talk with the presenters, and share your own memories and stories.
Who is participating? James Gardner (University of Oklahoma, Martin Gardner’s son)
John Conway (Emeritus Professor of Mathematics, Princeton University)
Mark Setteducati (President, Gathering 4 Gardner)
Neil Sloane (The OEIS Foundation and Rutgers University)
Colm Mulcahy (Spelman College and Author of Mathematical Card Magic: Fifty-Two New Effects)
Location: National Museum of Mathematics
11 East 26th Street, New York, NY 10010
Contact: (212) 542-0566 | info@momath.org

Space will fill up for this event, so please pre-register here: http://momath.org/about/upcoming-events/)


There are many Celebration of Mind events taking place around the world. Check out the map (http://celebrationofmind.org/) to find events close to you.

Come and celebrate the joy of math!

World Space Week Round-Up #WSW2013

All this week for World Space Week, we’ve been posting excerpts from Chris Impey and Holly Henry’s new book, Dreams of Other Worlds: The Amazing Story of Unmanned Space Exploration, and while that’s an amazing book, we decided that in order to give World Space Week all of the cosmic attention it deserves, we would put together an interstellar round-up to fire up your engines and blast you to infinity… and beyond!

Beyond UFOs
Beyond UFOs: The Search for Extraterrestrial Life and Its Astonishing Implications for Our Future

By: Jeffrey Bennett

This book describes the startling discoveries being made in the very real science of astrobiology, an intriguing new field that blends astronomy, biology, and geology to explore the possibility of life on other planets. This book goes beyond UFOs to discuss some of the tantalizing questions astrobiologists grapple with every day: What is life and how does it begin? What makes a planet or moon habitable? Is there life on Mars or elsewhere in the solar system? How can life be recognized on distant worlds? Is it likely to be microbial, more biologically complex–or even intelligent? What would such a discovery mean for life here on Earth?

Titan Unveiled
Titan Unveiled: Saturn’s Mysterious Moon Explored

By: Ralph Lorenz and Jacqueline Mitton

In the early 1980s, when the two Voyager spacecraft skimmed past Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, they transmitted back enticing images of a mysterious world concealed in a seemingly impenetrable orange haze. Titan Unveiled is one of the first general interest books to reveal the startling new discoveries that have been made since the arrival of the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and Titan.

From Dust To Life
From Dust to Life: The Origin and Evolution of Our Solar System

By: John Chambers & Jacqueline Mitton

The birth and evolution of our solar system is a tantalizing mystery that may one day provide answers to the question of human origins. This book tells the remarkable story of how the celestial objects that make up the solar system arose from common beginnings billions of years ago, and how scientists and philosophers have sought to unravel this mystery down through the centuries, piecing together the clues that enabled them to deduce the solar system’s layout, its age, and the most likely way it formed.

Fly Me to the Moon
Fly Me to the Moon: An Insider’s Guide to the New Science of Space Travel

By: Edward Belbruno
With a foreword by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Belbruno devised one of the most exciting concepts now being used in space flight, that of swinging through the cosmos on the subtle fluctuations of the planets’ gravitational pulls. His idea was met with skepticism until 1991, when he used it to get a stray Japanese satellite back on course to the Moon. The successful rescue represented the first application of chaos to space travel and ushered in an emerging new field. Part memoir, part scientific adventure story, Fly Me to the Moon gives a gripping insider’s account of that mission and of Belbruno’s personal struggles with the science establishment.

The Milky Way
The Milky Way: An Insider’s Guide

By: William H. Waller

This book offers an intimate guide to the Milky Way, taking readers on a grand tour of our home Galaxy’s structure, genesis, and evolution, based on the latest astronomical findings. In engaging language, it tells how the Milky Way congealed from blobs of gas and dark matter into a spinning starry abode brimming with diverse planetary systems–some of which may be hosting myriad life forms and perhaps even other technologically communicative species. It vividly describes the Milky Way as it appears in the night sky, acquainting readers with its key components and telling the history of our changing galactic perceptions.

Universe
The Universe in a Mirror: The Saga of the Hubble Space Telescope and the Visionaries Who Built It

By: Robert Zimmerman
With a new afterword by the author

The Hubble Space Telescope has produced the most stunning images of the cosmos humanity has ever seen. It has transformed our understanding of the universe around us, revealing new information about its age and evolution, the life cycle of stars, and the very existence of black holes, among other startling discoveries. But it took an amazing amount of work and perseverance to get the first space telescope up and running. The Universe in a Mirror tells the story of this telescope and the visionaries responsible for its extraordinary accomplishments.

Think you know all about missions in space? Take our quiz and find out!
Proud of your score? Tweet it! #WSW2013

“Dreams of Other Worlds”: Hipparcos and Spitzer #WSW2013

Houston, we have lift off!

All week long for World Space Week, we will be posting exclusive excerpts from Chris Impey and Holly Henry’s new book, Dreams of Other Worlds: The Amazing Story of Unmanned Space Exploration. Each day will include an excerpt from a different chapter(s) about a different unmanned spacecraft, along with a picture of the craft that doubles as an iPhone background!

Today we have two excerpts. The first is from Chapter 8, which talks about the first star charts, which were created by the Greek astronomer, Hipparchus (for whom the Hipparcos was named). The second excerpt is from Chapter 9, explaining some of the adversities Spitzer had to face before it was able to go into space.

Tomorrow will bring another chapter and another adventure, so stay tuned!

HipparcosFor thousands of years, all we’ve known of Hipparchus’s star guide were descriptions by Ptolemy. But astronomer Bradley Schaefer asserts that, indeed, the Farnese Atlas, a statue of the Greek figure Atlas kneeling while holding on his shoulders a globe of constellations, represents the stars and constellations known to the ancient Greeks. He contends that the statue “is the oldest surviving depiction of the set of the original Western constellations, and as such can be a valuable resource for studying their early development.”18 Schaefer realized after a detailed study of the globe that the constellations depicted match the night sky in the era and from the location where Hipparchus lived in 129 BC. As evidence in favor of this possibility, Schaefer writes: “First, the constellation symbols and relations are identical with those of Hipparchus and are greatly different from all other known ancient sources. Second, the date of the original observations is 125 ± 55 BC, a range that includes the date of Hipparchus’s star catalogue (c. 129 BC) but excludes the dates of other known plausible sources.” Schaefer concludes that “the ultimate source of the position information [of the constellations on the globe] used by the original Greek sculptor was Hipparchus’s data.”

SpitzerSpitzer, from its earliest inception, was especially designed for infrared astronomy and is sensitive enough to detect infrared signatures of stars and galaxies billions of light-years away. The space telescope has been instrumental in unveiling small, dim objects like dwarf stars and exoplanets and can even determine the temperature of their slender atmospheres. Originally proposed in the late 1970s as NASA’s Space Infrared Telescope Facility, the Spitzer Space Telescope suffered from uncertainty, a delay after the loss of the space shuttle Challenger, near-cancellation, congressional limbo, budget cuts, and “descoping.” Nevertheless, in 2003 the telescope was finally launched, after being renamed subsequent to a public opinion poll conducted by NASA. The last of NASA’s four Great Observatories, the $800 million telescope was named after Lyman Spitzer, an early advocate of the importance of orbital telescopes.13 After launch, the spacecraft took about 40 days to cool to its operating temperature of 5 Kelvin. Once cooled, it took just an ounce of liquid helium per day to maintain its detectors at their operating temperature. A solar panel facing the Sun serves to gather power and protect the telescope from radiation.

Think you know all about these missions? Take our quiz and find out!
Proud of your score? Tweet it! #WSW2013

Enrico Coen Shortlisted for the 2013 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books

Enrico Coen – Cells to Civilizations: The Principles of Change That Shape Life
Shortlisted for the 2013 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books

The Royal Society Winton Prize celebrates outstanding popular science books from around the world. The winner will be announced at an award ceremony at the Royal Society in London on November 25th.
For more information about this award and event, click here.

Cells to Civilizations Cells to Civilizations is the first unified account of how life transforms itself–from the production of bacteria to the emergence of complex civilizations. What are the connections between evolving microbes, an egg that develops into an infant, and a child who learns to walk and talk? Enrico Coen synthesizes the growth of living systems and creative processes, and he reveals that the four great life transformations–evolution, development, learning, and human culture–while typically understood separately, actually all revolve around shared core principles and manifest the same fundamental recipe. Coen blends provocative discussion, the latest scientific research, and colorful examples to demonstrate the links between these critical stages in the history of life.

Coen tells a story rich with genes, embryos, neurons, and fascinating discoveries. He examines the development of the zebra, the adaptations of seaweed, the cave paintings of Lascaux, and the formulations of Alan Turing. He explores how dogs make predictions, how weeds tell the time of day, and how our brains distinguish a Modigliani from a Rembrandt. Locating commonalities in important findings, Coen gives readers a deeper understanding of key transformations and provides a bold portrait for how science both frames and is framed by human culture.

A compelling investigation into the relationships between our biological past and cultural progress, Cells to Civilizations presents a remarkable story of living change.

Enrico Coen is a plant molecular geneticist based at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, United Kingdom. He is the author of The Art of Genes, a fellow of the Royal Society, and a foreign associate of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. His awards include the Linnean Gold Medal and the Royal Society Darwin Medal.

William H. Waller Brings the Stars to The Huffington Post

William H. WallerWilliam H. Waller, astronomist and author of The Milky Way: An Insider’s Guide, recently wrote an article that was picked up by The Huffington Post for their blog. Based on this bio page that was also posted for Waller on HuffPost, we’re hoping this means he will be writing regularly about science and the stars, especially with some of the amazing pictures included in the article.


The post, which focuses on our ability to visibly see the Milky Way with all of the light pollution in the air, starts by saying:

The Milky Way“For most of human history, the night sky demanded our attention. The shape-shifting Moon, wandering planets, pointillist stars, and occasional comet enchanted our sensibilities while inspiring diverse tales of origin. The Milky Way, in particular, exerted a powerful presence on our distant ancestors. Rippling across the firmament, this irregular band of ghostly light evoked myriad myths of life and death among the stars. In 1609, Galileo Galilei pointed his telescope heavenward and discovered that the Milky Way is “nothing but a congeries of innumerable stars grouped together in clusters.” Fast forward 400 years to the present day, and we find that the Milky Way has all but disappeared from our collective consciousness. Where did it go?”

To read the rest of the article on The Huffington Post, click here.


This book offers an intimate guide to the Milky Way, taking readers on a grand tour of our home Galaxy’s structure, genesis, and evolution, based on the latest astronomical findings. In engaging language, it tells how the Milky Way congealed from blobs of gas and dark matter into a spinning starry abode brimming with diverse planetary systems–some of which may be hosting myriad life forms and perhaps even other technologically communicative species.

Waller makes the case that our very existence is inextricably linked to the Galaxy that spawned us. Through this book, readers can become well-informed galactic “insiders”–ready to imagine humanity’s next steps as fully engaged citizens of the Milky Way.

William H. Waller is an astronomer, science educator, and writer. He lives with his family in Rockport, Massachusetts, where he can still see the Milky Way on dark moonless nights.

Climate Dynamics

Cook_Climate_Dynamics “Climate change and its impacts are being embraced by a wider community than just earth scientists. A useful textbook, Climate Dynamics covers the basic science required to gain insights into what constitutes the climate system and how it behaves. While still being quantitative, the material is written in a lecture-note style that creates a simplified, but not simple, approach to teaching this complex subject.”–Chris E. Forest, Pennsylvania State University

Climate Dynamics
Kerry H. Cook

Climate Dynamics is an advanced undergraduate-level textbook that provides an essential foundation in the physical understanding of the earth’s climate system. The book assumes no background in atmospheric or ocean sciences and is appropriate for any science or engineering student who has completed two semesters of calculus and one semester of calculus-based physics.

  • Makes a physically based, quantitative understanding of climate change accessible to all science, engineering, and mathematics undergraduates
  • Explains how the climate system works and why the climate is changing
  • Reinforces, applies, and connects the basic ideas of calculus and physics
  • Emphasizes fundamental observations and understanding

Endorsements

Table of Contents

Sample this book:

Chapter 1 [PDF]

Request an examination copy.

 

The Unfeathered Bird author at Nature Live

Katrina Van Grouw appeared at Nature Live at the Natural History Museum. In this short video, she describes the audience she had in mind as she wrote The Unfeathered Bird.