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The Complexity Matters blog features the Thursday Complexity Post as well as other complexity inspired news items.


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Spider Personality a Communal Affair

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, May 15, 2014

Behavior and personality are strongly influenced by participation in groups, and individuals living in stable environments seem more able to develop their own distinctive styles than individuals who face frequent disruption.

That sounds like human experience, but this finding came from research on social spiders. While most of the world's 43,000 varieties of spiders work alone as they spin webs and devour prey, Stegodyphus dumicola is one of the 35 or so arachnid species that could make an arachnophobe flee in horror. These social spiders collaboratively build massive webs that allow them to capture prey bigger than they are, and they organize their activities and divide their labors. And as Natalie Angier writes in a New York Times story, research on these unusual creatures may provide fresh insights into such human mysteries as where personality comes from and why some individuals are innately shy while others are naturally aggressive. Jonathan N. Pruitt, PhD, a biologist at the University of Pittsburgh, who studies social spiders, told Angier, "It's very satisfying to me that the most maligned of organisms may have something to tell us about who we are."

People and animals differ hugely in such traits as shyness, boldness, and adventurousness. Writing in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Dr. Pruitt and Kate Laskowski, of the Leibnitz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries in Berlin, report that social spiders display individual predispositions early. Further, spiders living in a stable, predictable environment didn't become conformists. They became more individualistic and had more pronounced personal quirks than spiders that were experimentally shifted from one group to another. And personality tended to dictate how labor was divided.

Angier explains that among honeybees, caste depends on age-the youngest tend the young, while older bees forage for food and defend the hive. Ants wind up as soldiers or workers depending on their nutrition when they are larvae. Social spiders find their niche in community operations based on such individual characteristics as size and temperament.

Dr. Pruitt and colleagues found that, the innately aggressive spiders were in charge of capturing prey and defending the colony while more docile spiders tended the young. How do you discover spider personality? In one method the Times story describes, researchers puffed air at the spiders through a bulb-topped syringe. The bold ones bounced back from the perceived threat in five or fewer seconds, while the more timid ones took 10 seconds or longer. And the stable groups had the greatest variety of bold and shy. Researchers even found that whole colonies can have distinctive personalities, just as human neighborhoods can.

Scientists are discovering more and more animals that have traits we once considered exclusively human. So we can marvel at spider individuality. We can also be glad we don't share the Stegodyphus approach to family life. The father spiders commit infanticide and the mothers are suicidal. Females attach their egg cocoons to the web and guard them until babies hatch. Male Stegodyphus spiders like to steal the eggs, forcing the female to replace the cocoon and use the miscreant's sperm to fertilize at least some of her eggs. Once the babies hatch, the mother feeds her young by regurgitating most of her own meals directly into their mouths. When the babies are about a month old, they attack the mother, injecting her with their venom and digestive enzymes, and eat her. When she is consumed, the siblings cannibalize as many of their brothers and sisters as they can before the survivors embark on new lives. Read the Times story here.

left image by Dr VB Whitehead

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  nature 

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Earthquakes, Forest Fires, Stars and Brains

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, April 10, 2014

Human brain activities that give rise to thinking may be akin to the dynamics of earthquakes, forest fires, the spread of contagious disease, the distribution of galaxies in the universe and the sand in an hourglass.

Flip an hour glass upside down, and sand running into the bottom of the glass forms a pile that eventually becomes so unstable that one more grain can cause the pile to collapse into an avalanche. When that happens, the base of the sand pile flattens out, another pile begins, and then it too reaches a point where it collapses. Through several avalanches of varying sizes, the sand pile maintains overall stability. It's a process Danish-American scientist Per Bak called "self organized criticality."

When he died in 2002, The New York Times described Dr. Bak as an "intellectually pugnacious physicist who sought to understand how complexity arises in the world," and how the simple particles that make up the universe could be transformed into the extraordinarily intricate order found in nature. A story by Jennifer Ouellette in Quanta Magazine and reprinted in the Scientific American, explains that Dr. Bak found an answer in phase transition, the process in which materials pass from one state to another. The phase change of water to steam, for example, depends only on temperature and air pressure. Ouellette explains Dr. Bak proposed phase change in which local interactions among many elements of a complex system could spontaneously self organize to reach the tipping point he called criticality. In a 1987 paper in Physical Review Letters, Dr. Bak and coauthors described self organized criticality as the underlying mechanism behind the flow of rivers, the luminosity of stars, and what happens in sand piles and other dynamical systems. His book How Nature Works expands on the idea.

Neuroscientists didn't immediately embrace Dr. Bak's idea on brain function when he proposed it 15 years ago. In the last decade, however, EEG recordings of the interactions among individual brain neurons, large scale studies comparing computer model predictions and fMRI images, and examinations of slides of cortical tissue, have produced evidence that the brain exhibits properties of criticality. Neurophysiologist Dante Chialvo, from the University of California at Los Angeles, is among the renowned scientists who now think self organized criticality could explain brain activity. The idea is also being explored by national and international research efforts.

Getting back to the hour glass. Ouellette explains that when the sand pile-a complex system with millions of tiny elements-reaches the critical point, there is no way to predict which next grain will cause the avalanche, how big any avalanche will be, or how many there will be before all the sand is in the bottom of the glass. The things you can predict are that the falling of one extremely tiny grain can have a big impact; and that while overall stability of the system is maintained-there's still a pile-and there will be more small avalanches than big ones, in line with what mathematicians call power laws.

The exact moment of transition in a phase change is the critical point when the system is half way between one phase and the next. Each of the tens of billions of neurons in our brains, their connections and their interactions, produce "the emergent process we call thinking," the Quanta article says. It goes on to say that Dr. Bak's idea "implies that most of the time, the brain teeters on the edge of a phase transition, hovering between order and disorder."

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  nature  neuroscience  science 

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Learning from Sleeping Bears

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, March 6, 2014

While bears hibernate through bitter cold winters, they don't eat, drink, or excrete, their kidneys shut down, their heart rate falls to a few beats a minute, their oxygen intake and blood flow plunge, and because they're living off their own mighty stores of fat, their cholesterol skyrockets. And when they wake up they're fine. They're not suffering from diabetes, hardening of the arteries or gall stones, and they haven't lost muscle or bone density.

Scientists think the mysteries of bear hibernation may have much to teach us about human health issues ranging from obesity to kidney disease to organ preservation and long distance space travel.

Kevin Corbit, a senior scientist at the biotechnology company Amgen calls hibernation by black bears and grizzly bears an "astonishing feat of evolution." In a New York Times story he explains that when bears halt their renal functions during hibernation, the result is badly scarred kidneys and levels of blood toxin that would kill a human. Yet full function is restored when the bear wakes, and scientists find no lasting damage. Before hibernation, bears eat and drink prodigiously, and quickly gain the weight and fat they'll need for their long sleep, which can last up to seven months. During hibernation, Corbit writes, bears become insulin resistant, making them in effect diabetic. Unlike diabetic humans, however, they maintain normal blood sugar levels. And again, when they wake up, their insulin responsiveness is restored.

At the top seasonal weight, male black bears can weigh up to 900 pounds and females can weigh up to 500 pounds.They may lose up to 30 percent of their body weight during hibernation. See a Nova report and a National Park Service piece on bear hibernation.

"Bears naturally and reversibly succumb to diabetes," Corbit writes. "Since we know when they make this switch, we hope to pinpoint how they do this."

The bears scientists have studied don't handle fat the same way humans do. It doesn't cause tissue inflammation in bears, and Corbit writes that bears store their excess winter weight harmlessly in fat tissue, rather in the liver and muscles as humans do. Corbit's research on bears, supported by his company, is focused on finding innovations in treating obesity. Hibernation itself is an adaptation to seasonal food shortages, extreme cold and snow. Millions of years of evolution has produced genetic adaptations that make fluctuating weight and obesity benign for bears. Corbit figures maybe scientists can figure out how to do that for humans.

A Science article by Sara Reardon says the mysteries of bear metabolism during hibernation could give doctors the ability to slow down the metabolism of accident victims, thereby extending the time when treatment is most effective. Findings could also help extend the preservation of organs for donation. Understanding how bear brains continue to function with low oxygen, and the mechanisms by which sleeping bears conserve their muscle and bone mass during months of inactivity could be useful in managing long term space travel.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  medicine  nature 

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Discovering Molecules that Influence Behavior

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, February 6, 2014

We humans have more in common with fruit flies than we might realize, and that's why research on these tiny insects can yield valuable clues about human genetics, illnesses and a wide range of social interactions. Researchers have even found that jilted male fruit flies turn to drink.

Scientists at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) discovered that when male fruit flies are rejected by female fruit flies they are driven to excessive alcohol consumption and will drink far more than their sexually satisfied peers. They also discovered that a tiny molecule in the fly's brain, called neuropeptide F, governs this behavior. Neuropeptides are a highly diverse class of signal molecules in the brain. The UCSF experiments showed that rejected male lies, whose brain levels of neuropeptide F were lowered, sought alternative rewards by drinking to intoxication when given access to alcoholic and non-alcoholic liquids. Successfully mated male flies, who had higher levels of neuropepetide F in their brains, were less likely to choose the intoxicant.

Ulrike Heberlein, who led the UCSF research and who is now scientific program director at the Janelia Farm research campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute has noted the research found a connection between the flies and mammals for a social behavior influenced by brain chemistry. It turns out that a similar human molecule, neuropeptide Y, may also be associated with social triggers that drive people to abuse alcohol and drugs.

Now scientists studying fruit flies are learning more about the brain activity that underlies male aggression. A New York Times story by James Gorman describes research by David J. Anderson, a California Institute of Technology neuroscientist who is running what the story calls a fruit fly fight club. He and colleague are studying the role of the neuropeptide tachykinin in male aggression. When neurons that produce tachykinin are silenced, researchers were able to decrease aggression in the files. The emergence of tachykinin is very interesting, the story says, because mammals have several different kinds of tachykinin, some of which have been associated with aggression in rodents and may have a variety of roles in human brain function. While the implications for humans is unclear, Dr. Anderson told The Times that "studying aggression in fruit flies can actually teach us something about some of the molecules that control aggression."

Researchers have known for some time that humans and Drosophila fruit flies have many of the same genes and use them in the same way. Many known human diseases have recognizable matches in the genetic code of the fruit fly. A University of Glasgow scientist studying kidney stones produced kidney stones in fruit flies-and noted that unlike humans, the flies didn't seem pained by them. Other researchers have noted that genes and pathways that regulate fruit fly life spans seem closely parallel to the genes that underlie human longevity.

The poet William Blake had all life, even tiny insects, in mind when he wrote "The Fly" in his Songs of Experience, His poem, in part, "Am I not/A fly like thee?/ Or art not thou/ A man like me?/For I dance,/ And drink, and sing,/ Till some blind hand/ Shall brush my wing."

Read The New York Times story here. A UCSF news story explains how scientists discovered the link between fruit fly sex, their altered brain chemistry, and links to a propensity for inebriation.

photo credit

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  nature  research 

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Bird Brains and Ram Horns: Clues on Concussions

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, January 9, 2014

Woodpeckers bang their heads into the hard wood of trees thousands of times a day, and yet there is no evidence they get concussions. Long horn rams bash their heads together in frequent rituals that involve collisions at speeds of 20 to 40 miles an hour, and they don't seem to suffer brain damage either. Do these animals offer clues about protecting the brains of athletes?

The incidence of concussions among high school athletes has grown, and concern about safety has been fueled by continuing revelations from retired professional football players who suffered repeated head injuries before onset of the degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates as many as 3.8 million people a year suffer from sports related traumatic brain injuries.

Materials scientist Ainissa G. Ramirez, PhD, coauthor of Newton's Football: The Science Behind America's Game, quotes materials scientist and MIT Professor Lorna Gibson in a Huffington Post piece about woodpecker brains. Gibson, who has studied woodpeckers, explains, "It's a scaling phenomenon." A woodpecker brain is only about two grams-the mass of two paperclips, compared with a human brain, which averages about 1,400 grams. The lighter the brain, the better it will survive impact, Ramirez writes. She adds by way of explanation that if you drop a cell phone on the floor it will probably not be damaged, but a lap top dropped from the same height may need serious repair. Further, woodpecker brains are oriented at a 90 degree angle so that head-on force is widely distributed, and they fit snugly inside the skull with little room to slosh around.

LiveScience writer Stephanie Pappas gives even more detail. Researchers have found woodpeckers have thick neck muscles that diffuse blows, and a third inner eyelid that prevents the birds' eyes from popping out during repetitious hammering. The thick spongy bone surrounding the woodpecker brain has tiny projections that form a mineral mesh, Pappas writes, suggesting a microstructure that may act as armor for the brain. And she reports Chinese researchers have found the woodpecker's beak may have a microstructure designed to absorb impact rather than transferring it toward the brain.

Rams are big animals with big brains. What makes their head butting benign? Ramirez got some clues from Dr. Andrew Farke, a paleontologist who has studied dinosaurs. Ram's horn is porous bone covered with keratin, an elastic protein material that allows horns to give a little under impact. In addition to distributing the impact of the force, the flexible horn also lengthens the duration of the impact, which lessens the force. Writing in The New York Times, Gregory D. Meyer, PhD, director of Sports Medicine at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, says big horn sheep also have mechanisms that slow the return of blood from the head to the body, increasing the blood volume that fills their brains' vascular tree. In effect, both woodpeckers and rams have brains protected by the physiological equivalent of Bubble Wrap.

Our brains don't fill our skulls, we risk concussions when our brains smack up against our skulls during sudden stops, starts and the collisions of contact sports. Meyers writes that football helmets have reduced fractured skulls, but haven't prevented concussions, because they don't protect what happens inside the skull. Ramirez suggests more research on how materials absorb force could make helmets better. Temperature studies also suggest new possibilities.

Meyers and colleagues at the Colorado School of Public Health found that high school football players who played at higher altitudes had 30 percent fewer concussions. The researchers studied records of athletes in multiple sports from 497 high schools where altitude ranged from seven feet to 6,903 feet, and found all athletes who played at altitudes over 600 feet had 31 percent fewer concussions. "We hypothesize that higher altitude increased the volume of the cerebral venous system, a natural Bubble Wrap that surrounds the brain," and gives it a tighter fit inside the skull, Meyers wrote in The Times. While athletes can't play every game in Denver, he wrote, improved brain safety may come from more research on the biomechanics animals already have in use.

Photo credits: Sid Hamm and National Wildlife Federation

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  nature  neuroscience  research  resilience 

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Wild Apples Evolving With Us

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, November 8, 2013

Thousands of varieties of apples flourished in America in centuries past. Apples were something people drank, and the extraordinary varieties of red, green, yellow and purplish fruits, many of them sour, bitter, and unappetizing by themselves, made excellent hard cider and hog feed.

Rowan Jacobsen, in his Mother Jones story "Why Your Supermarket Only Sells 5 Kinds of Apples," writes about the biological evolution of the American apple and the political and social forces that shaped it. He also tells the story of John Bunker, known in Maine as The Apple Guy, whose decades-long mission has been to identify and preserve as many varieties as possible.

One of the interesting things about apples is that if a tree is grown from seed, its apples won’t be anything like apples of its parent tree. Individual seeds in each apple contain genetic instructions for a totally new apple. As Jacobson explains, "An apple fruit is a disposable womb of the mother tree, each containing a unique combination of genes from the mother tree, and the mystery dad, whose contribution arrived in a pollen packet inadvertently carried by a springtime bee.”

The Plant Genetic Resource Unit, in Geneva, New York now maintains 2,500 varieties of apple trees collected from all over the world. While the ancient fruit originated in the mountains of Kazakhstan, Michael Pollan suggests in his book the Botany of Desire, a Plant’s Eye View of the World, that the apple as it dispersed became quintessentially American. It was hardy, grew anywhere, could thrive with no maintenance, and was almost mystically democratic. In the early 1800s when Johnny Appleseed was planting his trees, Pollan writes, "they were a blooming fruiting meritocracy in which every apple seed roots in the same soil and has an equal chance of greatness.” Further, Pollan says, hard cider was the buzz of choice in early America, because while the Bible warned against the dangers of the grape, apples even when fermented were considered more innocent. But that view, too, evolved.

Pollan and Jacobsen write that many apple varieties disappeared during Prohibition when trees bearing the best cider apples were chopped down. More diversity was lost with the increasing industrialization of agriculture. To consistently produce sweet, tasty, bright colored apples, farmers had to take a cutting from a tree that produced fruit with the desired trait, and graft it onto living stock. Every McIntosh, Red Delicious and Granny Smith comes from grafting. As industrialization of agriculture increased, so did focus on a few commercially appealing varieties that would withstand long shipment.

The loss of biodiversity puts plants at risk for pests and disease, and today’s apples are vulnerable to both. Apples require more pesticides than any other crop, and are hard to grow organically. Bunker studies apples growing in towns, forests and on neighbors’ lands, and tries to save rare apples, some of which have blight resistant genetic traits. He estimates he has rescued 80 to 100 varieties, growing grafted trees at his Fedco Nursery, and selling vintage plants through Fedco Trees, a mail order company he founded 30 year ago. Bunker fears our diverse agricultural heritage is in danger not only because of the dwindling number of varieties being commercially grown, but because many new apples like the Sweet Tango are the intellectual property of those who bred them.

He keeps looking for lost specimens he’s heard about from distant visitors and local lore, or read about in old books and farm catalogs. His search for the Fletcher Sweet led him to an elderly resident in the town of Lincolnville who knew of a gnarled ancient tree that grew apples he ate as a child. Bunker cut shoots from what little life was left in the tree, and his new grafted trees produced a juicy green flavorful apple. So he has given some young Fletcher Sweet trees back to Lincolnville. Read the Mother Jones story here.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  nature  resilience 

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Power of Positive Feedback Often MIssed

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, September 12, 2013
As the glacial ice in Greenland melts, there is less white surface reflecting sunlight back into the atmosphere. There is more dark water, and that absorbs heat, causing more ice to melt. Scientists are discovering that even in years without record-breaking temperatures highs, a self-amplifying cycle of warming and meting can persist because of positive feedback mechanisms in the interactions of ice, water, temperature and sunlight. 

Mark Buchanan, physicist, author and scholar of complex systems, says positive feedback is behind almost everything that makes our world rich, surprising and dynamic. In his newest book Forecast: What Physics, Meteorology and the Natural Sciences Can Teach Us About Economics, Buchanan writes that positive feedback makes "seeds sprout and grow into trees, matches burst into flame, and single cells divide and proliferate into living thinking human beings. It drives political revolution and new religions, and it makes perfectly peaceful blue skies give rise, with little warning, to storms of terrifying violence...”

He believes an intellectual blind spot to the power of positive feedback has held back our understanding of human systems and social sciences. Economics is often misunderstood, he asserts, because theorists in the field have viewed economic systems as inherently stable and self-regulating and they’ve thought that people make rational economic decisions with full awareness of future possibilities. Even after the financial meltdown of 2008, he writes, many economists have strained to rationalize those views in spite of evidence that debunks them. With his prediction that future crises are inevitable unless economic models are changed to take into account what’s been learned about other complex systems, Buchanan imparts urgency to his insights that markets follow power law distributions and small events can trigger huge consequences.

In a detailed analysis of the May 2010 "flash crash," for instance, Buchanan shows positive feedback was among the forces involved when the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged nearly 1,000 points (9 percent of its total value) in 13 minutes and 27 seconds. Within 21 minutes stock values rose back to previous levels, but anyone unfortunate enough to unknowingly sell as prices hit rock bottom suffered serious losses. Buchanan tells the story of one investor who was "mugged” by the crash, losing $15,000 in a matter of seconds. The cause of the crash remains controversial, though government reports found no evidence of illegal manipulation or any "fat finger” mistake caused by someone hitting a wrong button. Buchanan explains that high frequency trading (HFT), which made up 73 percent of the volume of trading in 2010, usually produces greater liquidity in the market-except when it doesn’t.

Markets work best when money and assets flow easily among buyers and sellers without delays and obstructions, and when that happens, the market is called liquid. Generally, speed is good. But exceptions are possible. A high percentage of trading now takes place at the speed of light. Hundreds of companies sell algorithmic trading platforms that execute trades so fast virtually no time elapses between the push of a button and the completion of the trade.

Buchanan explains that the bid-ask spread in trading reflects how much market makers think they need to charge to make a profit. In turbulent periods, HFT market makers charge more, so the spread widens. In the flash crash the spread ballooned, and HFT firms with algorithms running on autopilot fled the market. Trading came crashing to a halt and liquidity disappeared. Buchanan describes the positive feed back effect: more volatility meant less liquidity, which brought more volatility, and which brought less liquidity. Physicists have found wilder behavior in stock movements, and more mini crashes, in very short time periods since 2005. Buchanan suggests as trading moves to inhumanly short time scales, increasing "black swan" events in microscopic time can be expected.

Brain science has shown that people don’t respond well to things that happen in less than a second, Buchanan writes, and what happens in markets in sub-second times may reflect a fundamental change as trading "becomes uncoupled from the influence of human decision making."

Physics and meteorology hold clues to the working of economic systems, though Buchanan doesn’t suggest any one explanatory theory. If a predictive model were developed, he said, its existence would change how people behave, making its predictions inaccurate. Meteorologists have different models and theories for different aspects of weather, such as tornadoes and thunderstorms on the plains, hurricanes developing at sea, or a blanket of fog over the earth’s surface, and their predictions have vastly improved. In the same way, he writes, economists need an assortment of models and theories to understand economic phenomena such as rapid fluctuations driven by high frequency trading, daily movements driven by trend- following speculators or instabilities that form over months or years as a result of social change, such as the trend in sub prime lending. Forecast is provocative, carefully researched, absorbing and lucidly written. Buchanan illuminates complex material and tells stories that give it a human face.

Tags:  buscell  complexity  complexity matters  economy  nature 

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Shifting Organizational Culture: Learning Transformational Roles from the Soil

Posted By Kristen Barney, MA, MSOD, Monday, June 3, 2013
Updated: Thursday, May 30, 2013

Guest post by Kristen Barney, MA, MSOD originally posted on her blog Leading with Nature

Barley roots – a place where transformation happens.We sometimes hear about an organization that came through grave difficulties and became a success story. Even after hearing the story, we may not really understand how the transformation took place. There is no single way change happens, and it can feel nebulous or mysterious. Without deeper understanding leaders may hesitate to try new leadership styles or begin processes to renew a flagging organization. Today, to give you confidence and inspiration, I share with you a concrete example of how transformation happens… in the soil.

The soil, you see, can transform and nourish itself, with the help of several companions and help-mates. By looking at the different roles and forces that are needed to fix nitrogen in the soil – the biological equivalent of organizational renewal – we can understand how we already play these transformative roles, and how we can play them more intentionally. Supplying nitrogen to plants is a sort of "holy grail” of gardening and agriculture, just as creating a thriving, productive work culture can be the holy grail of organizations. Plants must find nitrogen in the soil to thrive, but not just any nitrogen. It must be nitrogen whose potential has been harnessed. Plants need the form of nitrogen called ammonium, which can be readily absorbed and used by plants. The process of making ammonium is called nitrogen fixing, and gardeners can set up the conditions so that it happens naturally while they sit home in the winter drinking chocolate. Pretty cool!

In the same way, organizational members need certain things from the culture to thrive, such as safety, respect, structure, trust, freedom, boundaries, clarity, and openness to creativity. You can name many more! As in nitrogen fixing, many players and forces come together in organizations to make these things possible so that members are nourished, inspired, supported, and productive. Let us look at how this works in the soil.

Transformation in the Soil: The Nitrogen Fixation Process

Nature’s ability to renew itself is remarkable. Here is a quick summary of how certain plants, like barley, can actually build the nutrients in the soil, just by existing!

  • First, barley grows roots. These roots form a loose chamber where transformation can happen. A species of bacteria calledazospirillumjust loves to hang out underneath barley plants because of the organic matter the roots release.
  • Next, theazospirillumknow how to activate an enzyme system called nitrogenase. This happens to be the only enzyme system known to humankind which can fix nitrogen into ammonium, thereby making the nutrient easy for plants to absorb and use.
  • All of this happens in the soil which surrounds and interacts with the roots. This little clump of soil is called the rhizosphere. This space, embraced loosely by barley roots, is where a few key players come together to change grainy, packed dirt into dark, loamy, nutrient-rich soil. The roots hold together a space where transformation can happen.

What is the result? Well, one warmish February morning I went to the garden and pulled up the barley so I could dig it into the soil, and let it compost so that the nutrients would be available in my onion patch in the spring. When I saw how lush the soil was where the barley had grown, and how sterile the soil was elsewhere, I became a cover crop convert. And, by some accounts, my onion plants were the most vibrant in the community garden. Another gardener had given me half of her onion plants in the spring, so we had a semi-controlled scientific experiment. I planted my onions where the barley had been, with leaf mulch mixed in. She planted hers in soil enriched only with leaf mulch. By June she was astonished at how tall and healthy my onions were. Hers had wilted in the heat.

If you have ever heard leaders, facilitators, or consultants talking shop, you may have heard the phrase "holding the space.” Just as the roots hold together a clump of soil where transformation can happen, one of the key roles in organizational transformation is holding together a process or an intention so that a group can complete its work despite distractions, upheavals, or straying attention. Commonly this role is played by jointly an external consultant and/or a leader. This is a powerful way to proceed, especially if the leader sees him/herself as an integral part of the system andwilling to reflect on his/herimpactin the organization.

And, does it have to be a leader, facilitator, or consultant who plays the role of the barley roots, holding together the process for the good of the organization as a whole? You have almost certainly played this role for someone in the course of your life by being present for, listening to, and believing in someone. Today many leaders are increasingly open to receiving help from all quarters. By simply changing how we think of ourselves and how we relate to others, we can have subtle,real, and positiveimpacts on a system.

As we look at organizational equivalents for the biological roles of barley roots,azospirillum, nitrogenase, and the rhizosphere in creating self-nourishment, let us take a page from the book of Carl Jung, the renowned psychoanalyst who revolutionized the interpretation of dreams. Jung encouraged people to examine their dreams multiple times, eventually seeing that each actor or force or element of the dream could represent part of the individual’s psyche. If there was a child, consider the dream as though you were the child, he encouraged. If there was a dangerous intruder, think of that intruder representing an archetype within yourself. If there was a doorway, think of yourself as the doorway as you interpret the dream.

Since anyone can play these transformational roles, we can use Jung’s approach to thinking of ourselves as playing each of these roles.

Transformational Roles

As organizations learn to be adaptive and innovative, there is increasing latitude for any person to instigate or support transformation. I will focus on just four remarkable roles:

  • Barley Roots – The Space Holder– You may have played the role of barley roots, which”hold the space.” If you have listened deeply to a friend in need, you have created a chamber for renewal or transformation. Consultants and leaders use their attention, guidance,and skill to maintain a "chamber” when working with people. The chamber is a loosely held space, like thebarley roots you see above, that containsand supportsa transformational process. You may have done this byguiding the proceedings of a meeting and protecting progress from disruptions or distractions so that a group’s important work can flow and develop. Or you may have realized that there is another step or direction that the group needs to follow if the results are truly going to be of benefit, and you share your insights and help the group reshape its goals and process to yield a more durable, relevant result.
  • Azospirillum– The Activator- You may have played the role of this species of bacteria whichactivates the enzyme system which does the actual fixing ofnitrogen. If you have ever challenged someone toexamine anassumption or asked where someone got the numbers to back up an opinion, you may have played the activating role. Or perhaps you askedthe "grail question,” which is traditionally, "what ails you?” In organizational life the grail question might be something invitingsuch as, "tell me more about that” or "I can see youare passionate about that and I’d like to hear more.” You may have stayed calm and not gotten hooked into a conflict, and instead probed deeper tolearn what was really underneath a concern or hard-to-name feeling.
  • Nitrogenase – The Transformer– You have probably already played this role too. Nitrogenasetransforms theinert potential of nitrogen into useable ammonium, creating fuel and nourishment for life and growth. You may have revealed a truth that everyone kind of knew but could not put into words. Or chosen to be the first to let go of something that everyone knew was not working anymore, but to which everyone was attached. You may have released a belief thatwas no longer serving anyone and thereby freed up a group of people to collaborate and createmore freely. You may have told a story that shifted how people viewed you or saw a situation, and thereby helped others give themselves permission to tell their own story or open to a new possibilities for your team.
  • Rhizosphere – The Creative Space– You may have played this role with someone else. It can only be lived by two or more people together. It is a collective space. The rhizosphere is something that builds up through shared interactions. It is a collective suspending of judgment so that the true issues can be explored. It is the developing of trust over time, so that you know you can take risks, or others can take risks, without having the new idea or action being chopped down instantly. It is recognizing that creative tension is healthy for organizations, so that there is room for freedom and structure, accountability and creativity, and flexibility and control.

You may think of other transformationalroles – what about the sun and rain?Birds and insects? Or you may define the roles differently that I have done. How would you play with these concepts to make them useful and in alignment with your life experience?

Putting Transformational Roles to Work: A Real Life Example

As a consultant, I know I am having a useful impact when an organizational member is willing to confront me, playing theazospirillumrole of activator. This happened I was working with an organization to helpthe members prepare for a new leader. The leader had not yet been chosen, and the organization was somewhat in a state of shock. Their beloved leader had let the organization down, and had to leave rather suddenly. People were disoriented. Some were relieved, some were grieving.

I was working with a team of five members to design a workshop in which each member would facilitate an activity. We had worked together for about three weeks. The date of the workshop was getting close, andsuddenly in a planning meeting,one of the team members challenged me. I will call her Tamara. I delighted in this because it was a sign of increased empowerment on the team. I”leaned into” the conflict by trying to learn more about Tamara’s concern and the passion underneath her challenge. That day we did not reach a resolution point,nor did wefinalize Tamara’s part in the workshop. But she and I did agree to meet for luncha few days later. She needed to tell me her story. I listened. We worked throughthe tensions.

At the time of the workshop, we still did not know what Tamara’s contribution would be. But she and I had developed mutual respect and trust. And when Tamara’s time to facilitate arrived, shehad been closely following the development of the workshop, and knew what she wanted to do. She led a process that wasappropriate to the group and contributed greatly to the healing of the organizational grief and shock. Tamara’s activity laid a foundation for the final activity, which wasa cathartic conversation in which people forgave each other for long-held grudges, expressed the knowledge that they needed to work togetherif the organization was to have a future, released some fearsabout receiving a new leader, and even opened to a sense of excitement about new possibilities.

In the above story, all of the transformative roles are present. At different times, both Tamara and I held the space for our workshop design and execution, playing the role of the barley roots. Tamara played the role ofazospirillum, challenging me and activating some conversation that allowed me to ask the grail question – what ails you? By telling her story, Tamara made herself vulnerable in a way that built trust between us. That is the role of nitrogenase – the transformer. The team and I together played the rhizosphere – the creative space – by not insisting that Tamara define her role in the workshop. She chose at first to play a barley root role – monitoring and following the development of the workshop, which gave her the intuitive information she needed to let her activity for the group crystalize, just moments before she was to facilitate.

The potential for leadership often lays dormant inside our organizationalsystems. By combining these four roles – the space holder, the activator, the transformer, and the creative space – potential can become active leadership. This helps theorganization transform and nourish itself, just as in the nitrogen fixing process. What additional transformative roles do you see in the above story? How would you interpret what happened?


When I sit on the ground, breaking up clumps of soil with my hands, and mixing mulch or expired barley plants into the soil, I think about these roles. They seem the perfect analogy to help an organization rekindle its ability to overcome, grow, and thrive. We often wait for someone else to initiate change. Sometimes just by taking more time to listen, or to accept someone just as they are, or to challenge someone to see things differently, or to acknowledge something we have learned, we can open up possibilities for ourselves and others to change. We might not see the result immediately, yet when organizational members experiment consciously with these roles,an entire system might gradually shift and transform.

Please share your stories, experiments, and inspirations about roles you have played or seen others play in supporting transformation. Thank you!

Tags:  barney  complexity matters  culture  nature  organizations 

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Ancient Mystery: Synchronized Emergence of Periodical Cicadas

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, May 2, 2013

Residents of the Northeastern United States can soon expect a wildlife phenomenon not seen elsewhere in the world. Brood II Cicadas, Magicicada septendicum, the cousins of crickets and katydids and one of the longest living insects in the world, will emerge from their 17-years of living underground. Millions will fill the skies, cover trees and plants, mate, lay eggs, and then die, leaving piles of dead cicada bodies on the ground. It’s a life cycle that has intrigued scientists for centuries.

They’re harmless-they don't bite, sting or damage property-so environmentalists caution against insecticides. But they can be annoying. Males buzz to attract females, each of whom will then lay hundreds of eggs to perpetuate their kind. Listen to cicada love song here. The National Geographic reports the noise at its peak reaches 110 decibels, about as loud as a chain saw, and may repel some predatory wolves, foxes, birds and reptiles that might otherwise eat them. describes their biology and habits, and even suggests bagpipes to scare live ones away from outdoor events.

Their real protection is their numbers. Craig Gibbs, writing in the New York Times, explains there are so many of them that even voracious consumption by predators won’t make much of a dent in their population. They’ve been seen in clusters of up to 1.5 million per acre.

This spring’s Brood II cicadas are the offspring of Magicicadas last seen in 1996. (Other broods have 13 year life cycles.) The genetic mechanism that prompts them to emerge is triggered when the ground warms to a consistent 64 degrees F. They live underground from Connecticut to North Carolina, and build above ground chimneys that keep soil and water from falling into the hole as they prepare to emerge.

How and why did these creatures evolve their synchronized life cycles? Gibbs says one theory is that their cycle was a response to atmospheric cooling during the Pleistocene, to guarantee sufficient populations for successful reproduction. Some researchers think their evolutionary history may hold clues to how future climate change could impact cicadas and other insects.

Another theory is that their long life and synchronous emergence makes predators unable to anticipate their presence. Daniel Stone writes National Geographic News that the cycles of 13 and 17 years, both prime numbers in mathematics, may aid their survival. He reports on Brazilian research suggesting that a cicada with a 17 year cycle and a parasite with a two year cycle, for instance, would meet only twice in a century.

Cicadas help aerate the soil, and living or dead, they are a source of protein for large and small creatures. They were reportedly a delicacy for Iroquois and Onondaga Indians, and adventurous eaters can find recipes online for cicadas chopped and fried.

Several citizen science projects, such as the New York Public Radio RadioLab Cicada Tracker, may contribute to an understanding of these mysterious ancient creatures.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  nature 

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Insect Drones and Pig Replacement Parts

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, March 14, 2013

Drones have been in the news lately, and the next generation of drones may involve an even more controversial and exotic technology. They may be very tiny cyborgs.

Amit Lal, an engineer, Cornell professor and program manager for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) wrote a proposal for prospective researchers years ago suggesting if scientists could hack into insect bodies and control their movements, they’d have a real start on small scale flying machines. Michael Maharbiz at the University of California, Berkeley, took up the challenge. He and his team began researching the biology of the Mecynorrhina torquata, at 2-3 inches long, the world’s second largest flower beetle. Its hard shell and size make it capable of carrying a significant amount of cargo, including a "backpack” of electronic gear attached to its back with beeswax. Researchers wired the creature’s brain so it could be steered remotely, and loaded the backpack with a tiny battery, miniature radio receiver and a custom built circuit board.

Emily Anthes describes the race to create insect cyborgs in an article in The Guardian. She is also author of a new book, Frankenstein's Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech's Brave New Beasts, which contains the story of DARPA’s quest. Anthes quotes Maharbiz as saying the beetlebots, which still haven’t been deployed in the field, will be able to provide intelligence in military operations and save lives in earthquakes by directing rescue teams to humans trapped in ruble. Critics have worried that cyborg beetles could be used to launch germ warfare or spy on civilians, but Maharbiz scoffs at such sinister suggestions. He is now working on a remote controlled cyborg fly, an even more difficult project because of its smaller size and weight. Such cyborg insects could fly into buildings and caves, alerting soldiers and distant observers to the presence of explosives and information to gauge whether human occupants were enemies or civilians.

Bioengineering has advanced dramatically since Dolly the Sheep was cloned in 1996. Listen to Anthes’s interview with Terri Gross on NPR's Fresh Air. Some wealthy people clone their pets-it’s six figures for a dog-and people can buy genetically modified bright colored fish that glow in the dark. But there are more serious endeavors. It’s no longer rare for a human to receive a valve from a pig heart. Scientists are now trying to grow pigs that will produce numerous whole organs for human transplants and goats injected with human genes that can produce protein rich milk with the antibiotic properties of human breast milk. Anthes describes how Chinese scientists are identifying the functions of each gene in the mouse genome by disabling one gene at a time and monitoring how the mutant mice develop. She told Gross that among the lab’s 45,000 mouse cages there are mice with cancer, male pattern baldness, obsessive compulsive disorder, and some that are only able to turn left. The discoveries could eventually help understand genes involved in human diseases and afflictions.

And the ethics of all this? Anthes concedes it’s complex. People might accept an experiment intended to treat cancer more readily than one to prevent baldness, says Anthes. Is it all right to risk harm to animals in the name of research? Unintended consequences can’t be ruled out in experimental work, Anthes says, so researchers have to worry. Scientists successfully engineered leaner, faster growing pigs, she notes, but the pigs were miserable with arthritis, eye problems and other health woes. In a New York Times essay, Anthes describes genetically modified salmon that grow faster because they’ve been engineered to carry the genes of another species, the ocean pout. It soon may be the first transgenic animal in the human food supply. While Anthes agrees with the need for painstaking evaluation, she hopes fear of genetic modification won’t prevent innovative scientific research with potential to help human health.

photo: male and female Mecynorrhina tortuata beetles

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  nature  science 

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