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The Miracle of a Butterfly’s Wings

 By Shlomo Maital  

  Butterflies in general are small miracles; evolution has created them, most lovely of creatures, from ugly caterpillars.

     But on Ira Flatow’s wonderful Science Friday podcast, latest edition, we learned about the butterfly’s miraculous wings, based on new research.

     The color? It’s not from pigment. It is created by tiny “nanoscales”, tiny structures, that reflect light of various wave lengths. Some of these nanoscales reflected near-infrared light, to keep the delicate butterfly’s wings cool – built-in air conditioning. Some of the nanoscales create the amazing coloring of the butterfly’s wings.  (Turns out, blue eyes in humans also get their color from nanostructure, not from pigment!)

     Other structures in the wing generate pheromones, for males, which attract females.   But most amazing is the tiny ‘heart’ – beating small heart cells in the wings, that pump blood and keep the wing alive and healthy, in addition to a regular heart in the thorax (body) of the butterly.

     One of Nature’s most amazing migrations is that of the Monarch butterfly. According to Wikipedia: “The eastern North American monarch population is notable for its annual southward late-summer/autumn migration from the northern and central United States and southern Canada to Florida and Mexico. During the fall migration, monarchs cover thousands of miles, with a corresponding multi-generational return north.

     Thousands of miles?   Those delicate feather-light butterflies? How in the world? Apparently, the butterflies use southward air currents to help them. Monarchs need milkweed – their caterpillars eat only milkweed and Monarchs lay eggs only on milkweed as a result. Milkweed in Mexico is disappearing, threatening these amazing creatures.

     The underlying miracle of the butterfly wing is evolution. Classical evolution has long ago halted in humans, because we now know fortunately how to keep alive the weak, the ill, the disabled…. But we humans can still use this incredible model for human progress.

     Like the evolution of butterfly wings: Try things. Most will fail. Don’t worry about it. A few will succeed. When they do – go with it! And be patient. It took millions of years for butterfly wings to evolve as they are. We humans don’t have hillions of years. But we do need some patience, to try things, to fail, fail, fail…and ultimately succeed,   without giving up at the second or third failure.


The Creativity of Nature:

How One Creative Scientist Harnessed It

By   Shlomo Maital

Prof. Frances Arnold, Caltech

   Frances Arnold is a professor of chemical engineering at California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena, CA. She won the 2018 Nobel Prize for chemistry, along with two others. She is only the fifth woman in history to win the Chemistry Nobel.

   Prof. Arnold has had numerous personal tragedies. She has overcome all the grief – and not a small amount of gender discrimination. UK border police interrogated her for over two hours, when she told them she was “coming to meet the Queen” (she was – but a lot of nutty people say that, apparently).

     Prof. Arnold won the Nobel for finding a creative way to leverage the powerful creative force of evolution. Instead of designing new chemicals from scratch, to fight crop-eating pests, remove laundry stains or clean up oil spills, Arnold figured out how to get Nature to do it.

     “You start with a protein that already has some features you’re interested in”, she said, “ and use standard lab techniques to randomly mutate the gene that encodes the protein. Then you look for slight improvement in the resulting protein, in the direction you seek. You mutate the improved version again and again and screen the output. You do this with a bacterial workhorse, like E. coli….. you encourage the microbes to rise to the challenge, adapt, survive.”

       In Dr. Arnold’s lab, organisms have been ‘mutated’ to stitch together carbon and silicon, or carbon and boron. “We’re discovering that nature can do chemistry, in the lab, we never dreamed was possible”, Dr. Arnold said.    Arnold has invented the new field of evolutionary chemistry – using Nature’s incredibly creative system known as evolution and ‘survival of the fittest’, to create random mutations, select the ones that work, perfect them – and change the world. Nature is creative, in much the same way that humans are – try things, fail, try again, find something that does work and run with it. That is how we humans were created – and according to Darwin, all the millions of species on earth.    

   Arnold has launched a number of startups, including one that synthesizes insect pheromones and fends off agricultural pests by simply driving them crazy and confusing them.

   Much of Dr. Arnold’s pioneering research was done while she fought breast cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes. She underwent surgery, radiation and chemo, all while raising three young boys and working day and night in her lab.   And in 2010 her husband Andrew Lange killed himself; her middle son William, 20, died in an accident in 2016.  

     “Why would I give up?” said Arnold. “First you learn you have no control. Then you straighten up, fetch your invitation and go to meet the Queen.”    

       [This is based on an excellent New York Times article, by Natalie Angier, who writes for the Science Times].









Why Do We Sleep?

By   Shlomo Maital

   Why do people sleep? For evolutionary biologists, it’s a bit of a mystery. Sleep makes us vulnerable to predators. How come people and animals did not evolve without the need for sleep?

     A new research study, just published in Nature Communications, reveals an answer. The study is by Bar Ilan University doctoral student David Zada, along with professorial co-authors.

     Until now, we did know that lack of sleep affects brain functioning. Could sleep be a biochemical process essential for life?

     The answer is yes.   Zada studied zebrafish. When they are young, they are transparent – even their skulls.   Zada could look directly into their brains.

       Here is what he found. Every human cell (except for one exception – red blood cells) has DNA. DNA gets damaged over time and needs repair within the cell. There are enzymes that do this.

         Zada found that when zebrafish sleep, their neural cells no longer need energy for waking purposes, and this frees energy for their cells to repair their damaged DNA. He used time lapse photography to show this. When fish are awake, their chromosomes have far fewer resources to engage in repairs.

         Apparently we sleep in order to engage in crucial maintenance for our neurons – nerve cells – in particular, just as my Toyota needs regular maintenance from time to time in the garage.

         So – let’s get some sleep and let our amazing bodies fix their neural cells. It is well known that teenagers in particular do not sleep enough. Maybe we can learn from the zebrafish?  



We Humans Took Nature 2.1 Billion Years to Create
By   Shlomo Maital

  2.1-Billion-Year-Old Fossil:  Evidence of Earliest Moving Life-Form

  A New York Times report, summarizing a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, describes a 2.1 billion year old fossil, that could be evidence of the earliest living thing that actually moved.   According to this account:
   About 2.1 billion years ago, a blob-like creature inched along on an early Earth. As the organism moved, it carved out tunnels, which may be the earliest evidence of a moving critter on the planet.    Until this discovery, the earliest evidence of motility — that is, an organism’s ability to move independently using its own metabolic energy — dated to about 570 million years ago, according to fossils from different locations. That’s a good 1.5 billion years younger than the new finding.
    Here is why I find this so amazing.  We humans have been on this earth, more or less as we are now, for only about 50,000 years.  But that blink of an eye was preceded by 2.1 billion years of evolution, starting with ‘blob like creatures inching along” and evolving, through natural selection, patiently, inexorably, into what we are today.   From one cell, to multi-cell, to fish, to mammals, to us…. With infinite step by step patience.
Many religious people take issue with this view of Creation.  I find that it strengthens belief  in a Divine Creator, rather than weakens it.  What an incredibly brilliant, patient, focused system,  evolution, able to generate divinely-inspired human beings and patiently take its time doing so, for 2 billion years.   
 I wonder whether this system of evolution, constantly improving species and races, has come to an end for humans.  Are we improving, evolutionarily, or are we degrading?   



Polar Bears – Nature’s Astounding Innovations

By Shlomo Maital


   Nature is our supreme innovator. Over many thousands of years, random mutations occur, most of which fail, but a few succeed in helping species to survive to procreate – and became permanently embedded and reproduced in their genes. This evolutionary innovation is slow but highly effective. Variations of it work in human innovation, too. A study in Israel shows that of some 10,000 startups launched between 1999 and 2008, only about 4 %, or around 450, are still alive, growing and profitable. As with evolution, ideas are tossed into the air, and only a few prove truly viable. Entrepreneurs that I spoke with believe firmly that to get 440 viable firms, you do need to launch 10,000.

     Consider the Polar Bear. It is currently endangered by global warming and its numbers are falling.   This is a great tragedy. The polar bear is one of Nature’s supreme innovations.

     How does the Polar Bear survive in the long Arctic nights, in freezing cold?

     Its fur. Its fur hairs are actually not white (they just appear so, because they lack any color).   Each hair is transparent, and has a key property – it reflects (rather than absorbs) all wave lengths of light, including infrared. Why is that helpful? The body of the polar bear radiates heat, as infrared radiation. But when body heat reaches the transparent hairs, it is reflected back into the body, rather than radiated off into the air and lost forever. No warmer fur coat exists.

       Has anyone thought of creating a synthetic fur jacket or sweater, on this principle?

       What else has Nature innovated?

       Active hibernation.   Bears hibernate in winter, when the food supply declines. Hibernation is a state where the body cools, heartbeat slows and energy consumption is minimal. Polar bears hibernate in summer, when food is very scarce…. But remain awake. How? Their body metabolism goes into hibernation mode, and energy is recycled to maintain muscle tone – but still the polar bears are awake, lest they miss some food, however scarce.   As far as we know, this amazing stage of wakeful hibernation is unique to polar bears.

       Nature indeed is an incredible innovator, and evolution is its mechanism.

       If we allow polar bears to decline and perhaps become extinct, due to global warming and the melting of Arctic ice, it will be an enormous crime to future generations, who will not get to know this remarkable animal.

Scientific Evidence: Origins of Creativity

By Shlomo Maital

Scientific American

In our book Cracking the Creativity Code:   my friend and co-author Arie Ruttenberg and I present a framework for creativity called ZiZoZi – zoom in (on the problem), zoom out (to find solutions), zoom back in to apply them.  Repeat as needed.

   Recently browsing through old Scientific American issues, (March 2013), I found an especially wonderful one on “The Evolution of Creativity”. In it Heather Pringle, who writes on archaeology, explores how human creativity evolved, over thousands of years of human history. It includes this passage, which describes a process similar to zoom in/zoom out:

     “….[creative] individuals are excellent woolgatherers. When tackling a problem [according to cognitive scientist Liane Gabora, U. of British Columbia, and Scott Barry Kaufman, psychologist at NYU],   they first let their minds wander, allowing one memory or thought to spontaneously conjure up another. [Zoom Out].

   “This free association encourages analogies and gives trise to thoughts that break out of the box.   Then as these individuals settle on a vague idea for a solution, they switch to a more analytic mode of thought. They zero in on only the most relevant properties, Gabora says, and they start refining an idea to make it work. [Zoom In].

     Gabora believes that as hominoids developed bigger brains, this led to a greater ability to ‘free associate’. More stimuli could be encoded in a brain made up of many billions of neurons. More neurons could participate in the encoding of a particular episode, leading to a finer-grained memory and more potential routes for associating one stimulus with another.

   The key seems to be the word “associate”.   Creative people link things that other people find totally unrelated. These ‘leaps’ of insight occur in brains that are good at making such connections.

     And the more we practice, the better we get at it.  

Wheat Is More Complex Than Einstein

By Shlomo Maital


    Born in Saskatchewan, I grew up among waving fields of golden wheat.  Few sights are more beautiful.  Little did I know how ‘smart’ wheat plants are…until Prof. Chamovitz.    

    Prof. Daniel Chamovitz is a Tel Aviv Univ. plant geneticist, author of a recent book,  What a Plan Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses (2012, Scientific American).   He was interviewed recently in the Hebrew language Haaretz weekly magazine. 

    Among his research projects:    “Recently we got interested in the question of what anti-cancer chemicals found in plants do for the plant. Particularly we’re studying indole-3-carbinol (I3C), a phytochemical found in vegetables like broccoli and mustard that has also been reported effective in killing breast and prostate cancer cells.”

     According to Chamovitz,  plants are genetically more complicated than humans!  Human beings have some 20,000 – 25,000 genes.  This is the number of genes Albert Einstein had.  But plants have more.  The rice plant, whose genome was decoded, has 37,000 genes.  And according to Chamovitz,  his team decoded the wheat genome, at Tel Aviv U., and found it has even more genes than rice. 


     Survival.  Evolution, survival of the fittest.

     For example, he notes,   human beings have four genes that that control and develop light receptors in the retina.  But plants have 13!   Why?    Light is more important for plants’ survival than it is for humans.  Plants need to time their cycle according to the length of days (when to blossom, e.g.), they need to angle their stalks to seek light….

    Historian Yuval Noah Harari  claims, in his book, that wheat domesticated humans, rather than vice versa.  Meaning:  Wheat adapted itself, to create value for humans, leading humans to cultivate it widely. And that is the goal of living things – procreate, spread, multiply.    Whatever the case,  plants are highly sophisticated living things that have evolved in very touch environments, adapted beautifully to their surroundings, and where necessary, have created alliances with humans. 

    It may well be, as humans spew CO2 into the air and ruin their planet’s air and water, that plants will simply adjust and adapt, using their proliferation of genes,  and inherit the earth from people with big brains who simply are incapable of really using them. 

    Why Tea-Party Individualism Has a Basic Flaw

By Shlomo  Maital


The extreme right-wing of the Republican Party, known as the Tea Party, demands maximum  individual libertarian freedoms, lower taxes, less government, less or no social welfare.   It is named after the Boston Tea Party, which initiated the American Revolution when Bostoners refused to pay taxes levied by the British on imported tea, and dumped tea overboard.  But Tea Party is no party.  It has disrupted American politics, divided the Republican Party and elected substantial numbers of House members and Senators.   

    The best refutation I’ve found of the Tea Party ideology comes not from an economist or political scientist, but from an anthropologist named John Terrell, the Regenstein Curator of Pacific Anthropology at the Field Museum of Natural History and professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois in Chicago.   His basic argument, presented in an Op-Ed in the New York Times: 

    “The basic unit of human social life is not and never has been the selfish and self-serving individual.    Philosophers from Aristotle to Hegel have emphasized that human beings are essentially social creatures, that the idea of an isolated individual is a misleading abstraction. So it is not just ironic but instructive that modern evolutionary research, anthropology, cognitive psychology and neuroscience have come down on the side of the philosophers who have argued that the basic unit of human social life is not and never has been the selfish, self-serving individual. Contrary to libertarian and Tea Party rhetoric, evolution has made us a powerfully social species, so much so that the essential precondition of human survival is and always has been the individual plus his or her relationships with others.”

Human beings have evolved for over 50,000 years.  We survive by joining with other people, to support them and receive their support. This happens within the key family unit,  within neighborhoods, cities, places of work, organizations, schools and  indeed   in  our social networks.   We thrive when we love others and receive their love.  We thrive when society works smoothly to provide mutual support, emotional physical and financial. 

     The Tea Party arose from the ashes of Ron Paul’s  failed Presidential Campaign in 2008, so it is only 6 years old.   It was strengthened by the disastrous financial collapse of 2008, which the Tea Party blamed on government rather than on greedy individualism rampant on Wall St.   There is a social evolution of ideas, not just people and societies. The failed, failing and refuted ideas of the Tea Party groups will be dumped on the trash heap, by the evolutionary process of ideas.     

Evolution at its Strangest: The Glow-worm Cave

By Shlomo  Maital

Waitomo glowworm cave

  Those strange luminous ‘fishing lines’ in the picture are actually —   strange luminous fishing lines.  They are created by glow-worms, weird creatures that live clinging to the roof of the Waitomo Cave,  here in New Zealand.   Evolution has taught these creatures to attract their food – bugs and mosquitos that breed in the river below, that runs through the cave —   by fluorescent luminosity.  When the lights are turned out in the cave, there is a spectacular sight – the entire ceiling glows, with a thousand points of light, just like the heavens on a clear starry night.  And the older the glow-worm, the more luminous it is.   The ‘butterfly’ form lives only a day or two, and has no mouth (because it has no need to feed, its only job is to mate, reproduce, and die), but the worms live quite long.  And it dangles those strange strings down, to trap its food.  

    Evolution has created creatures that are superbly adapted to every possible environment – deep under the sea, in steam vents, and here, in deep dark caves.  Give Nature enough time, and it will solve any problem.  

    I think we can learn from these tiny glow-worms.  They emerged because Nature tried experiments.   By accident, one weird glow-worm was luminescent.  His friends all laughed at him/her.  Hey, look at Wormie there, he glows.  Let’s sing him a song–  Glow little glow-worm, glimmer, glimmer….      But Wormie caught loads and loads of bugs,  enough to reproduce successfully.  And then Wormie’s kids, too, glowed…and down the generations. 

     This too is how humanity can crack its toughest problems.  Have enough creative people running around trying weird things,  trying to ‘glow’,   with bright ideas – and some of them may work.   Some of them may one day light up the world.


How a Tiny Butterly Does the Impossible…So Can You!

By Shlomo  Maital    

     Monarch 1  Monarch 2                       


   Consider the amazing Monarch butterly, shown above.  They weigh only 0.4 grams  each, on average. This is a bit more than one one-hundredth of an ounce!  Yet they are able to engage in an annual migration of some 8,000 kms. (4,800 miles!).  The trip north to coastal California and Washington from Mexico each spring requires three to four generations, as eggs are laid on the way in spots where milkweed grows, caterpillars emerge, spin chrysalises, and become butterflies. 

   How in the world do light-as-air butterflies manage to fly so far, even through three or four generations?  They are very clever at using updrafts of warm air and air currents.  How do they avoid being eaten, as they fly in large butterly clouds?  Simple.  They eat milkweed.    Milkweed contains a toxic poison. So birds avoid Monarch butterflies, easily identifiable by the coloration, because eating them gives them a stomach ache, which birds learn the hard way.   The toxic poison is called cardiac glycosides, steroids that act like digitalis and stop the heart.  Not only do Monarchs have poison, they concentrate the poison in their wings, where birds tend to attack.  Monarchs have also evolved to mimic the viceroy butterly, in coloration, which is even more poisonous.

   Monarch butterflies live only for about 30 days.  But what a 30 days!  They are the only butterfly to do a north-south migration, flying north in the spring and south toward winter.   They migrate in huge clouds of millions of butterflies, an amazing sight.

     Monarch butterflies evolved through evolution, and are   proof of how wonderfully Nature does experiments that generate incredible creatures.  There are endless miracles like Monarch butterflies.  They should all, together, make us far more respectful of the wondrous planet in which we live,  which alas we seem intent on polluting and ruining.   How much we can all learn from a tiny fragile creature that weighs nothing yet has learned to survive by making an impossibly long journey every year. 

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital