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Consider the axolotl: Our great hope of regeneration?
The axolotl is known to regrow its lower jaw, its retinae, ovaries, kidneys, heart, rudimentary lungs, spinal cord, and large chunks of its brain.
It has long been understood, and by cultures too various to list, that salamanders have something of the supernatural about them.
Their name is thought to derive from an ancient Persian vocable meaning 'fire within', and for at least 2,000 years they were believed to be impervious to flames, or even capable of extinguishing them on contact. Aristotle recorded this exceptional characteristic, as did Leonardo da Vinci. The Talmud advises that smearing salamander blood on your skin will confer inflammability. Not so. But the intuition that salamanders possess fantastical powers is not unfounded.
Like earthbound immortals, salamanders regenerate. If you cut off a salamander's tail, or its arm, or its leg, or portions of any of these, it will not form a stump or a scar but will instead replace the lost appendage with a perfect new one, an intricacy of muscle, nerve, bone and the rest. It will sprout like a sapling. Science has been chopping up salamanders for more than 200 years with the aim of simply understanding the mechanics of their marvels, but more recently with the additional aim of someday replicating those marvels in ourselves. Might salamanders be the great hope of regenerative medicine?
The salamander in which regeneration is most often studied is an odd and endearingly unattractive Mexican species known as the axolotl. In addition to its limbs and extremities, the axolotl is known to regrow its lower jaw, its retinae, ovaries, kidneys, heart, rudimentary lungs, spinal cord, and large chunks of its brain. It heals all sorts of wounds without scarring. The axolotl also integrates the body parts of its fellows as if they were its own, without the usual immune response, and this peculiar trait has facilitated some of the more grotesque disfigurements it's endured in the name of science. In experiments after the Second World War, East German scientists grafted small axolotls crosswise through the backs of larger ones. The animals' circulatory systems came to be linked, and the researchers hailed the conjoined mutants as triumphs of collectivism. While the axolotl can rebound from almost any bodily humiliation, it seems that humankind is proving too much for it: we have all but destroyed its natural habitat, and, outside of laboratory aquaria, it is nearly extinct.
In its most common form, which scientists call the white mutant, the axolotl resembles what the translucid foetus of a cross between an otter and a shortfin eel might look like. On the internet, it is celebrated for its anthropoid smile; in Mexico, where the Aztecs once hailed as it as a godly incarnation, it is an insult to say that someone looks like one. Behind its blunt and flattened head extends a distended torso resolving into a long, ichthyic tail. The axolotl can grow to nearly a foot in length; four tiny legs dangle off its body like evolutionary afterthoughts. It wears a collar of what seem to be red feathers behind each cheek, and these ciliated gill stalks float and tremble and gently splay in the water, like the plumage in a burlesque fan. They grow back if you cut them off, too. Precisely how the animal accomplishes this, or any of its feats of regrowth, is not well understood.
Like the axolotl, our evolutionary forebears seem to have been regenerators, and human children can in fact still regrow the tips of their fingers above the final joint, but that's the only complex regeneration we're known to do. We are, instead, a species that scars. Why our lineage lost its regenerative birthright is unclear. From our present evolutionary vantage point, however, it might be nice to get back what we lost. Amputees could recover their limbs; paralytics could walk; degeneration and decline of all sorts might be reversed.
Last year, after a long effort by an international consortium, the axolotl genome – 10 times the length of the human genome – was finally sequenced. In early 2019, it was mapped onto chromosomes by a team at the University of Kentucky. (It is, for the moment, the longest genome ever sequenced by far.) Jessica Whited, who heads an axolotl lab at Harvard Medical School, told me that, for those who hope to someday make regeneration available to human medicine, the axolotl is a perfect instruction manual. Its language simply needs decoding.
Regeneration is not, however, the axolotl's only biological extravagance, or prime mystery. Another puzzle of the axolotl concerned what it was. Most salamanders begin their lives as aquatic larvae, like tadpoles, before metamorphosing into terrestrial adults, but the axolotl seems to be a lifelong adolescent, the so-called 'Peter Pan of salamanders', remaining in its larval stage even as it arrives at sexual maturity. This retention of juvenile traits, a phenomenon known as neoteny, perplexed taxonomists, and for decades they debated whether it ought to be considered a species of its own or merely the larval form of the common tiger salamander. Confoundingly, on occasion the axolotl could be goaded (under what conditions remains unclear) into a final transformation, absorbing its gills and fins, and walking out of the water. In biological terms, the scale of this change is akin to a middle-aged human one day broadening her shoulders, lurching forward on her hands and loping off to the jungle to be a gorilla. In France, the Grand Dictionnaire Universel du XIXe siècle (1866) declared the axolotl 'the most imperfect, the most degraded of all the amphibians': a fallen creature, but also one that could accede, as if by grace, to a higher state of being.
Humans are attuned to this sort of qualified possibility. In 1920, the British biologist Julian Huxley found that he could cause axolotls to metamorphose by feeding them bits of sheep thyroid. The Daily Mail declared that Huxley had discovered 'The Elixir of Life'. Huxley's younger brother, the writer Aldous, adopted the axolotl as a metaphor for mankind, its peculiar neoteny an emblem of our incompletion, our frustrated potentiality. A number of his literary contemporaries became neoteny-boosters. Gerald Heard, the philosophising scholar, maintained in 1941 that the survival of mankind would depend upon individuals 'who manage to retain, with full mental stature, the radical originality and freshness of a vigorous child'; John Dewey and Timothy Leary held similar views. More recently, the Mexican sociologist Roger Bartra has proposed the axolotl, in its neotenous indeterminacy, as a symbol of his country's national character.
If the axolotl mirrors us so nicely, it's fitting that we, too, are neotenous. Our flat faces, small noses, hairless bodies and upright postures are all features of infancy in our evolutionary cousins and forebears. We also spend more of our lives in a juvenile state than any other primate. Our brains grow rapidly for a longer period, and are consequently larger; our childhoods are greatly extended, providing occasion for the lengthy training of those brains. We also maintain throughout our lives a 'remarkable persistent juvenile characteristic of investigative curiosity', in the words of the zoologist Konrad Lorenz. 'The constitutive character of man,' Lorenz wrote in 1971, 'is a neotenous phenomenon.'
Some affinity seems to have drawn us to the salamander since well before we fantasised in a serious way of regrowing our bodies how the salamander regrows its own. Perhaps this is what spurred the ancients and the Aztecs to ennoble the animals through mythology. Nowhere has the intuition of kinship been rendered more plainly, though, than in the Argentinian surrealist Julio Cortázar's short story 'Axolotl' (1952). Cortázar writes of one man's quiet obsession with the animals, whom he visits every day at an aquarium. 'After the first minute I knew that we were linked,' the man says, 'that something infinitely lost and distant kept pulling us together.' He watches through the glass tank until, one day, almost imperceptibly, he finds himself suspended in the water beside the creatures, transmuted into one of them, peering out at his former human soma peering in. 'Only one thing was strange: to go on thinking as usual,' the erstwhile man says, 'to know.'
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Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.
- Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
- As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
- The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
In more than a dozen countries as far apart as Portugal and Russia, 'Smith' is the most popular occupational surname
- 'Smith' is not just the most common surname in many English-speaking countries
- In local translations, it's also the most common occupational surname in a large part of Europe
- Ironically, Smiths are so ubiquitous today because smiths were so special a few centuries ago
Meet the Smiths, Millers, Priests and Imams - the most popular occupational surnames across Europe.
Image: Marcin Ciura<p>Although very few people are smiths by profession these days, there are millions of Smiths by surname the world over. It's the most popular surname in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and the United States, as well as the second most popular surname in Canada and the fifth most popular one in Ireland. And they're a thriving bunch, at least in the U.S.: the 2010 Census (1) counted 2,442,977 Americans called Smith, 2.8% more than in 2000.</p><p>Curiously, 'Smith' also is one of the most popular surnames across most of Europe –translated in the various local vernaculars, of course. This map shows the most common occupational surnames in each country. By colour-coding the professions, this map shows a remarkable pro-smith consistency across Europe – as well as some curious regional exceptions.</p>
‘Smith’ popular throughout Europe<p>'Smith', in all its variations, is the most popular occupational surname throughout Europe. Not just in the UK, but also in:</p> <ul><li>Belgium (<em>Desmet</em>) and Luxembourg, (<em>Schmitt</em>);</li> <li>France (<em>Lefebvre</em>), Italy (<em>Ferrari</em>) and Portugal (<em>Ferreira</em>);</li> <li>Slovenia (<em>Kovačič</em>), Croatia (<em>Kovačevič</em>), Hungary (<em>Kovács</em>), Slovakia (<em>Kováč</em>), Poland (<em>Kowalski</em>), Lithuania (<em>Kavaliauskas</em>), Latvia (<em>Kalējs</em>) and Belarus (<em>Kavalyov</em>);</li> <li>Estonia (<em>Sepp</em>); and</li> <li>Russia (<em>Kuznetsov</em>).</li></ul>
‘Miller’ on top in many Germanic-language countries<p>'Miller' is the most popular occupational surname in many Germanic-language countries, but also in Spain and Ukraine (perhaps because the grain in both countries is mainly in the plain):</p> <ul><li>There's <em>Müller</em> (in Germany and Switzerland), <em>M</em><em>ø</em><em>ller</em> (in Denmark and Norway) and <em>Möller</em> (Sweden);</li> <li><em>Molina</em> (in Spain – the map also shows the most popular surname in Catalonia/Catalan: <em>Ferrer</em>, i.e. 'Smith'); and</li> <li><em>Melnik</em> (in Ukraine).</li></ul>
Clergy surnames rule in the Balkans<p>Catholic clergy must remain celibate, so 'Priest' as a surname is rare to non-existent throughout Europe. Except in the Balkans, where Catholicism is largely absent. Here, the Orthodox and Islamic clergies have passed on the title from father to son, eventually as a surname, to popular effect. Orthodox clergy are addressed as <em>papa</em> or <em>pope</em> (which means 'father' – so the surname rather redundantly translates to 'father's son'). Islamic teachers or imams are known by the Turkish/Persian term <em>hodzha</em>. An overview:</p> <ul><li><em>Popov</em> (in Bulgaria), <em>Popovic</em> (in both Serbia and Montenegro), <em>Popovski</em> (in Macedonia);</li> <li><em>Popa</em> (in Romania); </li> <li><em>Papadopoulos</em> (in Greece); and</li> <li><em>Hodžić</em> (in Bosnia-Herzegovina), <em>Hoxha</em> (in both Kosovo and Albania).</li></ul>
Landowners and other professions<p>Austria and the Czech Republic have different national languages but are neighbours and share a lot of history. Could that explain why they have a similar most popular occupational surname, for 'landowner'?</p> <ul><li><em>Huber</em> (in Austria) and</li> <li><em>Dvořák</em> (in the Czech Republic).</li></ul> <p>Just four professions, that wraps up all but five countries on this map. Those five each have their very own most popular occupational surname:</p> <ul><li><em>Bakker</em> (in the Netherlands): 'Baker'</li> <li><em>Kinnunen</em> (in Finland): 'Skinner'</li> <li><em>Ceban</em> (in Moldova): 'Shepherd'</li> <li><em>Avci</em> (in Turkey): 'Hunter'</li> <li><em>Murphy</em> (in Ireland): 'Sea Warrior' </li></ul>
Even more Smiths<p>Judging from the popularity of these surnames, your generic European village of a few centuries ago really couldn't do without a smithy. It was a much more essential craft even than that of the miller (or the baker, who put the miller's flour to good use) – except in the Balkans, where spiritual sustenance apparently sated a greater need. On the outskirts of <em>Anytown, Europe</em> live the shepherd and the hunter, the skinner and the pirate.<br></p><p>A bit too simplistic? Perhaps not simplistic enough. This map could have been dominated by even more Smiths. As the original poster explains, he always picked the most frequent version of an occupational surname, even if multiple variants point to a more popular alternative. </p><p>In the Netherlands, for instance, people with the surnames <em>Smit, Smits, Smid, de Smit, Smet </em>and <em>Smith</em> collectively outnumber those with the surnames <em>Bakker, Bekker, de Bakker</em> and <em>Backer</em>. So, the Netherlands could be considered another win for 'Smith' – except that the variant <em>Bakker</em> is more frequent than any other single variant.</p><p>Same story in Germany: added up, there are more people named <em>Schmidt, Schmitt, Schmitz </em>and <em>Schmid</em> than <em>Müller</em>. Ditto for Spain: <em>Herrero, Herrera </em>and <em>Ferrer</em> together outnumber <em>Molina</em>. Also in Finland, where <em>Seppä</em>, <em>Seppälä</em> and <em>Seppänen</em> together have a higher count than <em>Kinnunen</em>. </p>
Smiths in other cultures<p>'Smith' was a crucial occupation in other cultures too, judging from the familiar ring it has in these languages:<br></p><ul><li><em></em><em>Demirci</em> (Turkish)</li><li><em>Hadad</em> (Syriac, Aramaic, Arabic)</li><li><em>Nalbani</em> (Albanian)</li><li><em>McGowan</em> (Gaelic)</li><li><em>Faber</em> (Latin)<span></span></li></ul>
Other most popular surnames<p>Take note, though: 'Smith' may be the most popular surname in in the Anglosphere, this map does not mean to show that its variants in French, Russian and other languages also are the most popular surnames in the countries marked grey. They are merely the most popular <em>occupational</em> surnames.<br></p><p>As this sample of most common ones for each country shows, surnames can refer to a host of other things. Personal qualities or physical attributes, for example:</p> <ul><li>Russia: <em>Smirnov</em> ('the quiet one')</li> <li>Turkey: <em>Yilmaz</em> ('unflinching')</li> <li>Hungary: <em>Nagy</em> ('big')</li> <li>Italy: <em>Rossi/Russo</em> ('red', in northern and southern Italy, respectively)</li></ul> <p>Another option: the origin of the name-bearer (be it a place or a person):</p> <ul><li>Sweden: <em>Andersson</em> ('son of Anders')</li> <li>Slovakia: <em>Horvath</em> ('Croat')</li> <li>Kosovo: <em>Krasniqi</em> (refers to the Krasniq tribe and their mountainous home region)</li> <li>Portugal: <em>Silva</em> ('woodland')</li> <li>Latvia: <em>Bērziņš</em> ('little birch tree')</li> <li>Estonia: <em>Tamm</em> ('oak')</li></ul> <p>But sometimes, even for the most popular ones, the exact origin of the surname is lost in time:</p> <ul><li>Spain: <em>Garcia</em> (originally Basque, possibly meaning 'young', 'bear' or 'young bear')</li> <li>Finland: <em>Korhonen</em> ('hard of hearing' or 'dim-witted'; 'village elder'; 'proud'; 'upright'). </li></ul>
Smith popularity theory<p>So why exactly is Smith – and not Miller, for example – the most popular surname in many English-speaking countries? The theory propounded by historian C.M. Matthews in <em>History Today</em> (July 1967) probably also holds for the other-language variants so popular throughout Europe:<br></p><blockquote>"The reason for (the) multiplicity (of the surname 'Smith') is not so much that metal-workers were numerous as that they were important and widespread. On the skill of the smith, both rich and poor depended for the most essential things of life, the tools of husbandry and the weapons of hunting and war. Every community in the land must have one, every castle, every manor; and so distinctive was his trade that he would seldom need another name".<em></em></blockquote><p>That does not mean all people with the surname have a forefather who forged iron into weapons and farm tools. Especially in North America, 'Smith' was adopted by many people precisely because it was already common – as a secret identity or to blend in, for example by natives, slaves and immigrants.</p>
A recent analysis of a 76-million-year-old Centrosaurus apertus fibula confirmed that dinosaurs suffered from cancer, too.
- The fibula was originally discovered in 1989, though at the time scientists believed the damaged bone had been fractured.
- After reanalyzing the bone, and comparing it with fibulas from a human and another dinosaur, a team of scientists confirmed that the dinosaur suffered from the bone cancer osteosarcoma.
- The study shows how modern techniques can help scientists learn about the ancient origins of diseases.
Centrosaurus apertus fibula
Royal Ontario Museum<p>In the recent study, the team used a combination of techniques to analyze the fibula, including taking CT scans, casting the bone and studying thin slices of it under a microscope. The analysis suggested that the dinosaur likely suffered from osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer that affects modern humans, typically young adults.</p><p>For further evidence, the team compared the damaged fibula to a healthy fibula from a dinosaur of the same species, and also to a fibula that belonged to a 19-year-old human who suffered from osteosarcoma. Both comparisons supported the osteosarcoma diagnosis.</p>
Evans et al.<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The shin bone shows aggressive cancer at an advanced stage," Evans said in a <a href="https://www.rom.on.ca/en/about-us/newsroom/press-releases/rare-malignant-cancer-diagnosed-in-a-dinosaur" target="_blank">press release</a>. "The cancer would have had crippling effects on the individual and made it very vulnerable to the formidable tyrannosaur predators of the time."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The fact that this plant-eating dinosaur lived in a large, protective herd may have allowed it to survive longer than it normally would have with such a devastating disease."</p><p>The fossilized fibula was originally unearthed in a bonebed alongside the remains of dozens of other <em>Centrosaurus </em><em>apertus</em>, suggesting the dinosaur didn't die from cancer, but from a flood that swept it away with its herd.</p>
Dinosaur fibula; the tumor mass is depicted in yellow.
Royal Ontario Museum/McMaster University<p>The new study highlights how modern techniques can help scientists learn more about the evolutionary origins of modern diseases, like cancer. It also shows that dinosaurs suffered through some of the same terrestrial afflictions humans face today.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Dinosaurs can seem like mythical creatures, but they were living, breathing animals that suffered through horrible injuries and diseases," Evans said, "and this discovery certainly makes them more real and helps bring them to life in that respect."</p>
Join the lauded author of Range in conversation with best-selling author and poker pro Maria Konnikova!
UPDATE: Unfortunately, Malcolm Gladwell was not able to make the live stream due to scheduling issues. Fortunately, David Epstein was able to jump in at a moment's notice. We hope you enjoy this great yet unexpected episode of Big Think Live. Our thanks to David and Maria for helping us deliver a show, it is much appreciated.