Hillis Plot on a 13″ MacBook Pro


in Geek stuff, Internet matters, Travel

The Hillis Plot is a beautiful way of displaying the common ancestry of all life on Earth. The Hillis and Bull Lab at the University of Texas has several images of the plot on their website. Included among them is a PDF version with effectively infinite resolution which they say is free for “non-commercial, educational purposes”. The relationships between life forms shown in this plot were determined using rRNA sequences.

In Cambridge, Massachusetts there is a shop called danger!awesome that burns patterns onto materials like wood, metal, and plastic using powerful CO2 infrared lasers.

The PDF of the Hillis Plot is not ideal for burning into an Apple laptop because the circle in the middle is too small. It would go underneath the translucent Apple logo. Thankfully, a very helpful employee named Jesse Ashcraft-Johnson was willing to custom-modify the file so that it would fit around the logo. He also tweaked the text so the whole thing would fit well on the back of my 13″ MacBook Pro. He was also willing to run the laser for more than 30 minutes, and run it in a vector mode where the beam traced each of the lines of descent in the plot. The final result looks awesome.


danger!awesome is located at 10 Prospect Street. Their phone number is 617-714-5829 and they can be emailed at info@dangerawesome.co

Fun fact: the laser cutters at danger!awesome were first used to burn an animation into pieces of toast for an OK Go video: Last Leaf.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Sasha February 23, 2012 at 9:33 pm

That is awesome Mil! Looks great.

. February 23, 2012 at 9:51 pm

“This tree is from an analysis of small subunit rRNA sequences sampled from about 3,000 species from throughout the Tree of Life. The species were chosen based on their availability, but we attempted to include most of the major groups, sampled very roughly in proportion to the number of known species in each group (although many groups remain over- or under-represented). The number of species represented is approximately the square-root of the number of species thought to exist on Earth (i.e., three thousand out of an estimated nine million species), or about 0.18% of the 1.7 million species that have been formally described and named. This tree has been used in many museum displays and other educational exhibits, and its use for educational purposes is welcomed.”

David Hillis February 24, 2012 at 9:48 am

This is too cool…I’ll have to see if I can find someplace that does this locally, or if I have to wait on my next visit to Cambridge to get my laptop etched!

Harry Greene February 24, 2012 at 11:06 am

Off the charts cool… need to find a way to get it done in Ithaca or mosey over Cambridge way for an original Da Vinci!

Mica Prazak February 26, 2012 at 12:57 am

A Hello From the Family. Check it out Mil.


Hope you are enjoying Boston. If you are still there.

Milan February 26, 2012 at 2:38 pm


I just got back from Boston last night, and have an enormous pile of chores to finish before work tomorrow.

Entertaining video – though it is the sort of thing the entertainment industry is doing everything in its power to turn into a criminal offence (unauthorized use of copyrighted music).

The shards of glass are truly menacing, and the shots around Yellow Point Lodge are beautiful.

I had to watch it at Starbucks, as the internet in my apartment has suffered a catastrophic failure.

Is there anyway you can replace the front element of your lens, where that fuzzy patch is on the middle-right?

Anon February 26, 2012 at 4:18 pm

That laptop will be easy to identify if it is ever stolen!

Anon February 26, 2012 at 4:18 pm

It has the Tree of Life all over the back of it, officer.

Mica Prazak February 26, 2012 at 4:25 pm

i got a new Go Pro. That video was filmed on the old one, but any video I make here in Korea will not have that problem.

P.S. If you Sasha, and I ever do our epic trip (I’m not going to let this idea die) Sasha could do the soundtrack. Magic!

Milan February 26, 2012 at 5:19 pm

It would be fun to do an epic trip at some point. The tricky part would be finding a time when we can all take the same extended span of time away from school / work.

Milan February 26, 2012 at 5:20 pm

Also, it’s a bit tough to do ‘epic trips’ if you avoid flying for environmental reasons.

I suppose Toronto -> New Orleans -> Washington DC -> Toronto by Greyhound was a bit epic. As was Ottawa -> Vancouver and back.

Anonymous February 27, 2012 at 11:07 am

How durable is the text? Will it rub off easily?

Milan February 28, 2012 at 8:11 am

I was told the laser-treated aluminum surface is actually more durable than the ordinary aluminum. It can still be scratched, obviously, but not excessively easily.

Tristan February 28, 2012 at 12:53 pm

I think it looks great!

alena February 29, 2012 at 11:40 am

It is very unique in a generic world of computers. Very much like you in the world of humans.

Milan April 29, 2012 at 2:06 pm

One comforting aspect of the Hillis Plot is the reminder that we are all the heirs of an evolutionary process that extends back across billions of very difficult years.

While there is certainly a lot of random chance bound up in it all, there is a still a meaningful sense in which we are all the descendants of the survivors. That contributes to the hope that we might overcome the difficulties that now beset us.

. May 26, 2015 at 9:48 am
. September 20, 2015 at 3:07 pm

Scientists create the first digital ‘tree of life’

Researchers from 11 organizations have aggregated tens of thousands of evolutionary trees into a comprehensive map of all known life, open to all and free to use.

Open Tree of Life

Milan October 13, 2019 at 3:39 am

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