Archive for: June, 2006

>The 10th Circus of the Spineless Is Up!

Jun 30 2006 Published by under Carnivals

>The new Circus of the Spineless (CotS) is up at Science and Sensibility, featuring 38 entries on invertebrates from 5 phylums, including one of my favorite classes, the Arachnida.

From David's articulate presentation of CotS #10:

Class Arachnida

The Arachnids are another large class with about 70 000 described species of spiders, mites, ticks, harvestmen and scorpions. Most of this diversity occurs in the orders Acarina (the mites and ticks) and Araneae (spiders.) The latter group may be more familiar to us but there are probably more individual mites in the world than any other group of land animals.

The Arachnophillia begins with an up close and personal look at an orb weaving spider thanks to Angie

This post from Pam at Thomasburg-Walks might have been placed in the beetle section but I decided the real stars of the drama being played out on her Rosa rugosa were the spiders, follow the link and decide for yourself.

Jeremy of the Voltage Gate provides a story that shrugs of the horror film image of arachnids and presents instead a warming picture of paternal care

If you plan on or have written something on invertebrates, you should participate in the next CotS, which will be hosted at Words and Pictures on July 20th. Get your submissions in now!

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>Oprah Brings Attention to Global Warming, Fumbles Conservation

Jun 29 2006 Published by under Climatology, Environment, Links, [Politics]


Has anyone noticed how Oprah collapses into a pool of plasmodium when her guests start talking science? Sure, when it's relationship issues or the inner child, she's all over it, wielding advice like a psycho-babble hammer.

I got a phone call from my mother yesterday afternoon.

"Turn on channel four, Oprah's talking about global warming," she says. My mother is one of those viewers that hates Oprah (and Dr. Phil) but watches here and there anyway. I avoid daytime TV like the plague.

Sure enough, "Leo" DiCaprio is next to Dr. Michael Oppenheimer, professor of geosciences at Princeton, sitting before a giant rotating graphic of the Earth, and Oprah is looking fidgety and nervous opposite the pair.

"Scientists agree there's no longer really any argument," [said] Oppenheimer. "The climate is changing. Human beings are largely responsible, and it's just going to keep getting warmer until we act to remove the pollution."

They walked through the little things people can do to save energy and emit less pollution, including buying and installing compact fluorescent bulbs, composting, achieving carbon-neutrality by buying trees in plantations, recycling and (I don't know how little this is, but...) buying a more fuel efficient car, like a Prius.

I think it's wonderful that the message was distributed to Oprah's huge fan base, and I see the wisdom of using someone like DiCaprio to transmit the importance of climate change to the GP. I am critical, however, of a few points:

Researchers recently published a report in Science, saying that carbon neutrality through planting trees on tree farms has it's own costs to the natural environment. The man-made forests drain nearby fresh water reservoirs, robbing the native ecosystem of fresh water.

From Trading Water for Carbon with Biological Carbon Sequestration -- Jackson et al. 310 (5756): 1944 -- Science:

Carbon sequestration strategies highlight tree plantations without considering their full environmental consequences. We combined field research, synthesis of more than 600 observations, and climate and economic modeling to document substantial losses in stream flow, and increased soil salinization and acidification, with afforestation. Plantations decreased stream flow by 227 millimeters per year globally (52%), with 13% of streams drying completely for at least 1 year. Regional modeling of U.S. plantation scenarios suggests that climate feedbacks are unlikely to offset such water losses and could exacerbate them. Plantations can help control groundwater recharge and upwelling but reduce stream flow and salinize and acidify some soils.

The hybrid car is presented as the answer to our fuel problems, but it is not efficient in all areas of driving. The Prius and other hybrids do well in the city, terrible on the highway.

From Life in the Green Lane - New York Times:

The car that started the hybrid craze, the Toyota Prius, is lauded for squeezing 40 or more miles out of a gallon of gas, and it really can. But only when it's being driven around town, where its electric motor does its best and most active work. On a cross-country excursion in a Prius, the staff of Automobile Magazine discovered mileage plummeted on the Interstate. In fact, the car's computer, which controls the engine and the motor, allowing them to run together or separately, was programmed to direct the Prius to spend most of its highway time running on gasoline because at higher speeds the batteries quickly get exhausted. Indeed, the gasoline engine worked so hard that we calculated we might have used less fuel on our journey if we had been driving Toyota's conventionally powered, similarly sized Corolla, which costs thousands less. For the owner who does the majority of her driving on the highway, the Prius's potential for fuel economy will never be realized and its price premium never recovered.

Finally, DiCaprio's argument was fundamentally flawed. Not once was a reason actually given for conservation, aside from celebrities are doing it and it could save you money. Don't get me wrong, this will be the driving force behind the green campaign to the GP, but isn't that a bit insulting to people? Aren't we just affirming people's obsession with wealth and celebrity, and relating that they cannot grasp or do not care about the fundamental philosophy of conservation?

Our future depends on the biodiversity of our planet's native ecosystems, and I believe that people do care about our natural world, no matter how it is viewed.

I think smoothing over certain negative aspects of the movement is a bad approach in that it gives those opposed to conservation ammunition to draw people away. We need a realistic approach through the idealism. We need to tell people the truth, and treat them as adults who can comprehend the problems, not children that need direction.

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>NOFX Is a Band of Foul-Mouthed Liberals...

Jun 28 2006 Published by under Evolution, Intelligent Design, Music, [Politics]

>...otherwise known as typical metropolitans.

I just picked up their new album, Wolves in Wolves Clothing, another 18-track protest of the religious right and the Bush administration.

I've been a big fan of the band since I was a teenager, but became bitter with NOFX of late, and didn't buy their last release due to their wholehearted jump into political jams. I usually like a light dose of politics in my music (I love music for the art, not heavy-handed messages).

But this album rocks (like punk rock should) and it's clever, full of little tongue-in-cheek suggestions for the future of America.

Here's an excerpt from "Leaving Jesusland":

The fear stricken, born again Christian
They got a vision of a homogenized state
Textbook decline, Intelligent Design
They got Bill Nye on the list to execrate

They don't want visitors in Jesusland
They want life canned and bland in the fatherland

Punk rockers and emo kids, people doin' things the church forbids
Buddhists, anarchists, and atheists, we're moving out of Jesusland
Art students and thespians, excluding country, all the musicians
We want all hookers and comedians, nihilists* are welcome too

It's funny cuz it's true! Well, in a punk rock protest kind of way (the boldings are mine for emphasis). If you like a little bitter parody in your life every now and then, go pick it up.

*The Big Lebowski changed nihilism forever for me... They're all German and wear black berets, right? ;-)

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>Intro to Chronobiology; Erudition #8

Jun 27 2006 Published by under Links, Physiology

>Here's a coherent step into a relatively new field of biology, Chronobiology...

Thanks to Coturnix for the barrage of insightful, educational posts.

From Clocktutorial #1, posted on A Blog Around the Clock:

But even within a single life stage, an organism needs to be adapted to more than one environment. A rabbit in a meadow experiences a very different environment during the day, during a dark night, and during a moonlit night. The same meadow is very different in winter from what it was last spring, summer or fall. A migratory bird's or whale's breeding grounds and overwintering grounds are likely to be very different from each other. A crab encounters a different beach during high and low tides. An organism has to have evolved biochemical, physiological and behavioral adaptations to all those disparate environments, as well as switches that turn these adaptations on and off at appropriate times, often very quickly. Because the switches have to act so fast, many of them have evolved to act independently of the environmental triggers. The environmental cycles, like day and night, tides, moon phases and seasons, are very predictable, thus a switch can get started in advance of the environmental change, thus rendering the organism "ready" for the new environment just in time for its appearance. Even if the organism is removed from the cyclical environment, the switches keep going on and off, and the physiological state of the organism keeps oscillating on its own, becoming a timer: a biological clock. The mechanisms of such oscillations, as well as various uses that organisms put their clocks to are studied by Chronobiology.

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>The Evolution of Evolution

Jun 26 2006 Published by under Books, Evolution, Links

>From The Outline of Science: A Plain Story Simply Told, published in 1937:

The Evolution-idea is a master-key that opens many doors. It is a luminous interpretation of the world, throwing the light of the past upon the present. Everything is seen to be an antiquity, with a history behind it - a natural history, which enables us to understand in some measure how it has come to be as it is. We cannot say more than "understand in some measure," for while the fact of evolution is certain, we are only beginning to discern the factors that have been at work.

This excerpt was published almost 70 years ago, well before the molecule of heredity was explained, before modern genetics, before molecular biology and proteomics, and still affirms the fact of evolution, which slightly took me by surprise. The exact mechnism of natural selection was unknown at this point in history, but evolution was still undeniably true in this textbook, which I am sure, was not an assertion reflected by the general public.

I suppose what amazes me is that we are largely in the same place in history; evolution is still touted as just a theory and is sequestered (along with natural history in general) into the "special interest" category. I would go so far to say that the scientific community in general is looked upon as special interest group in America.

So the evolution of the acceptance of evolution has never changed in the scientific community. Once Mendelian genetics was incorporated into Darwin's theory, natural selection was rejuvinated, quickly becoming cornerstone of biology.

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>The Length and Breadth of Life

Jun 25 2006 Published by under Conservation, Environment, Links, Religion

>It's been quite a week. I feel like I have been struggling through it with work and argument (in the blogosphere), accumulating quite a bit of negativity along the way, culminating in yesterday's post, which, as Thud correctly pointed out, was unclear.

What I should have emphasized is not that the inconvenience of conservation must be stressed, but the education and foundation of new traditions in our country, and how difficult that process will be with the challenges in communication that science itself faces. I don't think the problems are as insidious as I made them sound, but then again, I don't share all of Al Gore's optimism either.

Another thing I wish to make clear, if only to myself, is that conservation (mostly the protection of wild places) lies outside of politics for me. I wake up every morning astounded at the complexities of the ecological systems visible just outside my second-story balcony, the internal systems that have evolved to process the caffeine in my coffee or the grain in my cereal, or the incredibly dense populations thousands of miles away I can only read about at this time.

It connects each and every one of us to a legacy stretching over 3,600 million years of evolution, from sulfur-eating Archaea to the mitochondrial machinery of eukaryotes, from mother's yolk to mother's milk and from the pure will to replicate to the deep, contemplative consciousness of humans and other mammals.

Natural history is foundational. It represents the glory and uniqueness of life to a degree that no philosophy or religion could for me personally. In the same breath, however, I do not feel the need to pull upon the natural world or its literal interpretation (science) to found a belief system. I think that anthropomorphizing natural phenomena distorts the beauty of reality, just as incorporating elements of science into theology can distort the psychological beauty of myth.

I believe natural, wild places need to be protected because life has grown up here, on this planet, and I want to see life continue to grow, with human beings taking the roles of observers and recorders not only of our own history, but also of the long history of life. The planet's consciousness has only just evolved 250,000 years ago or so, and has only been permanently recording history (accurately, at any rate) for little more than 400 of those years (and even that is debatable).

I do not wish to see human beings become the next great cataclysm to extinguish much of life on earth. A meteorite does not have a conscience. It did not choose to obliterate the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, it was merely following a chance trajectory into the earth. Human beings do have a choice whether or not to become agents of mass extinction. We can make changes to both technology and moral will.

This is not only a task for scientists and environmentalists, either. This is a task for everyone. The green movement can be a unifying element for all cultures and peoples across the globe, to finally realize how little difference there actually is between the different races in our one species.

So I apologize to everyone for seeming so negative. I hope this post clarifies the basis of my arguments and genuinely represents my position.

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>Tradition vs. Conservation

Jun 24 2006 Published by under Conservation, Environment, [Politics]

>If I had one major gripe about Al Gore's book, An Inconvenient Truth, it would be his lack of emphasis on the title and theme of the book: The inconvenience of global warming and conservation in general and why many Americans refuse to accept the facts.

One of the major obstacles in the "green" movement is tradition. American life has been consistent on many levels since the baby-boomers were born, and white, middle-class families have been living the same way for almost 60 years now. Many couples still want the American dream: two cars, two-and-a-half kids, white picket fence, short-cropped lawn, a perfect little home in a perfect little neighborhood.

In today's world is this still realistic?

I remember having a couple over to our apartment, two of our very good friends, and discussing their new home. We were all laughing over our years of busted vehicles, and my fiancee mentioned that she had always wanted a Mini Cooper. They looked confused.

"Well, you're going to have kids, right?" he asked.

"Yeah... Why?"

"You'll need something bigger than that..."

Do we? Like what, a gas-guzzling minivan? When I was a child, I rode in my father's Pinto everywhere and had no gripes, had nothing with which to compare that experience. I don't remember being cramped. I didn't know the difference.

Advertising supports this mentality. How many times a day are you told what you need to buy to be more comfortable or to supplement your lifestyle? Many of these products are terrible for the environment. Why are we still buying them?

  • Tradition is an obstacle to conservation because it relies on a strong, entirely separate set of tenants.
  • Tradition tells us that big cars contain and protect your big family; conservation tells us that smaller cars, fuel-efficient cars, are the future, perfectly capable of protecting your family's future.
  • Tradition tells us that product consumption boosts the economy; conservation shows us
  • just how much resources it takes to ship products around the country.
  • Tradition builds beautiful furniture out of rare woods; conservation winces as more and more of the rain forests are leveled every day.
  • Tradition likes a well-manicured, bright green lawn; conservation asks us to invite local fauna and flora back into our yards, promoting biodiversity.
  • Tradition tells us that human ingenuity will ultimately save us from extinction; conservation warns us not to rely on that.

What Al Gore should have strengthened was just how inconvenient conservation is. People have been doing the same things for decades, and now the entire system has to be changed. It's not a matter of disrespectfully smashing traditions, but more a matter of instituting new ones.

This change should be in small steps. But even getting recycling bins installed at the university is a challenge. When we left work today, Heather was holding two empty plastic water bottles. One of our coworkers looked at her and asked, "What are you doing with those?" Heather explained that she was going to take them home and recycle them. They looked down at the elevator floor and nodded uncomfortably, as if to say, "You're crazy, but we're trying to be polite" or "Gee, you're making us feel bad for throwing ours away."

So how do we circumvent the inconvenience of conservation? How do we found new traditions in America? I think one of the first steps is turning the television off and picking up books or articles downloaded from the internet. Second is unfounding our obsession with celebrity and the wealthy. Third, making education the priority in our country.

In general, Americans need to moderate our tendencies to use so much and think about where our everyday products come from. We need to force our government to bring jobs back into this country so we can buy ethically, but until then, we need to be informed as consumers and make decisions based on the best available evidence.

Those first steps are the movement toward new traditions. The world is waiting for us to lead by example.

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>Tangled Bank #56 Is Up, Featuring Yours Truly

Jun 22 2006 Published by under Carnivals

>Please go check it out!

The Tangled Bank is a traveling carnival (sort of like a moving blogger's magazine) dealing with all topics in science. I'm a first timer and I'm humbled to have been selected alongside actual scientists and writers (even though I spelled the word "decimated" wrong... *blush*).

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>Bridging the Gap; Erudition #7

Jun 22 2006 Published by under Academia, Links, Religion, Writing

>Here's another great post from Edge: The Third Culture about Physicist Lawrence Krauss and his plea to the Catholic Church to keep Pope John Paul II's convictions about science and evolution whole.

An excerpt from "How Do You Fed-Ex the Pope?":

"I knew The Times was planning to write a story on the letter," Krauss says, "so I knew I had to get it to the Pope before the Times ran the story. I discovered that the Pope had an email address, so that was very helpful. Most of the difficulty in trying to write the hard copy letter was trying to figure out how to address the Pope, both literally and metaphorically what do I call him? And where do I send the Fed-Ex?"

"I found what I thought was the right address, and the right salutation, and I got it off in a Fed-Ex box but I realized I forgot to put the attachment in the Fed-Ex box. I went back to the box and waited for the Fed-Ex driver and had it all made up, new attachments and everything, ready for him, and said, "please let me just put these things in. This is important; it's going to be in the Times tomorrow, it's going to the Pope and it's about evolution".

I quickly found out the Fed-Ex driver was a creationist. We had a long discussion. At the conclusion, I said, "please send it". He replied: "Of course I'll send it. Believe me, I take my job seriously."

Krauss goes on to describe his own difficulties with communicating science to the public, saying:

"This all comes down to the failure of our educational system to provide students with a well-rounded education. I spend a lot of my time when I'm not doing science, talking to people about science, and trying to get them to understand it and be interested in it. One big problem is that most middle school science teachers don't have any science background. Equally serious is the fact that the people that we label as cultural role models, as intellectuals, are proud to proclaim their scientific illiteracy. This is equally important because you've got all these bright young kids who are looking at role models, and the role models often aren't scientists are in fact often anti-scientists. And I think that is a huge problem."

I agree (I shared my own misgivings about communicating science a couple weeks ago). Sometimes it's like pulling teeth. You really want people to understand why something is important, why science is important, how interesting it can be, but it's very difficult, especially if this anti-science has been ingrained in them from elementary school.

What have science classes been like for you in the past?

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>So Long and Thanks for All the Grease

Jun 22 2006 Published by under Academia

>Well, not just yet.

I would like to take a few moments to thank the food service industry for showing me - daily - exactly why I am in college.




Thanks for all the grease (and for paying my bills... which are all late).

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