Archive for the 'Links' category

>Congratulations in order, and a look at how scientific ideas can inspire art

Jun 04 2010 Published by under Art, Creative Process, Links


Yesterday, Heather received word that one of her recent drawings, Remediation I would be included in the Metro Montage at the Marietta-Cobb Museum of Art. Obviously, big congrats are in order. I’m incredibly proud of her and her work and thankful every day that she chooses to share her talent and her life with me.
The piece is the first of a series of similar compositions that picture animals on floating islands of habitats yanked from the earth that are connected to one another via human structures. Despite its name, however, Remediation I had a predecessor at TVG.
Back in February, as Tai Shan and Mei Lan were being rounded up to be shipped back to China, I found a paper reviewing experimental mapping of the giant panda’s fragmented habitat along certain mountain ranges and explored the possibility of creating corridors between forest patches in order to increase gene flow and keep the patch populations from becoming so small that recovery is impossible. I asked Heather if she could illustrate the post after we chatted about fragmentation concepts for a while and this is what she drew:

Remediation I is pictured below. It’s far too big to scan, so please excuse the relatively poor quality; we need a better camera.

It’s a perfect example of how scientific ideas can become artistic ones and how the ideas that enter our heads can be stripped of context and completely refigured. We start with a research paper, the summation of years of rigorous study that constructs (or represents, however you want to look at it) a system of interlocking parts that can be transposed to a different framework completely and be thematically represented in an image. The image inspires other, more complicated images that comprise a series and the series inspires a whole new set of images that constitute another theme, but were obviously informed by their predecessors. It’s not a closed system, however. Running concurrently is the constant stream of daily information that can add context and nuance. Four months later, Heather is crafting the last of the Remediation series and putting the final conceptual touches on its child, a completely new take on a multi-faceted theme.
It started with a paper, moved through a review and an illustrated blog post and ended up on framed paper which will ultimately sit on a wall in a gallery for the summer. It’s not often that I actually break down process on this site, but this was far too good of an example to pass up.
My love of science has directly informed my own creativity. Scientific concepts challenge your perspective, force you to be more analytical, to take apart and reassemble, to focus on pieces and segments and then to pull back as you line them up into something more formidable. The process of transposing that I described above, which Heather implements in these works, is all about moving frameworks that can be applied in very different situations. As I've said numerous times before, it fascinates me, these tenuous threads between conceptual paths, different in application and purpose, but not so different with the context removed.
Don't walk away with the impression that I'm trying to relay some sort of silly equivalence like "science is art and art is science"; it's more of a matter of attempting to refute the impulse to elevate one above another, or to comfortably lean, to one side or the other, of that often brightly drawn academic line between disciplines.

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>Goodall's fight, US demands symmetry and monitoring right whales

Apr 13 2010 Published by under Animals, Conservation, Energy, Environment, Links, TweetVG

>Follow me on Twitter

  1. Monitoring pod of 40 right whales off the Cape, Secretary Bowles tweeting @secbowles
  2. Interviews - Dr. Jane Goodall: 'I'm not going to fight for animal rights; there's no point'
  3. RT @smithsonian: What can science tell us about US history? free online conf. tmrw 12 pm w/ @NMNH forensic scientists
  4. RT @nypl: "Men are not prisoners of fate, but only prisoners of their own minds." #FDR
  5. Does the United States rightly demand "symmetry" in emissions mitigation

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>So Icy

Mar 12 2007 Published by under Environment, Links

>USGS has a movable, zoom-able prototype high res map of Antarctica up thanks to Landsat (in honor of International Polar Year, of course). Unfortunately, nothing much else works on the site; I get the feeling they're still working on it.

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>The Construction of Amazonia

Mar 09 2007 Published by under Conservation, Ecology, Environment, Links

>This month Conservation magazine published an article rehashing the "built landscape" hypothesis of Amazonia, which basically says that the incredible biodiversity seen in the South American rainforest is largely due to a skilled agricultural society of millions that possessed the capacity to simultaneously promote successful agriculture while maintaining biodiversity; the hypothesis states that they managed and cultivated most of the Amazon rainforest, and the region's apparent virginity is only an illusion.

This idea is popularized by Charles Mann's book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus; you can read a shortened, pie-in-the-sky version here.

Obviously, it's a touchy subject among ecologists and conservation biologists who have traditionally held the area as the quintessential wilderness, among the last on the planet. Researchers from the Florida Institute of Technology recently published evidence that supports the traditional view, adding new facets to the debate.

"We don't contradict that there were major settlements in key areas flanking the Amazon Channel -- there could have been millions of people living there," says Mark Bush, a British-born paleo-ecologist who travels to extremely remote rain forest locations to collect core samples from ancient lakes. He then analyzes those samples for pollen and charcoal and thus is able to conclude with a high degree of accuracy the extent of human settlement in that region.

"What we do say is that when you start to look away from known settlements, you may see very long-term local use," he says. "These people didn't stray very far from home, or from local bodies of water for several thousands of years. We looked at clusters of lakes and landscapes where people lived, and asked, did they leave their homesite to farm around other nearby lakes? No they didn't. These findings argue for a very localized use of Amazonian forest resources outside the main, known, archaeological areas."

Bush says the evidence comes from a geographically diverse area: three districts, each with 3 (in two cases) or four lakes.

"In each we have one lake occupied and used, and the others little used or not used at all," he says. "So this is a total of 10 lakes that provide three separate instances -- one in Brazil, one in Ecuador and one in Peru, where there is evidence of long, continuous occupation of more than 5,000 years that did not spread to the adjacent, 8 to 10 kilometer distant lakes."

"These data are directly relevant to the resilience of Amazonian conservation, as they do not support the contention that all of Amazonia is a 'built landscape' and therefore a product of past human land use," Bush says. "Most archaeologists are buying into the argument that you had big populations that transformed the landscape en masse. Another group of archaeologists say that transformation was very much limited to river corridors, and if you went away from the river corridors there wasn't that much impact. That's what our findings tend to support."

Bush doesn't expect that his new findings will settle the debate, however.

"There's just too much passion on this issue. People who are inclined to believe what we're talking about will say this is very strong evidence, and say 'let's have more.' The archaeologists will say this study only examines two districts."

Those damn archaeologists. Look what else they say:

"While the majority of archaeologists argue the rivers were the major conduit for populations," he adds, "there is an increasing vocalization that there was much more widespread habitat transformation; that you still had a bulk of people along the river but their influence extended deep into the forest. It's still nebulous, and difficult to get people to map stuff, or put hard numbers on it, but there is a sentiment that the Amazonia has been disturbed and that the view of the Amazonian rainforest as a built landscape is gaining momentum. There are extremes at either ends, and the majority of people are in middle but there's a tendency of drifting toward the high end."

Bush is implying a split between scientific disciplines on the issue. I don't want to generalize, but it's probably safe to say that proponents at either end are wrong and clinging fast to dynamic ideas that they like.

The idea that native peoples were responsible for creating Amazonia in its entirety is just as ridiculous as rejecting the notion that those same peoples had a lasting localized effect on the ecosystem, and perhaps did stimulate growth and development on some level.

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>NOMA No More?

Mar 07 2007 Published by under Links, Philosophy, Publishing, Religion

>I have a new column this week in TBL discussing the inadequacies of the NOMA model, something that has been on my mind after the evolution symposium at the AAAS meeting and the cathartic "open" dialogue on religion last week. Excerpt and commentary below the fold.

The existence of supernatural events in a natural world represents a violation of the NOMA model and proves that science and religion do not address different realms. The resurrection of Lazarus from his tomb or the night journey of Mohammed on a flying horse to Mecca or the parting of the red sea—all of which have supposedly taken place in the natural universe—violate physical laws backed by centuries of empirical evidence. If science rules this natural world in which these people lived and interacted, then these events are impossible, and religion is extending beyond its territory.

I have no solution to this problem. If the religious choose to interpret the Bible and other texts literally (and statistics show that a majority of Christians do), then there will be, without a doubt, conflict between science and religion. If the religious choose to believe in the message of these stories as indicative of the human experience and our internal struggle with existence, there is very little conflict, but the dogma will deteriorate. If the story of Jesus sacrificing himself for the good of man is indeed just the extension of an agricultural metaphor, then why have faith?

By its very nature, science cannot change to support a religious view of the natural world while maintaining its integrity. That is not to say that science shouldn’t be more transparent and accessible, but if the relationship between science and religion is to improve, the burden of change lies upon the religious. Paradigms must shift, especially in the Big Three: Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

I'm hoping it will stimulate some conversation on campus and get people thinking about the realities of a cross section between science and religion. This is a problem that needs to be honestly addressed, without placating either camp. The two can be reconciled, but it needs to be made clear just how.

I have talked to several of the students that were involved in organizing and presenting the religious forum from last week, and each of them expressed disappointment with the event, mostly for its lack of diversity and organization. It would be nice to see a reorganized forum in the future where dialogue doesn't become diatribe (as Donovan put it).

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>LibriVox Posts Origin of Species

Mar 04 2007 Published by under Books, Evolution, Links, Publishing

>LibriVox has finished recording Darwin's Origin of Species. The book can be downloaded as a whole or chapter by chapter:

There are a few mammoth projects in the LibriVox world that take extra effort and energy, and take a long long time to complete. Often these are important texts, dense and challenging to read, and complicated to manage, coordinate, and catalog. Many hands, voices and microphones usually touch these books before they finally see the light out here in public.

One such book is Darwin’s The Origin of Species. And we are proud to announce that this one is: COMPLETE.

Might make for a good companion on a long trip. Check out the entire site, already have a decent catalogue of audio books so far (they're also on iTunes).

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>Gutless Clams and One Researcher's Shame

Mar 03 2007 Published by under Animals, Ecology, Invertebrates, Links, Publishing

>There has been much talk about transparency and the distribution of literature in the scientific community and online, specifically when it comes to commercial publications versus open access journals like PLoS. With the recent move of more and more scientists to the blogosphere, we have the rare chance to see just such a discussion in real time, straight from the involved parties, as you will see below.

Jonathan Eisen and other researchers at UC Davis sequenced the genome of a giant deep sea clam (Calyptogena magnifica), which entirely relies on "gardens" of chemosynthesizing bacteria for its food (more here and here).

“The energy from hydrogen sulfide is used to drive carbon fixation in much the same way that chloroplasts carry out carbon fixation,” said Eisen. The symbiotic bacteria also fix nitrogen and produce amino acids, vitamins and other nutrients required by the clam.


Studies of the deep sea have implications for studying the origins of life, Eisen said. Life on Earth may have got its start with microbes living on such chemical reactions, before the evolution of photosynthesis.

“And they’re just plain interesting,” Eisen added.

It's not the only clam that plays host to food synthesizing symbionts, however. Tridacna clams (including the five foot, 500 pound T. gigas or giant clam) play host to symbiotic zooanthellae, colorful dinoflagellate algae, which photosynthesize food for the giant mollusk while it sun bathes in the shallow waters of South Pacific coral reefs. (Zooanthellae are a classical example of host-symbiont relations in sessile organisms.)

“The difference here is that while plants get their energy and carbon via photosynthesis by chloroplast symbionts, this clam gets its energy via chemosynthesis,” said... Eisen.

Eisen, it turns out, is a fairly active blogger. On his blog, The Tree of Life, Eisen laments his colleagues' decision to publish the article in Science:

[...] my collaborators failed to keep me in the loop that the paper was accepted in Science. Thus I did not find out about the paper until I did a google search for some other reason and noticed this Deep-Sea News Blog which had a story, well, about the paper in Science. It would of course have been nice to know the paper was accepted and coming out. It would have been even better to have seen the page proofs, which might have given me the chance to catch some little and not so little mistakes (e.g., the paper claims that this species has the largest genome of any intracellular symbiont sequenced to date - which is unfortunately not true).

Eisen would have rather been published in an Open Access journal:

I tried and tried to get Irene Newton the first author to submit this to another journal. But in the end, she did the brunt of the work, and thus she and her advisor, Colleen, got to pick the place.

[...] by choosing to publish the paper there [in Science] but not elsewhere, the field of deep sea symbionts may have been hurt rather than helped.

How could a Science paper hurt the field? Well, for one, Science with its page length obsession forced Irene to turn her enormous body of work on this genome into a single page paper with most of the detail cut out. I do not think a one page paper does justice to the interesting biology or to her work. A four page paper could have both educated people about the ecosystems in the deep sea, about intracellular symbionts in general, and about this symbiosis in particular. The deep sea is wildly interesting, and also at some risk from human activities. This paper could have been used to do more than just promote someone's resume (which really is the only reason to publish a one page page in Science).

You can read his entire post about the paper here (Eisen also has a nice embedded video of Calyptogena).

In the past, problems like these would be publicly addressed in letters to the editor, most likely published in scientific publications. This is a painfully slow process, relatively speaking. As soon as he heard about his paper being published under the wire, as it were, Eisen was able to respond publicly, sharing a perspective that was once confined to a lab or a community or a trade-specific publication.

Over the next decade (maybe less?), it will be interesting to watch how perspectives like Eisen's affect publication policy and the proliferation of info within the scientific community, and between scientists, writers and the public.

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>Kicking Off International Polar Year[s]

Mar 01 2007 Published by under Environment, Links

>From Scientific American:

Today marks the beginning of the International Polar Year (IPY), a two-year mission to explore Earth's poles. Some 50,000 scientists, artists and other participants from 63 nations will undertake 460 projects—ranging from lacing the Antarctic ice with neutrino-spotting sensors to a survey of historic Inuit knowledge of Arctic sea ice—in a massive effort to enhance scientific understanding of the poles before they change. "The scientific community feels that we need an urgent and comprehensive look at the polar regions," says David Carlson, director of the IPY's international program office.

The IPY homepage has some great resources, including this life cycle chart of emperor penguins (you might have to enlarge it),

as well as blogs, event listings and research reports; you can even watch some of the openings. It will be interesting to keep up with their progress over the next couple years.

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>Planet Earth: A Film Tour of the Biomes

Mar 01 2007 Published by under Ecology, Environment, Links

>I noticed that the Discovery Channel is will be showing Attenborough's latest documentary, Planet Earth; the series presents a journey through the Earth's biomes, sort of like what I've been doing with the "Know Your Biomes" posts here, only with less words and more grandeur.

The next episode, deserts, will be shown on Thursday at 8 p.m. EST. Coincidentally, I should have the next post up in the biomes series covering the same topic that morning.

(The series doesn't actually start until the March 25, but there's a really neat website set up for the series here.)

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>AAAS Symposium: Evolution at the Grassroots

>Since Tara* and John have both written about the symposium already (follow the links), I thought I would just highlight a couple of things that occurred to me during the presentations.

Eugenie Scott gave a brief history of creationism/evolution with respect to citizen science organizations, noting that the internet has given these groups a greater platform from which to distribute information. I finished E.O. Wilson's The Creation before I left for San Francisco, and he devoted the entire last chapter to "Citizen Science", encouraging (and relishing in the thought of) nonscientists - business persons, lawyers, chefs, moms, dads and kids, etc. - helping in bioassays, bioblitzes, compiling data, volunteering at labs and conservation organizations to not only get people outside, but to open wide the doors of science and make it accessible. If education is indeed the end goal, the coup de grâce to creationism and pseudoscience, hands on learning like this is far superior to any other form. Giving science a face (as with blogging), making it personal, without jeopardizing its objective integrity might ease some of the difficulties the general public has with science (and math, for that matter).

Michael Zimmerman, founder of the Clergy Letter Project talked about Evolution Sunday and its successes for a bit, seeking to reframe the dialogue between evolution accepting people and the believers of creationism (There was much talk of knee jerk reactions to creationist assertions and of setting the parameters of the argument between all of us at The Stinking Rose on the previous night.) Zimmerman had 612 congregations participate in Evolution Sunday this year, a 30% increase from last year.

Other measures of success? "Lots of people have been calling me offensive," said Zimmerman.

Evolution Sunday leaves room for the pastor/congregation to decide how to celebrate, one of the greatest aspects of the event, said Zimmerman. One congregation from Colorado constructed a sort of labyrinth of science and distributed rosaries depicting the scientific events of the formation of the universe/earth/life.

In the future he plans to include congregations from other religions, specifically Judaism and Islam.

A couple of organizers from the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion (DoSER) spoke at the symposium, and one of the most poignant criticisms of the Clergy Letter Project came from Connie Bertka, program director of the DoSER.

Bertka's concern was that Evolution Sunday was too limited to be a comprehensive solution to the anti-evolution movement.

"Evolution Sunday will not reach evangelicals," said Bertka, the main religious group denying the evidence for evolution and condemning the faithful that embrace the idea. She's right; of the 612 congregations that signed on to participate in Evolution Sunday, only one signatory was evangelical.

Bertka said the main problem with Evolution Sunday is that it is not framed in the context of religious discussion. She questioned whether the choice of Darwin's birthday as the day for discussion among churches was "wise", suggesting that even this small detail could lead to polarization in the current climate.

Bertka also promoted a "contact" model between science and religion (as opposed to a NOMA style model), encouraging the admission that the two "fields" do intersect, and a continuing dialogue is the only immediate solution.

Rev. Henry Green, an evangelical Baptist minister straight out of my hometown of Annapolis, Maryland, shared his experiences with Evolution Sunday and the culture wars in his area. Very early he made a distinction between fundamentalists and evangelicals, saying that, at his church, "We don't check our brains at the door."

Green believes that fundamentalism is a result of fear; xenophobia, the fear of technology and the loss of tribalism ("gangs") are all threats to fundamentalists. They see themselves as victims, define themselves by oppression. "They are the new puritans," said Green.

Finally, Jon King of the Darwin Festival in Shrewsbury, England gave a PowerPoint tour of Darwin's birthplace, while Bob Stephens of the Darwin Day Celebration spoke a bit about his organization and the event. (I might be taking a little trip to England next year if time and money permits. Shrewsbury looks like a lovely place.)

With eight speakers and one moderator (Irv Wainer from the National Institute on Aging and the Alliance for Science), there was little time for questions, but several teachers were able to address the issue of evolution in the classroom and discuss the potential for change in the future. The gears are starting to rotate, but it will take a constant effort to build up momentum for this movement in the public forum.

*An incriminating photo did surface over at Aetiology...

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