June 30, 2006

The 10th Circus of the Spineless Is Up!

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!

June 29, 2006

Oprah Brings Attention to Global Warming, Fumbles Conservation

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.

June 28, 2006

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

...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? ;-)

June 27, 2006

Intro to Chronobiology; Erudition #8

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.

June 26, 2006

The Evolution of Evolution

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.

June 25, 2006

The Length and Breadth of Life

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.

June 24, 2006

Tradition vs. Conservation

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.

June 22, 2006

Tangled Bank #56 Is Up, Featuring Yours Truly

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*).

Bridging the Gap; Erudition #7

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?

So Long and Thanks for All the Grease

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).

June 21, 2006

Global Warming Reductionists: Here's Your Proof

This is an excerpt from another inspired documentary from David Attenborough and the BBC entitled Are We Changing Planet Earth.

If you have any further doubts about our role in climate change after watching this, I hope the Bush administration is at least paying you.

As Mr. Attenborough said: There you have it.

June 20, 2006

Does Profanity Have a Place in Pro or Semi-Pro Journalism?

This past semester, when I began both this blog and The Bottom Line's blog, we had a debate in the office about the use of profanity in articles and editorials both in print and electronically. Many of the columnists were for lifting the ban on profanity, citing The Village Voice and Rolling Stone as examples. I was mildly accused of censorship, an accusation I wholeheartedly accepted. I am censoring my staff.

Here's why:
  • Professional newspapers and magazines do not allow any form of profanity, especially from the reporter or editor themselves.
  • There are far better ways to embellish and enforce your argument, like hard evidence, quotes and citations.
  • Though it may seem hard to believe, certain readers do not want to read profanity and may even be shocked by such content. Readership would decrease.
  • Our goal is to be respected not only by students, but also by faculty and administrators, and the inclusion of such language would render the paper irrelevant to them; i.e. they could not publically support a newspaper with such content.
  • Understanding audience is perhaps the most important aspect of journalism. Our audience is not composed entirely of students. We have to consider visiting families and parents as well.
With that said, I feel that articles that quoting someone using profanity is acceptable, but only if the profanity gives the reader a better impression of the person and subsequently a better read of the article's main idea(s).

Even as a blogger I embrace these guidelines. I run across too many blogs tackling serious subjects like politics and philosophy that use profanity liberally, as adjective, verb and noun. It is hard to take their subject material seriously if their only point emphasis is the f-word.

The best arguments are controversial because of the author's skills of manipulating content - organization, sources, human elements, relevence and rhetorical devices - not because profanity is rife throughout.

What do you think? When is profanity appropriate in journalism? When is it not?

June 19, 2006

Al Gore, the Kyoto Protocol, and the Scientific Consensus

Did anyone else see Al Gore on Larry King? It was re-aired last night on CNN. I missed it the first time around.

It is still bitter to think of the America that could have been if he had become president. I'm not saying that poverty would be abolished or famine conquered, but I believe several long-awaited steps forward would have been taken. Surely, twenty-five hundred Americans would not have died in Iraq.

Gore dealt with a Republican senate during his term, and could convince only one senator out of 100 to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Years later, the treaty is still not ratified, making the U.S. one of the only major world powers not participating (besides Australia).

Still, with the growth of China and India, many analysts see the protocol as insufficient. From the BBC:

"'By 2010, the net reduction in global emissions from Europe meeting the Kyoto Protocol will be only 0.1%,' said Margo Thorning, 'because all the growth is coming in places like India.

'We need to focus on things like the Asia-Pacific partnership which are driven by long-term strategies to reduce emissions and boost growth.'"


The Kyoto Protocol, however insufficient, is the first step towards a more realistic approach to the earth's natural resources. Conservation may be uncomfortable for many of us to consider, but will become a reality if we wish to keep our current ecosystems intact.

The main reason why environmentalists are labeled alarmists is because many reductionists (global warming is cyclic and therefore inevitable) and "disbelievers" of climate change are not educated from the scientific perspective, but from the media's perspective.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Just as with the theory of evolution, there is no debate within the scientific community about whether global warming is happening and whether or not we are causing it; it is and we are.

Don't believe me? Go here or here or here or here or here or here or here or here or here or here (I could go on and on...). Read some reputable reports, most from within our own government, and then make a decision. Form a real opinion, backed by evidence.

June 18, 2006

Harvard@Home at Home

Harvard posts all of the major lectures they host in video format on a site called Harvard@Home, which allows those of us who cannot afford (or putzed around too much early in life) to attend an Ivy League school a chance to check out some of the great presenters that have spoken there.

Here are a couple of notable programs:

Changing Habitats... Vanishing Species: E.O. Wilson always has something good to say for those willing to listen, and in his portion of the presentation, he elaborates points made in The Future of Life, including habitat loss and extinction.

Evolutionary Dynamics: "In this lecture, Professor Nowak discusses recent and fascinating advances in our understanding of evolutionary dynamics and its application to genes, quasispecies, games, cooperative behavior, and human language."

State of the Global Environment: Another educated plea to listen to climatologists and finally make regulated steps toward conservation and energy alternatives.

June 17, 2006

Summer Planning

The culinary marathon has begun!

Summer Planning is a 10-day period where incoming freshmen visit the school and get a [optimistic] view of what the university is all about. It's a great opportunity to recruit students for TBL.

But, it's also a crazy time in the university catering kitchen. We are simply slammed, which has left little room for me to do any consistant blogging in the past couples days. Be back this afternoon...

June 15, 2006

Endangered Species Day?

Did you get the memo? I didn't know there was an Endangered Species Day...

After writing to Mikulski and Sarbanes (both Maryland senators) about a recent bill that would alter the Endangered Species Act, I received the following message from Senator Mikulski:

Dear Mr. Bruno,

Thank you for contacting me about protecting our world's endangered species. It's very good to hear from you.

I want you to know that I have always been a strong supporter of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). As one of the many Marylanders who treasure the Chesapeake Bay , I know just how important it is to preserve and protect our environment for future generations.

You will be happy to know that Senate Resolution 431 (S. Res. 431) recently passed the Senate by unanimous consent. This resolution designates May 11, 2006 as Endangered Species Day and encourages Americans to educate themselves about threats to species, as well as stories of successful species recovery.

I also share your concerns about H.R. 3824, which in its current form would weaken the Endangered Species Act. This bill would repeal "critical habitat" requirements, currently designated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the areas where endangered species have been found. H.R. 3824 is currently pending in the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. You can be sure that I will keep your views in mind when this bill is reviewed by the full Senate.

Thanks again for bringing your concerns to my attention. Please let me know if I can be of assistance to you in the future.

Barbara A. Mikulski
United States Senator

Another "slight" environmental change by the GOP (although I did hear tonight that a large section of coral reef near Hawaii was declared a National Treasure by Bush today).

Both Sarbanes and Mikulski supported Endangered Species Day on a list of 27 other senators from across the country.

Looked like a great opportunity to spread the word about biodiversity. We're stumbling through a critical time right now; we need more initiatives like this to convince people of the world's value, both economically and morally.

June 14, 2006

Bloggers: Filling the Mass Media Gap

Happy International Webloggers Day!

I was skeptical of blogging (and bloggers) until late March of this year, when one of my professors mentioned the potential of students blogging for mending America's English Education Problem, as he put it. At the time I thought:

"You know, Dr. So-and-So, emo poetry and black and white photos of dog poo and dead things won't exactly boost the literacy level of young Americans."

I reneged, obviously. As I delved deeper into the internet and the information available to anyone remotely interested in science, science blogs were publishing running commentary on research projects and developments, politics and the future, a communicative rarity in the scientific community. I was at once enamored with the opportunities. My Blogroll is filled with the blogs of those I profoundly respect, and with whom I share many opinions.

I'm talking like that was ages ago. Barely three months have passed since I started, but I feel a part (though very small) of a worldwide network of people who are paying attention to what is going on in the world, not only day by day, but hour by hour, minute by minute.

Bloggers (a.k.a. ordinary people) have effectively reclaimed their rightful niche in mass media. It has become our duty to cover the things that aren't covered sufficiently and look into the real lives of our communities, all the while looking closer at ourselves and our environment: Home, country and planet.

June 13, 2006

"The War on Truth"; Erudition #6

From a Seed editorial to accompany Chris Mooney's new book:
Just days later, there was Bush giving his State of the Union address, trying to reclaim the science issue by announcing a new plan to promote science education and shore up America's scientific competitiveness. To make the image complete, the president then had himself photographed peering into a microscope at a Dallas high school. (In Texas, at least, Bush and science are still chums.)

Clearing Detritus

I have spent the past six days in a small house on six acres in Appalachia, which is why I haven't been posting for the past week.

I have been going up to that house ever since I was a child, and it was the first place where I was genuinely exposed to nature on any grand scale. In fact, the mountain property is probably responsible for my choice of career (my second one anyway).

I used to get up early with my brother, trudge through the stony creeks and up outcroppings of splintered shale, pulling tattered field guides from our pockets when crossing paths with a toad or beetle. My dad would pull up slabs of rock, holding it steady while we picked through the hyphae-laden pack underneath, snatching at salamanders and snakes.

This past week I had a chance to become immersed in that environment once again. It was a chore to leave.

A few years back, there was a devastating ice storm that laid waste to many of the trees in the forest. Only this year did the branches decay enough for us to pull them from the cradles of the oaks and maples.

My dog, Cassie. In the left-hand corner,
you can see a devastated chestnut tree.

The Chinese chestnut trees my grandfather planted were in the worst shape. Several of them have not produced adequate foliage, and fungus has moved into much of their tissues, rotting them away from the inside.

We cut a little path through a tight copse of pines on the property, and planted some ferns to take advantage of the cleared area.

If you ever want to become better aquainted with the eaters of the dead - fungus, insects, and other agents of decay - I can think of no better way to do so. We pissed off many an ant colony last week, watching them spring into action, hauling their giant white larvae into the lower levels of the colony.

The most memorable moment was overturning a moss-covered rotted trunk and spooking a female wolf spider. She had her silk basket of eggs tied securely to the back of her abdomen, and skittered off under a nearby rock. Wolf spiders are excellent mothers; the spiderlings cling to their mother after hatching, and she tends to them accordingly.

Work begins again tomorrow. We are tending spiderlings of our own, a.k.a. incoming freshmen and parents. I have to set up a booth for TBL by this Friday and make sure it is manned, and will be working in the kitchen for the next two weeks straight, preparing soups, salads and sandwiches for the ravenous horde.

June 6, 2006


I'll be gone until Sunday... Thanks for reading!

E.O. Wilson's "The Bottleneck"; Erudition #5

I just finished reading Wilson's The Future of Life this week, a wonderful, rational look at the environmental crisis before us. Chapter two of the book was originally printed in Scientific American, and though I could not link the full article sourced from there, I found another link to it elsewhere.

Wilson mainly deals with China in this chapter, and the future ecology/economy of the rising superpower. The forecast is bleak, to say the least.

If you have any interest in world economics or the environment, take a few minutes and read "The Bottleneck":

China deserves close attention, not just as the unsteadygiant whose missteps can rock the world, but also because it is so far advanced along the path to which the rest of humanity seems inexorably headed. If China solves its problems, the lessons learned can be applied elsewhere. That includes the U.S., whose citizens are working at a furious pace to overpopulate and exhaust their own land and water from sea to shining sea.

Environmentalism is still widely viewed, especially in the U.S., as a special-interest lobby. Its proponents, in this blinkered view, flutter their hands over pollution and threatened species, exaggerate their case, and press for industrial restraint and the protection of wild places, even at the cost of economic development and jobs.

Environmentalism is something more central and vastly more important. Its essence has been defined by science in the following way. Earth, unlike the other solar planets, is not in physical equilibrium. It depends on its living shell to create the special conditions on which life is sustainable. The soil, water, and atmosphere of its surface have evolved over hundreds of millions of years to their present condition by the activity of the biosphere, a stupendously complex layer of living creatures whose activities are locked together in precise but tenuous global cycles of energy and transformed organic matter. The biosphere creates our special world anew every day, every minute, and holds it in a unique, shimmering physical disequilibrium. On that disequilibrium the human species is in total thrall. When we alter the biosphere in any direction, we move the environment away from the delicate
dance of biology. When we destroy ecosystems and extinguish species, we degrade the greatest heritage this planet has to offer and thereby threaten our own existence.

Humanity did not descend as angelic beings into this world. Nor are we aliens who colonized Earth. We evolved here, one among many species, across millions of years, and exist as one organic miracle linked to others. The natural environment we treat with such unnecessary ignorance and recklessness was our cradle and nursery, our school, and remains our one and only home. To its special conditions we are intimately adapted in every one of the bodily fibers and biochemical transactions that gives us life.

That is the essence of environmentalism. It is the guiding principle of those devoted to the health of the planet. But it is not yet a general worldview, evidently not yet compelling enough to distract many people away from the primal diversions of sport, politics, religion, and private wealth.

Loss of Material; EditorShip #3

As I take on the role of editor in chief of The Bottom Line next semester, I am faced with the loss of perhaps a total of four columnists. I will miss my writers, but perhaps the change is a good one. TBL, in many aspects, has been far too opinionated in the past few years.

Student newspapers at small universities face a big challenge: How do you draw readers in with solid, interesting material without miming University PR? When there is no local news happening, where do you turn?

In the past, TBL has turned to columnists to provide interesting material through social commentary & political opinions. This is fine and good; I think many students feel they have been represented by these writers. But just as many have felt alienated by them. New columnists have a tendency to "fly off the handle" about issues, and in the process, destroy any credibility they might have had.

So the loss of so many columns provides me with new opportunities. I have a great staff who can think creatively as a team, and are willing to concentrate their efforts on feature writing and solid argumentation.

Plus, it leaves room for The Voltage Gate to be printed as a weekly science column, highlighting university research and tackling contemporary issues in science every week.

June 3, 2006

The Fear of God [Math]; Erudition #4

Complex mathematics in biological research? Uh-oh... Maybe I should have taken calculus.

From "Mathematics is Biology's Next Microscope, Only Better; Biology is Mathematics Next Physics, Only Better":
Although mathematics has long been intertwined with the biological sciences, an explosive synergy between biology and mathematics seems poised to enrich and extend both fields greatly in the coming decades (Levin 1992; Murray 1993; Jungck 1997; Hastings et al. 2003; Palmer et al. 2003; Hastings and Palmer 2003). Biology will increasingly stimulate the creation of qualitatively new realms of mathematics. Why? In biology, ensemble properties emerge at each level of organization from the interactions of heterogeneous biological units at that level and at lower and higher levels of organization (larger and smaller physical scales, faster and slower temporal scales). New mathematics will be required to cope with these ensemble properties and with the heterogeneity of the biological units that compose ensembles at each level.
Article pdf

June 2, 2006

Reinforcing Scientific Communication

I am sometimes daunted by my choice of career path - that is, the field of science writing/journalism. The pace of scientific discovery increases exponentially, especially in progressive, relatively new fields like genetics and molecular biology, and it seems that science classrooms cannot keep up with new discoveries, even in college. I feel that I have earned a strong foundation in biology with my undergraduate degree, but in order to keep up, I have to do a hell of a lot of independent research. Those without any such foundation must feel lost in the scientific shuffle. This might explain why eyes tend to glaze over and lose focus when I try to explain anything, well, "science-y."

In short, I wonder if science can ever be effectively communicated to the general public.

I think the problem lies in four main areas:


High schools have a hard enough time teaching students the proper usage of their own language, much less instructing the intricate (and fear-inducing) principles of science and mathematics. In Maryland, teachers must take on another job just to support a family, even though they are performing one of the most necessary jobs there can be in a progressive society. A large majority of Baltimore city public school children do not even graduate from high school; many cannot even read.

It also does not help that creationists-in-disguise (the proponents of Intelligent Design) continue to harass school boards to introduce theistic principles into science classes, as if the two could be equated somehow.

The Media:

I'm not going to slap a general "Killing the Kids" sticker on the media (especially since, technically, I am a part of the host); I'll get specific.

I feel the media needs to address issues like global warming and evolution as they are viewed by the scientific community. A creationist has no effective input on evolutionary ideas, since she/he completely discounts the theory using old data and a lack of evidence as evidence of creationism. Also, a politician or economist who has not thoroughly reviewed the scientific consensus on global warming should equally have little to say in regard to the issue.

In the same breath, however, it is essential for every journalist to present both sides, but the sides must be equitable.

The Public:

It lies within the public's responsibility to remain informed about issues independently. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, surely, but not all opinions are not equal. It is important to base your opinion on the available facts, and with the near-limitless accessibility of reputable sources on the internet, there is little excuse for not being informed.

The Scientific Community:

Finally, I believe much of the blame lies within the scientific community itself. The community is generally inclusive (with good reason) and often important information has a difficult time finding its way out into the mainstream media.

I remember attending a lecture at the UMCES Appalachian Lab on new ecological classifications a couple years ago. At the end of the slide show, the professor displayed a list of attributes of the environment (resources, hunting, spirituality) that could stimulate the general public to conserve natural places. His presentation was clear and effective - especially since my knowledge of ecology was limited - but he left a room of 30 or so students with no effective method to communicate these ideals: plenty of why but no how.

I feel like the scientific community needs to open up a bit more to the world and show people how important research is to our society.

Don't get me wrong: plenty of scientists, journalists and filmmakers across the globe are already doing just this. The need, however, is increasing.

It all comes down to the want - the need - to be educated, to want to know. Science can be a brokerage of truth, it just needs to be reinforced by educators, politicians, scientists, the media and the people themselves.

A Hole in the Antarctic; Erudition #3

Since we're on the topic of mass extinction lately:
Evidence of a cataclysmic meteorite impact has been unearthed in Antarctica, according to researchers who say the collision could possibly explain the greatest mass extinction ever seen on our planet. But scientists contacted by news@nature.com say they are sceptical, as no signs of such an enormous impact have been found in other, well-studied areas of Antarctica.
Access the entire article here.

June 1, 2006

Partisan Sanctity

This may be a bit off-topic, but no less important:

Click on the poster below and fill out the form; HRC will automatically send a postcard to your senator's office.

The last thing we need in this country is built-in discrimination. Pass along the word.