November 30, 2006

Tangled Bank Alum on Hannity and Colmes

Daniel Morgan of Get Busy Livin' or Get Busy Bloggin' has another video for us. He was "interviewed" on Hannity and Colmes last night after receiving a call from Fox News to join a debate involving the placement of a $20,000 monument depicting the Ten Commandments and the the phrase "Love God and keep his commandments" on the steps of the Dixie County Courthouse in Florida (see IF Alligator for the article).

Click here for a link to the video and his take on the interview.

A Short History of the Eastern Hemlock, Part I

About 16,000 years ago, glaciation from the last ice age finally began to retreat after millennia of occupation. As the glaciers melted and filled scrapes in the landscape with fresh water, the animals and plants followed, once only able to live in the temperate climes of southern North America.

The eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadenis) was one of these pioneers, albeit a slow, steady one. Spreading north at about 100 - 400 meters per year (incidentally about the same rate of large ungulates like elk), the hemlocks wouldn't reach the extent of their expansion, around the glacier-crafted Great Lakes, until about 2,000 years ago.

Over the Thanksgiving break, I finally got a chance to do a little exploring. I took the fam up to Laurel Hill State Park in Western PA to hike through the remnants of an old growth eastern hemlock forest set aside for environmental education.

It's tough to find old growth forests anywhere in the eastern US nowadays, especially old growth areas dominated by hemlock. Laurel Hill has a small but beautiful remnant of the tree's unique habitat.

Hemlocks typically grow on cool, moist, north-facing slopes along streams. The density of these trees tends to diminish as you progress up slope.

DOWNSLOPE Laurel Hill Creek runs through the hemlock
stand in the valley bottom.

UPSLOPE Notice the hardwood forest beyond the hemlock
stand. Hardwoods like red maple prefer the drier conditions
of higher altitudes.

Hemlocks are conifers, but produce small cones relative to the height/breadth of a mature tree. They are a long-lived species, maturing in 300 years, able to reproduce for 450; the oldest recorded hemlock was 988 years old.

In Laurel Hill, most of the hemlocks were young, especially around the periphery, but once you reached the center of the forest, there stood the remnants of an old stand, trees reaching 100+ ft., alive since William Penn roamed what would become Pennsylvania.



ANTIQUITIES These trees in the center of the stand are
over 300 years old.

Hemlocks are a part and sometimes a progenitor of a very special understory habitat and support a variety of other organisms. Next post I'll talk about some more of the ecology of the eastern hemlocks, including what are called "ecotones," the animal and plant species hemlocks support and why it is essential to protect and preserve these ancient conifers.

References:

Molles, M.C. (2005). Ecology: Concepts and applications. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

FSU receives Grant to Explore Solar and Wind Energy Alternatives

I got this e-mail today from the chair of the engineering department at FSU:

On behalf of the department of Physics and Engineering, I am happy to announce the start of an exciting project at FSU. Maryland Energy Administration (MEA) is funding a research project to study the feasibility and efficiency of small scale generation units to produce electricity from wind and solar energy at residential level. The main purpose of the project is to develop interdisciplinary curriculum and outreach programs to inform the community about the possibility of harvesting wind and solar energy in Western Maryland.

The external funding provided by MEA will enable us to build a demonstration system of about 4-kW power to supply a small building on FSU campus from a wind turbine and solar panels. This generation unit will be tied to the 120V grid through a two-way energy meter so that any excess energy could be sold back to the electric utility. This system will constitute an example for residents of Western Maryland who would like to build similar generation systems in their homes or farms. We will also develop first-hand experience on technical, economic, environmental, and administrative issues residents might face through the construction and operation of such systems. An interdisciplinary group of faculty and students with diverse background will be involved in various parts of this project.

We have such a great science program at FSU, and I like to see this diversity of research, especially since it gives students hands-on experience and potentially opens the door to graduate/lifetime work.

The chair is talking about solar and wind power on a smaller scale, much like the personal wind turbines and solar panels now being distributed by UK company B & Q.

We've had the big guns for a while now in this area, wind towers reaching over 375 ft. in height with blades close to 100 ft. long. They're a problem for residents who don't want to look at them and conservationists concerned about collisions with fliers like birds and bats. We had (have?) a grad student working on bat mortality/conservation in the face of the huge wind towers dotting mountain ridges in the area.

Towers in Meyersdale, PA, about 15 miles west of Frostburg

I wrote an article about the pros and cons of US Wind Force's plan to build hundreds of towers in Western Maryland a few years back:

US Wind Force will construct 25 wind towers on 1,000 acres of Savage Mt, land that has been strip-mined and leased out by local coal companies. The towers will be able to generate enough electricity for over 16,000 homes in the area.

"We're taking useless, resource depleted land and making it productive again," said Joe Trainor, Vice President of US Wind Force.

Trainor expressed that he wanted Western MD to become a hub of manufacture and construction for US Wind Force. That was two years ago, and I haven't seen much work done lately.

Hopefully this research will provide some new opportunities for the area. I e-mailed the chair about doing an article last night; hopefully I have it out by next week.

November 29, 2006

Circus of the Spineless Needs a Stand-In Host

Tony G could use some help over at Circus of the Spineless. The host scheduled for this month couldn't do it at the last minute and he needs a host to compile and publish the invertebrate carnival by December 7th...

Any takers? Let him know.

Have You Been Touched by His Noodly Appendage?

I think Daniel has. He's posted a great video of some Flying Spaghetti Monster evangelism on an undisclosed college campus.

The "evangelizer" reminds me of our very own religious satirist at the paper...

Click. RAmen.

November 28, 2006

Carnivals Galore

Up:

Carnival of the Green #55

Tangled Bank #67

Carnival of Education #94


Imminent:

Tangled Bank #68

Festival of the Trees #6

Circus of the Spineless #14

Mendel's Garden #9

Carnival of the Green #56


Hosted here, in January:

Jan. 1: Festival of the Trees #7

Jan. 17: Tangled Bank #71

Jan. 31: Circus of the Spineless #17

Ooh, it's a month of sevens...


The future?

As I said before, I have at least one new carnival in the works with Jen over at The Infinite Sphere. More on that in the next couple weeks.

By the Numbers

101,794 The area of Ville Vidal, "New Mexico's Yellowstone," which was deemed untouchable by Congress last week.

2,200 The length of the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia. Researchers will be using the trail as the prophetic "canary in the coal mine" to educate people about our effect on the environment.

A diverse group of organizations has launched a project to begin long-term monitoring of the trail's environmental health, with plans to tap into an army of volunteer "citizen scientists" and their professional counterparts.

Together, they will collect information about the health of plants, air and water quality, and animal migration patterns to build an early warning system for the 120 million people along the Eastern Seaboard.


600 dogs will be slaughtered in South Korea to curb the outbreak of bird flu (via Culture Dish). Better to kill than be killed? Do they really think this will stop the virus?

95 percent of all marine species were wiped out about 250 million years ago, one of five major extinctions in life's history. The NY Times looks into a recent article published in Science discussing an "explosion in complexity." Where have I heard that before? Ah yes, the dramatics surrounding the Cambrian Explosion.

3 weeks of school left in this semester and two more papers to publish, which means there are little more than four weeks until Xmas. Almost time to hibernate.

November 27, 2006

Introducing Evolution at an Elementary Level II: Some Survey Results

Last week I blogged about a feasibility report I'm conducting for a tech writing class, about introducing evolution to students at the elementary level.

One of my criterion for the report (arguably the most important) is public acceptance of evolution. I surveyed a small number of elementary ed majors on campus regarding the issue, and thought I'd share some of the essay responses (you can download the survey here, if interested).

Do you think evolution can be taught to elementary children? Why or why not?


The consensus was "yes" on this one, with most, even the detractors, pointing out that anything can be taught if the methods are appropriate:

Children are capable of learning anything as long as its on their level (sophomore, early childhood ed).
Anything can be taught to anyone, we just need to simplify it (junior, elem ed).

Here's where the answers sharply split:

Do you think evolution should be taught to elementary children? Why or why not?

Even in this small sample, there was a marked division, almost cleanly in half. I'll let the answers speak for themselves.

Those who answered yes:

It tells us where we came from and how humans/plants exist (sophomore, elem ed).

You should be able to teach elementary children evolution because the survival of the fittest is the main reason we are here today (junior, elem ed w/social studies conc).

It's something that took place in history and if we as teachers teach everything in history, then we should teach evolution. It's a major part of history (junior, elem ed).

It is an actual scientific theory, even if you don't believe it (sophomore, ed).

On the fence (some might argue that these fit neatly in the "no" category):

I think that we should teach the children that they have the right to choose what they believe but we should give them the tools to make an accurate decision (junior, elem ed).

Yes, but only as a belief (sophomore, elem ed).

Depends on how conservative parents are; may burn too many bridges (junior, history).

Emphatically no:

Young kids trust anything that teachers say and it's only a theory so they'll take it as fact (sophomore, early childhood/elem ed).

It should be taught when they are old enough to decide if they believe in it or not (junior, early childhood ed).

It is not right (junior, exercise science).

I believe it is unscientific and that Creation makes more sence [sic] (freshman, elem ed).

It should be noted that only about one-third of those surveyed felt confident enough to teach evolution. About one-fifth of those who answered "no" on the "should question" felt confident enough to teach evolution.

Again, the sample size of this survey is far too small to draw any concrete, scientific conclusions about the issue at this point. My report is due next Monday, and finals are coming up, so I won't be working on this too much in the next couple of weeks, though I do plan on pursuing the issue further after the semester is finished. I want elementary teachers to weigh in on the issue, as well as more education students at both FSU and ACM.

I will say this about the responses: They reflect the terrible condition our country is in regarding science education. Though most of these students felt that evolution should be taught, they give it the democratic treatment made famous by creationism and Intelligent Design. Give students a choice, let them decide what to believe. After all, it's just a theory, like any other.

Biology and its bedrock, Darwinian evolution, are not about belief, they are based on thick stacks of evidence, like any science, and yet receive the same treatment as an invading faith.

I mentioned the post-modernism (pro-delusion) of our school systems nowadays. Every worldview is valid, every perspective should be respected and no one's toes should be stepped on while teaching kids about the world around them.

The system fears the implications of evolution. They don't want to disrupt the religious indoctrination of kids at home.

I say tough noogies. Science is science. We teach it in full, or we don't teach it at all.

I'll have more on this as it develops.

November 22, 2006

A World Is Born

I'll be gone for the next few days, so I thought I would leave some lasting entertainment: about 4.5 billion years worth.

I found the entire "A World Is Born" segment from the original Fantasia, one of my all time favorite parts of any movie. Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring* and evolution? I'm enthralled. Sure T. rex has three fingers, but we can all make excuses like, "It's an Allosaurus, really. A big one."

Apparently, Disney originally wanted to follow evolution to the dawn of human beings, using the entire ballet, but was constrained by time. I'm sure if he had done this originally, the movie would have been even less popular than it actually was back in 1940; as the story goes, Fantasia bombed when it was first released.

Enjoy the vids and your holiday. I'll be back next week.

Part I



Part II



Part III



Part IV



*Just as a by the by... Stravinsky was "not impressed" by the adaptation of his ballet to the animated feature; many sources attribute this to his distaste for evolution driven by a strict conversion to Christianity.

Who's Coming Over for Dinner?

We're having all the classics: mashed yukons, green bean casserole, homemade dinner rolls, cranberry sauce, stuffing, pumpkin pie, and nice thick slice of Hagryphus giganteus.


Aged to perfection. Happy Thanksgiving.

November 21, 2006

NWF Looking for Movie Night Hosts

The National Wildlife Federation is looking for 100 volunteers to host an in-home viewing of An Inconvenient Truth for 5 - 10 friends. They'll supply, for free:
...a DVD of An Inconvenient Truth (yours to keep), a fresh batch of NWF's fair-trade, shade-grown coffee, delicious "Endangered Species" chocolates and other informative handouts for your guests.
Plus you can join a conference call with other parties across the nation, and speak with leading climatologists.

The sign up form is here. I think we'll be hosting in Frostburg.

An Inconvenient Truth came out today. Pick it up, especially if you haven't seen it already.

UPDATE: NWF found the 100 volunteer hosts, and are now asking for donations of $45 to help with the funding of the parties. For the donation you will receive all of the treats listed above; still a great deal for a good cause.

Faith + Reason, Religion + Science = 0?

I'm sure everyone has seen the NY Times article reporting on the “Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival” conference (links to recorded lectures from the conference, some good, some not so good). If you haven't yet, go read it.

All the quasi-famous godless came together for the conference: Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Neil deGrasse Tyson and my personal favs, Lawrence Krauss and Steven Weinberg, both of whom are much less prone to mottos and anthems than Harris and Dawkins.

I like Weinberg. He's a very patient thinker, unlike Dawkins and Harris. I don't agree with him entirely; he puts all religious folks in the same basket and he's opposed to some of the ideas of E.O. Wilson and Lawrence Krauss. Krauss and Wilson want to nurture a relationship with religious moderates in order to accomplish educational and environmental goals. It sounds good, but I can certainly see why Weinberg is skeptical.

Why should the young Earth creationist care about saving the environment or education? Five thousand years is hardly a cosmological investment, and besides, Jesus will fill the sky soon, enrapturing all the faithful. Resources (animal, plant, mineral, etc) are here for our use to subsist until the end of the world which is, again, is right around the corner.

This directly conflicts with the moral weight of 3.8 billion years of life's history, a true story told through hundreds of years of careful study and published evidence. If you consider the life surrounding and living in and on you as relatives, analogs of ancestors long gone, it certainly changes one's perspective. It seems to me that this worldview places much more value on protecting what Wilson describes as our "cradle."

So I can see why Weinberg wants the world to awaken from its "long nightmare of religious belief." I just don't know how effective his methods would be versus Krauss' or Wilson's suggestions.

These scientists have a huge problem with acknowledging religious beliefs (conceptions of the natural and one some levels, the spiritual/emotional world), many of which are in direct opposition to available evidence. I agree wholeheartedly.

I remember my girlfriend describing a conversation she had about the environment with a coworker in the kitchen. He's a fundamentalist Christian, and spends dozens of hours every week in the Church community.

Heather asked him about what his church was doing to help out with protecting the environment (we used to take all of the recyclables to sort at the end of the day). He said that he didn't pay much attention to those issues; after all, if he were to burn an entire forest, God would grow it right back if it wasn't supposed to happen.

It is an issue of delusion, of attributing what we do not yet understand to supernatural causation.

I think the ideals of Krauss and Wilson need to be tempered with the skepticism of Weinberg. Science and religion are not separate and opposite entities, and should never be treated as such. With the progression of science, supernatural causation will continue to retreat, but that does not obliterate the importance of ritual to human beings, our psychological ties to the past through myth and the religious experience as a means to connect with others and the ineffable spirit of a god or the idea of a god.

I think that we're all forgetting how the media feeds on divisive issues like this and tends to exaggerate the rifts between camps. I personally could do without another "Religion vs. Science?" cover on Time or any other major publication. It depends on what portion of religious people are being discussed.

So, with tongue firmly in cheek, I propose the following:

Religion + Science ≠ 0

And if that is true, then what is the sum?

November 20, 2006

Redesigns All Around

Sorry for the lack of posting, but as I'm sure you can tell, I was busy doing some rennovations. I needed a change, a design representative of the material posted here, and I send my thanks out to Gecko and Fly and Wikimedia Commons for the clean layout and free photos.

My favorite part of the whole template is the tabs above. I know it's not really a big deal, but its nice to have all of the important links in one place instead of shoved down a sidebar. The Bottom Line design gallery is now set up through Flickr.

I'm hoping to get some nice buttons designed within the next week or so, both for TVG and FFS! I also have a couple of new carnival ideas bouncing around which I will hopefully reveal in the near future (before Xmas).

Please let me know what you all think of the design, and if you notice any probs that need to be smoothed out.

The Bottom Line Online also received a full makeover thanks to our webmaster (Derek Hidey of the AT Wire) and the good folks at College Publisher. We implemented drop down menus from the top to localize the page a bit, and changed the flag accordingly.

One class tomorrow morning before Thanksgiving Break. Does anyone have any special plans?

November 18, 2006

The Feasibility of Introducing Evolution at an Elementary Level

I've been working on a study for my tech writing class this semester examining the feasibility of introducing the specifics of evolution at an earlier grade level. If we could introduce evolution earlier and more effectively to students, perhaps they would absorb the ideas a bit better, and we can move up from the bottom of the international public acceptance of evolution list. So far, my research has overturned some interesting tidbits.

Evolution is not taught directly in Maryland until high school. I expected it from grades K-5, but I thought natural selection would be taught in middle school. I was wrong.

There's no insidious plot behind all of this, it's just the MD Board of Education's Voluntary State Curriculum (VSC). The standards are set, grade by grade, in an idealized list of general objectives per subject, followed by a more detailed objective listing for different fields within the subject.

For example, in Science, grades 3-5:

A. Constructing Knowledge
1. Gather and question data from many different forms of scientific investigations which include reviewing appropriate print resources, observing what things are like or
what is happening somewhere, collecting specimens for analysis, and doing experiments.

a. Support investigative findings with data found in books, articles, and databases, and
identify the sources used and expect others to do the same.
b. Select and use appropriate tools hand lens or microscope (magnifiers), centimeter ruler
(length), spring scale (weight), balance (mass), Celsius thermometer (temperature), graduated cylinder (liquid volume), and stopwatch (elapsed time) to augment
observations of objects, events, and processes.
c. Explain that comparisons of data might not be fair because some conditions are not kept
the same.
d. Recognize that the results of scientific investigations are seldom exactly the same, and
when the differences are large, it is important to try to figure out why.
e. Follow directions carefully and keep accurate records of one’s work in order to compare
data gathered.
f. Identify possible reasons for differences in results from investigations including
unexpected differences in the methods used or in the circumstances in which the investigation is carried out, and sometimes just because of uncertainties in observations.
g. Judge whether measurements and computations of quantities are reasonable in a familiar context by comparing them to typical values when measured to the nearest:
• Millimeter - length
• Square centimeter - area
• Milliliter - volume
• Newton - weight
• Gram - mass
• Second - time
• Degree C° - temperature

In grade 3 specifically:

A. Diversity of Life
1. Compare and explain how external features of plants and animals help them survive in different environments.

a. Use the senses and magnifying instruments to examine a variety of plants and animals to describe external features and what they do.
b. Compare similar features in some animals and plants and explain how each of these enables the organism to satisfy basic needs.
c. Use the information collected to ask and compare
answers to questions about how an organism’s external features contribute to its ability to survive in an environment.
d. Classify organisms according to one selected feature, such as body covering, and identify other similarities shared by organisms within each group formed.

And so on. Evolution is mentioned a few times in the curriculum, and some background information is taught to students (age of the Earth, extinction, diversity, some genetics) but the mechanism is not discussed. It is as if the students are left to connect the dots (postmodernism inherent in our school system; I'll get to that at a later date).

Yesterday I interviewed an official in Allegany County to get some information on what texts are used for science classes. Offhand, I asked him if he thought evolution should be directly introduced earlier:

"No I don't," he said.

"For technical reasons? You don't think young student would be able to absorb the material?" I said.

"That's not the problem. I would say," he paused, "for philosophical reasons."

"Ah. Children couldn't handle the philosophical implications of what they're being taught," I said.

"Correct. But that's my opinion."

He's right, to an extent. The "philosophical implications" of evolution are exactly the reason why it is not taught to children, by which the official meant biogenesis sans God. The board acts like children would be driven to nihilism if evolution were directly addressed. "We believe in nothing, Lebowski. Nothing."

We treat our kids like teetering vases, ready to break at the slightest nudge, the slimmest challenge. Introducing evolution earlier and more directly can only help our science starved society. Our education needs to stop dancing around the issue, toughen up a bit and teach our children the fundamental, unifying theory of biology.

Biology class should be biology class no matter the grade; the evidence is there to be passed on, not bottled up.

November 15, 2006

TBL: What Is Life? Pt. I


It is probably one of the most deceptively simple questions in any scientific field. Defining life becomes a problem of attribution, finding commonalities of matter reliant on energy.

With each new technological breakthrough things get more complicated. Microscopes become successively more powerful, able to penetrate the depths of body, cell and nucleus, revealing new life, different life, unclassifiable by common convention.

This process has repeated itself throughout history, and continues today. We live in a biological world of genes and molecules, far flung from the macro days of limbs and organs.

As a microbiologist, FSU Biology Professor Dr. Scott Fritz studies the boundaries in this world of the infinitesimal.

“It really is a fascinating question,” says Fritz. “We [biologists] have a working definition: something organic that can obtain energy, independently reproduce and have the ability to adapt to its environment.”

But Fritz and other biologists wonder if the definition is adequate.

“It’s all in your perspective,” says Fritz. “Are viruses life? That is still a very controversial question that may or may not ever be resolved.”

Viruses spark controversy because of their inability to independently reproduce. They essentially hijack the host’s reproductive machinery in order to multiply; without the host they cannot survive.

But viruses have all of the other components of life; they feed, they adapt with profound efficiency and they are organic in nature. Viruses possess the same basic components as all other life, nucleic acids (DNA, RNA), amino acids, sugars and lipids, which are each composed of simple, carbon based, organic molecules.

Back in the 1950’s, the decade when DNA was finally pinned down as the genetic blueprint of life, a grad student named Stanley Miller tried to reproduce these organic compounds by replicating the harsh atmospheric conditions of Earth 3,800 million years ago, pulsing electric charges through the hydrogen, methane, ammonia and water vapor soup.

Miller’s experiments produced amino acids, commonly called the building blocks of life. Subsequent experiments by Miller and others in this new field of “abiotic chemistry” would yield purine and pyrimidine, sugars integral to the structure of both RNA and DNA. Miller and company proved that life’s components could be synthesized from an inorganic substrate.

He found the pieces, but how do they fit in the puzzle?

“That’s the real question,” says Fritz. “How do you go from [organic compounds] to life? How do the components of life rise up and coalesce into an organism?”

Certain organic structures, such as bacterial flagella, viral capsids (capsules) and the lipid bilayer of eukaryotes, are able to self-assemble, meaning that if the proteinous components of the structure were to discorporate, they are “programmed” to reform into the original structure.

Fritz suggests that this mechanism might have something to do with the assemblage of early life.

Once life assembled, it was compelled to persist, to survive. In order to survive, it had to be aware of its surroundings on some level; in order to obtain energy, to adapt. That meant an exchange of information. Some would define the acquisition and use of information intelligence. Is intelligence another attribute of life?

“It depends on how you define intelligence,” says Fritz. “Is it the ability to learn or to reason, to draw conclusions? Is it physiological in nature? Does it require a complex neural network, or merely a set of chemoreceptors?”

Recent research has suggested that bacteria are able to draw conclusions and make decisions in some respects. For example, certain bacteria will preferentially use one sugar over another.

“Are they making an intelligent decision?” says Fritz. “If so, then intelligence takes place at the level of the gene. Bacteria have no neural network, no brain.”

As a comparative psychologist, Dr. Erica Kennedy uses some of the most brainy of animals to explore reasoning “analogs” in the animal kingdom: Capuchin monkeys.

“We look for patterns, comparisons and possible ways that these reasoning abilities may have developed under certain circumstances in different organisms,” says Kennedy.

The monkeys explored two-dimensional computer mazes with a simple joystick, and then compared their ability with the abilities of chimpanzees. The capuchins were not as capable as the chimps, but did exhibit the ability to make decisions and draw conclusions.

“The process requires a lot of training,” says Kennedy. “[The monkeys] don’t know the question, so you have to find the clearest way to get across what you want them to do. Researchers also have to be careful to avoid unintentially giving animals cues that could influence their behavior.

“As far as ‘what is life,’ I would have to go with the biological explanation,” she says.

Fritz believes that we will be asking the same question years into the future.

“I’m always amazed by microorganisms in particular,” says Fritz. “Life is all around us, within us and we just take it for granted, forgetting how complex it really is.”

But is life confined to Earth, to the biological carbon base? Can artificial intelligence and software be categorized as life?

Originally printed here.

November 14, 2006

A Brief Chat with Science Writer David Bodanis

Just as I promised, a brief interview with David Bodanis, about the Enlightenment, style and his new book, Passionate Minds:

You have written on Enlightenment thinkers in the past, especially Voltaire. Why are you drawn to this period/these people?

They were so neat - and it’s a period when a great deal about our modern world was being created. When Voltaire was a child, if someone fell stricken in the streets of Paris a priest would race out from a church to administer last rites. When Voltaire was old, if someone fell stricken, there was a great chance a medical specialist would be sent racing out from a municipal building to try medical help- a total shift in world view.

This is not the first time you have published the personal works of your "characters" (i.e. the diary of Heinrich Hertz in Electric Universe). Where was most of your research done for this book? Where did you find the poems/letters?

Most of the research was done in the British Library (great collection), or London Library (a bit smaller, but you can take stuff home!) I like having counterpoints to ordinary narrative text here and there in a book, be it the typographical chapter on the equals sign in E=MC2, or this about Hertz. There’s something similar in, I think, chapter seven of Passionate Minds, my latest book.

Science writing seems to be an up and coming field, especially with the explosion of information on the net and the popularity of writers like yourself. What are your thoughts on the state/future of science writing?

It’ll fade a bit, no doubt, but for now people like learning about this aspect of how our complex world works, also a number of fun or deep writers have moved towards it, which always helps.

Future books in the works right now?

Passionate Minds, which is on sale now.

Thanks again, David, for taking some time to chat.

Thanks to you too.

Here, here and here are a a few more interviews with Bodanis, if you're interested.

November 13, 2006

Polluted Waterways of Western Maryland

The coal industry has always been a big provider in Western Maryland. Right across the street from my apartment complex is a winding road up the mountain to several active blast sites. There are still old mine tunnels under the campus.

Acid mine drainage is a huge problem up here. Many of the streams are nearly decimated, so clogged with iron and sulfur that only the most hardy of algae can survive.

We recently surveyed about eight miles of waterways, from the Hoffman boil (also called a blow, where water flows through excavated mine areas due to changes in pressure) to a sewage treatment plant.

The Hoffman Boil

The Boil flows down an incline, coloring the stream bed bright orange from elevated levels of dissolved sulfates and iron compounds.


About 100 ft. down, Hoffman meets Vale Summit, a healthy stream.

Vale Summit (bottom) meets Hoffman (top)

You can immediately see the vast differences in coloration between the two streams. Hoffman has almost 900% of the normal iron levels (3.2 mg/L v. 0.4 mg/L) for a healthy stream, and over 350% of the sulfates (400 mg/L v. 125 mg/L).

As a result of the pollution, Hoffman is more acidic and contains less dissolved oxygen, both important factors in supporting aquatic life.

In fact, the only organisms found in Hoffman were hardy algae (and probably bacteria); in Vale, we found indicators of a healthy stream under every rock (caddisfly, stonefly and mayfly larvae, black-nosed dace, etc.).

The Hoffman Boil spills into the watershed, elevating levels of pollution not only at one point, but throughout the system.

The point? Pollution is prolific no matter the area. Western Maryland is very rural. We're surrounded by natural lands, and yet there is still the touch of human carelessness.

November 9, 2006

Bodanis Releases New Book in the U.S.

I got an e-mail from David Bodanis this afternoon (author of Electric Universe, E=mc²), referring me to his website and new book, Passionate Minds. It's worth a look; Bodanis is one of the best pop science writers out there.

His book discusses the life of Emilie du Ch√Ętelet, a forgotten Enlightenment think, close friends (lovers?) with Voltaire. Bodanis writes at length of Voltaire in E=mc²; this must have been something he intended to do for a while.

The website has excerpts from the book, including the poetry exchanged between Voltaire and du Ch√Ętelet.

Bodanis is busy promoting, but said he might be able to answer a few questions. Keep an eye out for a short interview (hopefully) in the near future.

Subspecies: Arbitrary Classification or Protector of the Unique?

It's safe to say that most people have some concept of Linnaean taxonomy, especially the end points of classification, the genus name and the species name (Homo sapiens). Many of our common names for organisms, especially plants, come directly from these taxonomic slots.

But there is a category beyond species that is often used, but barely defined. There is no set criteria for the subspecies category, other than varied genetic differences gained from a split in the population or some other factor leading to population mutation.

An example: Species and genus are fairly clear cut categories. They have criteria. The organisms in a certain genus are morphologically and genetically very similar, while organisms in a certain species are able to successfully interbreed.

The problem with subspecies is that it has no definite criteria like that. The mutations in a given population that makes them distinct could be literally anything: Succeptability to a disease or genetic disorder, slight differences in morphological traits, organ size, color differences, growth rate, food preference, etc. But the subspecies can still interbreed with other subspecies in the species category (species, species, species). Where will the resulting hybrids be classified? New subspecies?

Defining a population is another issue. They are never very clear cut, as E.O. Wilson observes in The Diversity of Life:

What exactly is a subspecies? The textbooks define it as a geographical race, a population with distinctive traits occupying part of the range of the species.

What then is a population? We are in immediate trouble. It is easy to say that a clearly defined population, one recognizable by everyone at a glance, occupies an exclusive part of the range of a species. And geneticists like to add, for purposes of mathematical clarity but not as an absolute requirement, that the population is a “deme”: its members interbreed at random, and any member is equally likely to mate with any other member in the population, regardless of its location.

_____snip_____

To the south, in the mountains of northern Georgia and Alabama, there is another generally recognized subspecies, Plethodon cinereus polycentratus, separated from P. cinereus cinereus by 80 kilometers of redback-free terrain. A third subspecies, P. cinereus serratus, occurs in several widely separated localities in the hill country of Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. These two additional races offer the same difficulties as the main northern subspecies. Their triple names are a convenient shorthand, the statement of a rough truth. The classification works so long as we recognize that dicing up the whole species geographically is imprecise and to a large degree arbitrary. Depending on the criteria used, there could be one subspecies of P. cinereus, or there could be hundreds.

Another problem is more political than anything. If subspecies is indeed an arbitrary classification, then many endangered populations of organisms are not endangered after all. This is hard, since these populations do have unique characteristics, and conservationists (including myself) want to preserve what biodiversity we have on this planet, as best we can.

Recently there was debate over a certain population (subspecies) of the Sand Mountain blue butterfly, a subspecies of another blue butterfly in the area. One of the biggest challenges to protecting these animals was their arbitrary classification.

Sand Mountain blue
(Euphilotes pallescens arenamontana)

There is still controversy surrounding the subspecies category - some will tell you it is viable, most others will push it aside as artificial - but it presents a definite, divisive problem. How to categorize the temporal, instantaneous states of life? After all, in the grand scheme of things, the classification of species is looking at only one still of the entire movie.

The thing is, there are real morphologic and genetic differences between populations of a certain species, but subspecies is inadequate in supplying us with a sensible, useful taxonomic category as of yet.

November 7, 2006

Politics, Science and USFWS II: Stats, Essays and the USDA

In addition to the lists of organisms affected by the political leanings of MacDonald (see part I of this series), the Union of Concerned Scientists released regional summaries of the PEER surveys given, including selected essays (employees of USFWS were discouraged from filling out the surveys by officials from the Dept. of the Interior; over 30 percent of those who received surveys participated).

In the northeast:

Nearly three in four respondents (74%) reported cases where “commercial interests have inappropriately induced the reversal or withdrawal of scientific conclusions or decisions through political intervention,” giving the Northeast Region the dubious distinction of being the USFWS region with the largest concerns of inappropriate commercial intervention;

The Southwest (the response was almost identical in every region):

More than three-quarters (85%) felt the USFWS is not “acting effectively to maintain or enhance species and their habitats, so as to avoid possible listings under the Endangered Species Act.” And for those species already listed as threatened or endangered under the ESA, more than nine out of 10 (95%) did not regard the USFWS as effective in its efforts toward recovery of those listed species.

The Pacific:

More than four out of five scientists (81%) knew of cases “where U.S. Department of Interior political appointees have injected themselves” into agency scientific decisions. A majority also cited interventions by members of Congress and local officeholders;

Alaska:

More than three-fourths (78%) felt they could not “openly express...concerns about the biological needs of species and habitats without fear of retaliation” in public while well over one-third (41%) did not feel they could do so even inside the confines of the agency. Nearly half (48%) felt they are not allowed to do their jobs as scientists;

The essays echoed these frustrations:

(NE, R5)Having regional office and Washington office staff who have the courage and integrity to stand up to political pressure and commercial/business interests. It is at this level that scientific/biological determinations by field staff are not supported or are over-turned. Contrary to what the administration says – the issue is not peer review or failure to use “good science.” The “goodness” of our science is only questioned when it yields an answer that is in conflict with a commercial or political interest.

Some gave a simple solution:

Getting rid of Julie McDonald.

Reducing or eliminating interference from DOI political appointees (Craig Manson, etc.)
and their special assistants (especially Julie MacDonald).

As I stated before, I have heard these type of complaints before from a friend of mine that works for the USDA Forest Service.

She spent her early days fighting off the timber companies in the northwest, one of the many trying to preserve the old growth forests and the animals that thrived there. She cares about her job as a scientist, cares about the evidence, and most of all cares about our wild places.

A few years back she moved to DC to work in the USFS office there, doing more paperwork than fieldwork. Every time we got together she lamented the politics in the office, the heavy handed changes to the USFS since Bush was elected, and one of his appointees took over the USDA.

Corporate/political interests were weighed equally with the science, employees were being ignored, she was frustrated - not scared to speak out exactly, but she knew there would be repurcussions if she did.

My friend has gone on an indefinite hiatus since then.

I'm going to vote in a few hours, after my ecology class is over. I have spent some time going through the candidates, not just looking for a "D"; really taking a look at what each candidate plans to do about our environmental problems. As Jen said on the last post, today we can change the way our public officials handle science and the environment.

November 6, 2006

Politics, Science and USFWS I: Threatened Organisms

The 'sphere has been buzzing about the latest suppression of the Endangered Species Act by a Bush appointee in the Department of the Interior:

A senior Bush political appointee at the Interior Department has rejected staff scientists' recommendations to protect imperiled animals and plants under the Endangered Species Act at least six times in the past three years, documents show.

In addition, staff complaints that their scientific findings were frequently overruled or disparaged at the behest of landowners or industry have led the agency's inspector general to look into the role of Julie MacDonald, who has been deputy assistant secretary of the interior for fish and wildlife and parks since 2004, in decisions on protecting endangered species.


The issue has been covered briefly here and there; I thought I would do a full review of the issue, not only for the sake of its importance and relevance for the upcoming election, but also for personal reasons (I'll explain later).

MacDonald is cited by UCS and other media sources as interfering with ESA protection of the following organisms (in each example she directly reversed or interfered with the science suggesting protection):

  • Gunnison's Prairie Dog (Utah, Arizona, Colorado): This prairie dog's habitat has been reduced to about 10 percent by industrialization. Disease has checked its numbers as well.
  • White-Tailed Prairie Dog (Wyoming, Montana, Colorado): Habitat reduced to about 8% of historical range, population decimated due to extermination and habitat loss.
  • Roundtail Chub (southwest): Population checked by introduced (non-native) species of fish, overfishing and habitat loss. This specific population is considered unique by certain FWS scientists because of its genetic uniqueness.
  • Gunnison Sage Grouse (Colorado, Utah): A population of only about 4000 remain (500 breeding individuals), due to habitat loss, livestock farming, and pesticide use.
  • The Greater Sage Grouse (southwest): Same threats as above. This sage grouse has a much larger population, but is also considered a game bird.
  • The Marbled Murrelet (Pacific northwest): This waterfowl's population is declining due to logging of old growth forests, gill net fishing, oil spills and other pollution (the Audubon Society reports that 3,300 individuals were killed in the Exxon Valdez incident in Prince William Sound).
  • Trumpeter Swans: These swans are "highly intolerant" of human presence, and have been pushed into forested areas (which are being logged). The dispute is again over the significance of a certain population.
  • Wolverines (northwest): Despite MacDonald's interference, a court in Montana has recently ruled that the scientific evidence for protection of the wolverine be reevaluated (Defenders of Wildlife, NW Ecosystem Alliance and Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center vs. USFWS, 9/29/06).
  • The Delta Smelt (west): The smelt is threatened by pesticide runoff, mainly in the SF Bay area (which decimated the Maine lobster population several years ago).
  • Bull Trout (northwest): An economical assessment of protecting the trout was censored and altered, giving officials the "evidence" to reverse protection. Threats? Guess: Habitat loss, non-natives and overfishing.
  • Florida Panther: As if these guys didn't have it hard enough. The panther is facing extinction from the utter decimation of its historical habitat; as the population of Florida increases, the panther population decreases. It has gotten so bad that geneticists are considering widening the bottlenecked gene pool of the panther by cross breeding them with other American big cats.
  • Tabernaemontana rotensis (Pacific islands): There are only 30 of these flowering plants extant, all on Air Force grounds. The taxonomy of the plant is disputed, and it is unclear whether or not MacDonald was directly involved, but if T. rotensis is indeed a separate species, it is critically endangered and should be protected.
Next post I'll review some of the essay responses and the politics, not only at the FWS, but across the board; the administration's heavy hand is present at the USDA as well.

November 3, 2006

Tsk, Tsk, Ted Haggard; Maybe Your People Are Animals

Fire spitting American evangelical pastor Ted Haggard is stewing in his own pious juices tonight:

CNN) -- The president of the National Association of Evangelicals resigned Thursday after denying an accusation by a male prostitute that the pastor paid him for sex over three years.

The Rev. Ted Haggard said he is also temporarily stepping aside from the pulpit of his church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, pending an internal investigation by the church.

The National Association of Evangelicals is an umbrella group for more than 45,000 churches and some 30 million members across the country. (Watch Haggard deny the accusations -- 2:07 Video)

"I've never had a gay relationship with anybody. I'm steady with my wife. I'm faithful to my wife," Haggard told CNN affiliate KUSA-TV.

Haggard is married and has five children, according to the National Association of Evangelicals Web site.

Colorado is one of eight states where voters will consider bans on same-sex marriage in Tuesday's elections, and Haggard has been a supporter of the measure.


This is the same Ted Haggard that made an ass out of himself during The Root of All Evil (available here), Richard Dawkins' documentary illustrating the dangers of Western religion. Here's a little excerpt:



Nice guy, eh?

November 2, 2006

Socialized Race and the Return of the Enlightenment

I hit the nerdy jackpot the other day, stumbling over (literally) a box labeled "Free Books" full of recent biology texts on human biology, botany and environmental science. I felt like I was stealing. I took five books, three of which would not fit in my backpack. So thank you to whoever decided to lend a hand to a poor undergrad.

Earlier this year, I found a neat little book called The Story of Science, written around 1930 or so. I love looking through these old books; it shows two seemingly contradictory things: We have come so far in understanding our world since then and yet we still deal with many of the same ethical issues decades later, after many steps forward.

The biology covered in this book takes up barely a fourth of the pages, and much of the material is pure conjecture. For example, they did not know the mechanism of heredity in the 1930's, though the book does allude to the chromosomes holding the key to understanding:
Modern research has revealed that the chromosomes, the little threads of protein in the nuclei of the egg-cell and germ cell which unite to bring the new individual into existence, are the carriers of heredity. Localized in the chromosomes are the factors which cuase the various characteristics of the organism. These factors, whose exact nature is unknown despite the fact that the exact location of many of them in the chromosomes is known, are called the genes. (Emphasis is mine.)
Actually, the cat (DNA) wouldn't be out of the bag for a good 20 years or so. Scientists are pretty comfortable with the human genome by now, concentrating more and more on the translation and transcription of genes into proteins. Find the foundation and work your way up.

Ethically, the science world of 1930 wasn't too much different, though without the social movements of women and people of color, science was white-male dominated and many biologists at the time believed races of humans to be distinct from one another (implying the dominance of, who else, the white male).

Though it was before the time of cladistics, they still produced family trees that Darwin himself had conceived, like this one:

You may have to click to enlarge the picture.

The graphic splits modern man, Homo sapiens, in to four distincts branchings, like four different species or subspecies (they never clarify the particular races cited in the graphic, though I suspect African, North Asian, South Asian and Eurasian are represented).

We know now that Homo sapiens is a species united, with minor phenotypic variations (physical characteristics) between different populations. With the exception of a few, biologists have little use for the word "race." It has no real meaning in genetics, and is therefore a social construct.

I wonder if society would have been more accepting of people of color if the scientists of the 1930's had known that we are all genetically identical [11/3: as far as fundamental intellectual potential is concerned; see comments below]. Somehow I doubt it.

I am surprised that more people have not latched on to this idea to promote the unification of culture, especially in America. We seem to be more interested in segregating ourselves into meaningless factions of nationality, philosophy, subculture and religion.

But to what end? To be respected? Acknowledged? By whom?

I will admit an unpopular position. I think unreigned multiculturalism will destroy us. Some aspects of some cultures are not acceptable in modern society, no matter how they may be framed.

The white male modernists were half right. They saw a culture that thrived on reason and inquiry, devoid of mysticism and cosmic excuses.

Their mistake was, of course, their exclusivity. They bent science to serve their racist/sexist feelings of superiority/insecurity, and the movement itself suffered and was overturned.

Postmodernism took hold and fixed that aspect of modernism. The oppressed fought back, justly demanding a place at the table, where all human beings could come together and truly convene, all under the flag of the burgeoning philosophical movement. It is largely responsible for the relative state of racial acceptance in our country.

But postmodernism has gone too far. It is a super-subjective chasm devoid of creativity and relevance, rooted in the denial of the natural sciences. It has also been a great divider in American society. Now we just quibble over holidays and observances, reclamations and compensations, as if they could ever right historical wrongs.

If we are all indeed genetically identical, then it becomes an issue of how we socialize our children. They will inevitably see differences in color and culture, and should be informed of our societal differences, but if they are properly instructed, they can acknowledge the illusion of race, and be mindful of our inherent unity.

One day I hope we can come to one table as one species, not in different camps of idealism. I'm waiting for neo-modernism - a revamped Enlightenment - to swing around.

The Economic Consequences of Climate Change

Yikes.