January 31, 2007

Circus of the Spineless #17: The Symbology of Invertebrates

Welcome to the 17th Circus of the Spineless, the only blog carnival devoted to all things invertebrate. This is the third carnival hosted this month at The Voltage Gate, and since the semester has started, the last one for a while.

Other animals have always meant something to Homo sapiens. Today they (and we) are like living libraries, holding the secrets of life's origins on Earth, essential in learning what it is to be alive and live in communities. In ancient times - and to some degree, today - tribal cultures regarded animals as messengers and talismans of good and evil, actors in a cosmic play where human beings took center stage.

Demonized or analyzed, animals - invertebrates in particular, for our part - have always been symbols of psychological and philosophical meaning for us. For this edition of CotS, we'll discuss some of the more obscure mythology related to the submissions I've received, and relate a fraction of the stories told before the dawn of science. What stories do we tell today?

Cephalopods Octopi, squid and cuttlefish are commonly described as bearing aspects of fire or the infernal in folklore around the world. Most of us are familiar with the Norwegian tales of the Kraken, but in the traditions of the Native American Nootka tribe, the cuttlefish was the keeper of fire (stolen by a deer; a more or less Promethean story). In a Hawaiian myth, the god Kanaloa is depicted as a squid or octopus, causing storms or other aberrant phenomena.

Much of Cephalopod life is still a mystery to us, though science has woven a much more tapestry of their traits. PZ Myers shares a neat video displaying the near flawless camouflage of an octopus and from Deep Sea News, CR McClain reveals the broad range of body size in cephalopods and the rest of the mollusks.

Shrimp Not much has been recorded in the way of shrimp folklore, but there is a reference to the mythical first people of Hawaii (the Menehune) being gifted a single fresh water shrimp apiece for their efforts in digging the famed Menehune Ditch for King Ola:

After the king gave a shrimp to every menehune, there were two shrimp left, one for the menehune king and one for king Ola. King Ola gave the last shrimp to the menehune king. Then the menehune disappeared.

Who knew shrimp were so valuable? Coturnix from A Blog Around the Clock points us in the right direction.

Snails Perhaps the most important aspect of the snail in folklore is the helical nature of the shell, the motif of the spiral. It represents "motion outwards from a fixed point [...] cyclical but progressive continuity and rotational creation." The spiral (a structure inherent in nature), and therefore the snail, were used to represent the evolution of life and the individual. At Snail's Tales, Aydin tells us a bit about the aquatic snail Theodoxus fluviatilis.

Spiders The amount of literature covering spiders in mythology is staggering, but spiders are most often mentioned with regard to web spinning, as in the Greek myth of Arachne. The idea of the web is also essential in grasping the fundamentals of certain forms of Hinduism and Buddhism (typically called Brahmanism), which teach that all reality is like a web of illusion (Maya), hiding the truth; that we are all one in the same, a Drop (Atman) temporarily outside of the Waterfall (Brahman).

The spiders themselves are much more beautiful: Bev from the Burning Silo shares the habits of the Goldenrod crab spider complete with a handful of vivid pictures, while Grrl Scientist from Living the Scientific Life is all fired up about the visual range of the jumping spider. Mites might not be a forerunner in the ideals of beauty, but Matt from Behavioral Ecology Blog seems to think so with this picture of a velvet mite (yeah, not a spider, but you try to find some lore about mites).

Butterfly Another invertebrate with millennia of mythology behind it, most of it referring to the butterfly's metamorphic abilities, with the chrysalis representing a latent self, or the death of self, only to resurrect or become enlightened upon emergence. The Japanese have long held butterflies to be a symbol of womanhood, with two butterflies representing the unity of a happy marriage. Thingfish23 of Taming of the Band-Aid is looking forward to witnessing a swallowtail's metamorphosis on a Dutchman's Pipe in the backyard.

Bees A symbol of royalty to the ancient peoples of Sudan, Niger and Egypt, for obvious reasons. Napoleon later adopted the bee as a symbol of his empire. The bee, along with the ant, is the quintessential social animal and worker both in mythology and in the animal kingdom. MC from Neurophilosophy discusses social behavior of bees and how a certain chemical may be responsible for their dancing, while RPM from evolgen reviews aspects of sex determination in the Hymenoptera (specifically wasps).

Cricket To the Chinese, the cricket represented the a threefold symbol of life, death and resurrection, since it lays eggs in the ground, lives there as a larva and rises from the depths as an adult. Singing crickets were considered good luck charms and kept in little cages. This little cricket, a beach cricket from Earth, Wind and Water by Tai Haku, is avoiding capture well with its clever coloration.

Mantis The shamanic !Kung people of Namibia, Botswana and Angola regard the mantis as a trickster god, bending (sometimes breaking) the instituted rules of the culture in order to prove a point: Rules are not always hard and fast. Other cultures have a special attachment to the mantis as well:

In France people believed a praying mantis would point a lost child home. In Arab and Turkish cultures a mantis was thought to point toward Mecca, a site of considerable religious interest. In Africa they were thought to bring good luck to whomever they landed on, and could even restore life into the dead. Here in the U.S. they were thought to blind men and kill horses. Europeans believed they were highly reverent to god since they always seemed to be praying. And in China, nothing cured bedwetting better than roasted mantid eggs (Sargent 4).

Mantises are perhaps best known for their deadly embrace. Nic shares some pics from KeesKennis.

Flies The ancient Syrian deity Beelzebub, meaning "Lord of things that fly" was supposedly distorted by the Hebrews and interpreted to mean "Lord of the Flies" (implying that the god was lord of animals that eat dung). It was later equated with Baal, and became synonymous for Satan. Budak, from The Annotated Budak, asks us to look beyond the bad reputation of Dipterans and consider their benign majority.

Worms In Icelandic tradition, the death of the frost giant Ymir signaled the beginning of life for man. His corpse served as the raw material for the Earth (Midgard), and the gods called forth the worms from Ymir's depths to rise and become men. We are all made of worms. Except for Lori Witzel of Chatoyance, however, who requests our discerning eyes; can you find the worm?

Mystery Bugs Care to give a hint as to what these bugs are: A giant crawly from KeesKennis and a dead hanger from The Blog Pound.

That does it for CotS #17. Number 18 will be hosted by PZ at the end of February, so start sending in your submissions. Thanks to all the contributors and readers.

For more carnival goodness, Tangled Bank #72 is up today at Ouroboros. Chris did a wonderful job, so check it out.


The Praying Mantis, by Dan Feldman

The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, by Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant

I Look Like... Usher?

I was tagged by Matt.

Rad. I look like a couple of popstars, a soccer player, a supermodel, Angel, a Nobel Peace Prize winning biochemist. a gnome-like Misfit and da man himself. You think it's funny? Funny how?

With the beard I still looked like Boreanaz (its the big nose, I think) but I also scored a famous yogi too.

January 30, 2007

Ctenophore & Hermit Crab Videos

From my trip to the National Zoo, ctenophores (Mnemiopsis leidyi) and a hungry giant hermit crab (Petrochirus diogenes?):

Two Hours Until Deadline...

...for Circus of the Spineless #17. I'll be posting it tomorrow, after noon.

January 28, 2007

Dinosaurs and the Mystery of Body Temperature III: Intertial Homeothermy

Body size is an important factor in the debate over whether dinosaurs were cold or warm blooded (or something in between). When you have a land animal 42 feet long weighing nearly as much as a blue whale, temperature models tend to break down. If the dinosaurs were ectotherms, relying on the environment for heat, they may lack the surface area to sufficiently heat the blood pumping directly beneath the skin. If dinosaurs are endotherms, and internally heated by its own metabolism, it may not have enough surface area to expel excess heat from the depths of its massive body.

The following chart shows this principle a little more clearly.

As you can see, the second two cubes have the exact same volume (body size), but the surface areas are vastly different. Large animals like dinosaurs and blue whales are like the middle cube with the smaller ratio; it becomes difficult to use surface area to heat/cool its insides. Also, the more massive an animal is, the more heat it produces/requires, generally speaking.

The reason blue whales get away with being the most massive animal to ever live (so far) is that temperature exchange with their environment is rapid. The ambient temperature of the ocean is on average much lower than ambient temperatures on land, allowing the whale to circulate heat through the thinner parts of its body and allowing the cold water to carry away the excess. Plus, the whale's 100 tons is spread out along 100 feet of body as well.

You can see how a creature on land weighing as much as the blue whale, compacted into 40 or 50 feet and lacking the might present a particular problem for scientists to figure out, especially in the absence of direct evidence.

But, the creature did exist. We're just now picking up the pieces, so to speak.

And recently, scientists put those pieces to good use. By simulating the ontogenetic development of eight different dinos using data from recent bone analyses, they were able to determine that the internal temperature of dinos depended on size. Smaller dinosaurs maintained a lower body temperature and probably grew at a rate consistent with extant reptiles, while the larger dinos maintained a higher body temperature, like today's birds and mammals.

The largest animal studied, Sauroposeidon proteles, was estimated to have an internal temperature of 48 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit), a few degrees higher than what was thought to be the upper limit of temperature tolerance for animals. Because of this extremity, the authors believe that temperature may have been the ultimate cap on body size.

Ultimately, this study was transposing a state called "inertial homeothermy," which is observed in ectotherms like crocodiles and the Galapagos tortoise that can maintain their internal temperatures by adjusting their internal physiological conditions, much like endotherms. The researchers performed the same tests on crocodiles of similar size (when they could; there are no crocs alive today to compare with the larger dinos):

Perhaps, if time allows in the near future, I'll detail a bit more about all the thermies: poikilo, homeo, hetero, ecto and endo.

January 27, 2007

Bala the Sloth Bear's First Birthday

I finally fixed my camera and was able to pull some photos from our trip to the National Zoo earlier this month. The day we went was a special one; it was the first birthday of Balawat, the zoo's newly relocated sloth bear cub. The zoo finished a new Asia Trail last October, and the sloth bear family made the move to two modern enclosures (not to mention the fishing cats, clawed otters, red pandas and giant pandas - including little sleepy Tai Shan).

They had a birthday card to sign,

and Heather oblidged with a little portrait.

Meanwhile, Bala celebrated with some good, old fashioned mischief:

The Origin of the Yellow Rectangle

The National Geographic Society was founded on this day in 1888. But when and where did that iconic yellow rectangle originate? Its history is pretty simple and straightforward, actually:

Changes in the design of National Geographic magazine's cover during the 1970s indicated their understanding of the prevalence and power of their readers' collective visual literacy. By the time I arrived at the Society as a student intern, its practitioners were well into reformulations and associated debates about the magazine's "voice". The publishers had decided to update the design of the magazine, moving toward a crisper, more modern graphic style overall. One aspect of the change was that the intricate floral pattern that had decorated the margins of the magazine's cover for so many years would be replaced by the now-familiar plain yellow rectangle, which was to become not just the new border for the magazine but also the new logo for the Society overall.

The publishers understood that this change would not be trivial to effect, however. The magazine's readership was doggedly faithful, and readers associated the distinguished botanical motif with an air of sophistication and authority that the Society had managed to achieve. The move from etched laurels to rectilinear yellow would be jarring indeed. So the producers decided to effect the transition piecemeal over several years. Issue by issue they removed parts of the floral margin literally bit-by-bit until it was gone, leaving the margins border-free for a while – with just a ghost line of the laurel-encircled globe at top center. Then, over time, they built up the yellow margins, ultimately arriving at the rectilinear border that we recognize now.

National Geographic's evolution also reveals another aspect of the craft of caption-making. Its producers understood that there was more than one way to read the magazine. Some people would read it cover-to-cover; others would choose particular articles of interest; others would merely flip through the pages, looking at the pictures and reading the captions. This manner of reading was not to be disdained or taken lightly: it constituted a significant manner of readership, so much so that it warranted employing a distinct group of people as caption-writers. They worked with the researchers, writers, and designers to create pithy accompaniments to the pictures. Captions were to speak directly to the image, not being redundant with the meaning of the image but supplementing it by explaining ambiguities, adding detail, and so on. Flipping through the magazine to look at the pictures and read the short text blocks could indeed be a rich, informative experience in its own right.

The rectangle is a frame for content. Ingenious, really. National Geographic stands out among other publications for keeping things very visual, with large print, large captions, easy to read all in a relatively small package. I've learned a thing or two from studying their design techniques.

Next week at this time I'll be staring at a QuarkXpress template, trying to get all the pieces to fit. But I'm looking forward to what the semester brings, especially since it's my last. We always come up with a few gems.

January 26, 2007

Who Knew Venn Diagrams Could Be Funny?

What do dodos, tyrannosaurs and grandpa all have in common? Natural history.

tip: Phillip

Blogging, Criticism and Writing Angry

I waited a few days to let things cool off a bit at Scienceblogs and related sites before I threw my two cents in about the now infamous Scienceblogs reviewer (if you haven't heard, you can read a couple posts about it, here and here, or just search Scienceblogs).

It is completely natural to be upset when someone is, in effect, dissing your pursuits. However, I think that bloggers, in general, have a tendency to blow things out of proportion. The bloggers that were reviewed who have made minimal comment regarding the reviewing process have made the best choice, I believe. The reviewer, after all, is just another blogger. One man, with one opinion.

Refuting him seems to be a futile gesture. There are only so many reasons one can give for liking anything until you come down to "I just like him/her/it." Furthermore, what is there to prove? We're not talking about research. We're talking about personal tastes.

I speak with a bit of experience gained over the past few years. I am an editor/columnist at a small town university newspaper, but I potentially reach almost 5,000 students, faculty, staff members, and residents every week with my words and opinions. Over the past few years, I have been hounded, confronted, criticized and trivialized by those same students, faculty, staff members and residents, from English professors to administrators, from the Office of International Studies to a pair of disgruntled Christian students from Campus Crusade for Christ.

But that's the business, babe. That's what happens when you put yourself out there.

Info travels so fast on the 'sphere that things can become frenzied. We've all seen it in the science blogosphere with evolution/creationism arguments, ID, atheist/religious propaganda, global warming denial, the latest political transgression on science, etc. Most of these subjects need to be addressed, and a solid scientific response is necessary; by nature, science bloggers cannot allow pseudoscience to go unchallenged.

What I don't like, however, are blogs that concentrate on little else. Evolution has been amply defended at this point, and except for minor points, there are websites that address all of the main arguments. I think that time would be better spent posting about evolution in a positive way; all the negativity can only add to people's distaste. I'm not the only one who feels this way.

The Just Science proposition is a good step, though I think it is delayed and ought to be a more or less permanent solution.

I would much rather blog about pandas and spiders than present my "latest smackdown" (tip: Coturnix) of IDers/creationists. But that's just me. Some people thrive on argumentation and negativity.

Bloggers (myself included, at times) need to start taking a deep breath before punching that "publish" button. If there's one thing I've learned in my limited years as a student journalist, it is to never publish anything that was written in anger. Write angry, get it out, then go back and make it palatable. Your point is often much better made this way.

Science bloggers everywhere: your time and energy is much more valuable than this! Let's talk about sharks instead:

Tetrapod Zoology Has Moved!

Another of my favs has moved to Scienceblogs. If you've never visited Darren Naish's zoological old spot, keep up with the new.

January 25, 2007

In the Garden

Mendel's Garden #10 is up at Neurotopia, with a great post from balancing life about coevolution and lactose intolerance.

Call for Submissions: Circus of the Spineless #17

This is the fifth call for submissions for the #17 Circus of the Spineless and the first of the new year. Send your submissions to me directly at thevoltagegate [at] gmail [dot] com, or by using the Blogcarnival form.

NWF Falls Off Its Chair

I got this e-mail yesterday from NWF:

Well, he finally said it. There I was last night sitting on my futon with my friends and coworkers (yes, it's D.C.--we actually hold parties for the State of the Union), and President Bush uttered those three magic words.

Global climate change.

The words were a first for Bush, who had not discussed global warming in his previous State of the Union addresses. They accompanied the President's call for reductions in "gasoline usage," more investments and research in alternative energy and better fuel economy standards.

"The president has dipped a few oars in the water, but he has not fully turned the ship to the right destination," said NWF's President and CEO Larry Schweiger. "We need to be cutting global warming pollution from gasoline and all other energy sources, and we need to start now with a mandatory program that guarantees results."

Does the president really have any choice but to acknowledge climate change at this point? He's got enough to deny as it is.

January 24, 2007

A Few Morning Links (and a Carnival)

I and the Bird # 41 is up a bit early.

Ever wondered what urea does to water?

Greg has posted a comprehensive (and very useful) list of books addressing archeology and prehistory in general. Lots of non-mainstream suggestions.

56 million year old primate fossil was found in Yellowstone. Neat study.

Mesozoic biplanes and tyrannosaurs in F-14's? Just go here.

January 23, 2007

Keeping Wildlife Coverage Wild, Engaging

John Whitfield has written a post over at El Gentraso critiquing the latest Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibit in the Natural History Museum in London, asking and answering:

Does, and can, wildlife photography develop and change — like, say, portrait photography does. Obviously equipment gets better, but do the genre's aesthetics develop? Not much, would be my suspicion. There seems to be a very narrow version of what's beautiful and impressive about wildlife, that doesn't have a place for anything scary, or horrific (does anyone photograph parasitoids eating their way out of caterpillars?), or strange.

It is to be expected, in a sense. It seems that the museum's curators believe that the general public does not want to see nature red in tooth and claw - penetration of all sorts, generally, consumption - even though those images would be more striking than any other. It doesn't help that companies like Shell sponsor these displays, and have a bad enough image as it is.

In essence, everyone wants to play nice in the sandbox - the photographer caters to the contest, the museum caters to the sponsor and to the public to ensure continued support.

I visited the National Museum of Natural History in DC a couple weeks ago, and saw a similar (if not identical) exhibit, displaying the same types of images of the wild - silhouettes of giraffes against fluid sunsets, tottering penguins, big cats, flowers, etc. Though the images were beautiful, they were tame. My time was much better spent in the fossil halls, contemplating the ancient plains of North America.

But this is the acceptable state of nature coverage. Conservationists strive to present a socially palatable image of wild animals to the public, but in doing so, sometimes slip into insipidity, presenting an image of themselves instead as a sappy, new agey moron.

Animal Planet is one of the biggest culprits. Ninety-nine percent of the programming is horribly produced garbage, especially the shows made in the US. I hate being so critical because the intent of these shows is genuine, but the execution is another matter. The opportunity to engage the public in a very real way is wasted. It doesn't have to be a climate change/pollution/habitat loss sobfest either.

Their approach is too heavy-handed, treating the viewer as a student instead of a colleague or friend. Good nature programming requires a light touch from a knowledgeable presenter, one who has the ability to unfold information as in a story, to emphasize discovery and inspire wonder, to ask simple but intelligent questions and showing the audience the answer. It's like slowly unlocking door after door for the participant, the stuff of fiction writing.

Attenborough's "Life" series (which I have been watching for the third (?) time) is the epitome, as is most PBS programming, like Nature and Nova. They instruct, not insult, with a careful hand and an aversion to pseudo-hip MTVism (with the exception of the silly string theory CGI-fest Elegant Universe).

I don't think nature has to be made fun; it is fantastic on its own. But it takes the right stuff to get the point across effectively and appeal to everyone, and that takes finding the right host. In the meantime, I'll be waiting for Animal Planet to step up to the plate.

Don't get me started on the Discovery Channel.

Morning Links

Kids who like science? Ah, to be young and in love with dinos (via Afarensis).

Contrary to popular belief, Catholics really do like sex. Some atheists don't like research though.

Just science for a week? How about all the time?

What kind of reader are you (via Oaksong)? Me? I'm...

What Kind of Reader Are You?
Your Result: Obsessive-Compulsive Bookworm

You're probably in the final stages of a Ph.D. or otherwise finding a way to make your living out of reading. You are one of the literati. Other people's grammatical mistakes make you insane.

Book Snob

Dedicated Reader

Literate Good Citizen

Fad Reader


What Kind of Reader Are You?
Create Your Own Quiz

I'm reminded of what I have to do at the end of this semester and given a couple of great suggestions in the process.

If you have Vox, please sign in and help this girl out. I'm too lazy.

Isolate your own amniotic stem cells, Betty Crocker.

January 22, 2007

Any Ideas?

One week until the semester's start, and as usual, I have a load of stuff to do.

I'm brainstorming articles for the semester. In the next week, I'd like to have a number of them done. If you have any ideas I should consider (remember, I'm writing for a college aged, generally nonscientific audience), please leave a comment.

I have two conferences to attend this semester, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference in San Fran, and in March, the College Media Advisers (CMA) conference in New York City. I'm looking forward to returning to both cities.

I'm also spending today sending out resum├ęs all over the DC area - NIH, Johns Hopkins, Science Service, Smithsonian just to name a few. Hopkins is probably where I will end up. As an employee (sci writer and editor), they pay for your grad school, and JHU is one of the best in the country.

Again, I'd love your suggestions for interesting articles this semester.

January 19, 2007

Dinosaurs and the Mystery of Body Temperature II: The Evolution of Endothermy

There's a fairly significant problem with the evolution of endothermy from ectothermy, a paradox that has no satisfactory conclusion as of yet: How could well-insulated animals with high metabolic rates producing lots of heat from within their bodies evolve from animals with low metabolic rates and poor insulation, expertly absorbing heat from the surrounding environment?

If these characteristics evolved independently what purpose would they serve? An ectotherm has no use for insulation like feathers or hair since heat exchange needs to be rapid with its surroundings, just as it has no use for a heat producing high metabolism without the necessary insulation.

Raymond Cowles' experiment showed that by putting little fur coats on lizards wasn't keeping heat in, it was keeping heat out. The lizards couldn't warm up.

That's the paradox, the catch-22. The ticket out, however, is the exaptation: An adaptation of a structure that becomes useful for one biological purpose that originally evolved for another.

Feathers are are thought to be derived from the long scales of ancient archosaurs. These reptiles could lift their scales and expose their skin directly to the source of heat, or orient them so that they could block heat absorption. Just as the marine iguanas of the Galapagos Islands are able to trap a layer of air within their scales, these reptiles are thought to have done the same, retaining more metabolic heat, leading to a more active life.

Another theory concentrates on our reptilian ancestors from the synapsid lineage. The synapsids were steadily becoming more active (illustrated by changes in bone structure), and those morphological changes could have been accompanied by higher metabolic rates, leading to more heat in the body. The more hair on the body, the better heat retention.

So which came first, the dino or the egg?

It's apparent that endothermy evolved at least twice; once beginning with an exaptational insulator in the case of birds, and once beginning with exaptational skeletal changes and a needed increase in activity for foraging, in the case of mammals.

Largely, however, the jury is still out. (I heard that there is also evidence that pterosaurs might have been endothermic, leading to a third origin of endothermy; please link research if you know of any.)

Its important to realize that there are in-between states of thermoregulation, and the progression from ectothermy to endothermy (and back again, in some cases) took place in baby steps across millennia. Time and again we're shown that organisms tend not to fit our definitions and molds. It's not like flipping a switch.

More on dinos and thermoregulation for part III.

Dinosaurs and the Mystery of Body Temperature I: Endothermy vs. Ectothermy

This is repost from September of '06. I never had the chance to finish the series because of school, so I will be finishing in three parts this week.

Why have the dinosaurs been relegated to little kid stuff? Why can't I find a purple triceratops t-shirt in XL?

Were the dinosaurs warm-blooded or cold?

I want to talk about dinosaurs and body temp for a couple of posts, but I think the best place to start is with a little discussion of why this issue is important and the evolutionary implications of endothermal/ectothermal states.

Ectothermy is the state of commonly referred to as "cold-bloodedness" (an inaccurate term; it's more about precise regulation) which is observed in most reptiles (though not all), most fish (not all) and basically every animal that is not a bird or a mammal (though not all). Ectotherms rely on heat from outside sources to maintain their body temperature. The sun is the main source of this heat energy (infrared), which can be transferred directly through absorbing the sun's rays, or indirectly through convection - movement of heat between objects (including organisms) and the air.

When a lizard suns itself, its blood vessels just below the skin open up, allowing more blood to flow next to the skin and the source of heat (the sun's radiation). The lizard's blood warms and transmits heat to the rest of the body.

Endotherms, on the other hands, are animals that regulate their own heat, like us. We don't need external sources because heat production is built in to our metabolic machinery. In fact, most endotherms spend more time trying to dissipate heat than acquire it. As you might expect, there is a formal range of classifications (lower lethal, lower critical, thermoneutral, upper critical, etc.) that biologists can use to determine the tolerances of certain endotherms.

The most important thing to remember is the necessity of temperature regulation in animals, the "why." Metabolism is all about burning calories, and the processes that burn those calories are driven by chemical reactions. Chemical reactions within the body are finicky; they depend on enzymes to catalyze which only work within a relatively narrow band of temperatures.

Endotherms have an advantage in this respect. A constant high body temperature increases the activity of the central nervous system, and subsequently neurotransmitter and enzymatic activity. Ectotherms do not have this advantage; on cool days/nights, they lose the ability to be as active. Keep in mind that this does not mean that endotherms are better, just different.

So what does this have to do with dinosaurs?

The main problem in assessing the body temperature of dinosaurs is that we have no direct evidence. There are no extant dinos, so scientists have to look to their descendents, birds and reptiles. But, as we covered earlier, temperature regulation is far from uniform in these animals.

There is one other problem: temp regulation is a special problem in the case of such huge animals.

Next time we'll look into the evolution of endothermy and how it might have arisen from the dinosaurs.

Morning Links by the Numbers

50,000 year old herbivore bones are best fresh for DNA amplification.

There are 50,000+ extant vertebrate species on Earth; are any of them sessile?

50,000 copies of An Inconvenient Truth were offered to the National Science Teacher's Association. Find out why they refused them.

The tentacles of Portuguese Man o' War can reach 30 feet in length; long enough to tangle a grad student.

11 lines of truth? You decide.

The number 1 most important medical advance since 1840?

January 16, 2007

Tangled Bank #71: Welcome to 1771!

Welcome to The Voltage Gate and to the 71st edition of the Tangled Bank. In perhaps the true form of storytelling, I have reeled in two random, completely coincidental threads of fate - January 17 & TB #71 to bring you:

Tangled Bank #71 Welcome to 1771!

We'll be using the science of the 18th century as a benchmark of sorts; a touch of history to highlight some of the great submissions I've received for this edition.

The 18th century was a time of new ideas and imprisonment for them, sound ideologies hijacked by tyrannous dictators and perhaps most importantly, the temporal cradle of modern scientific techniques, dubbed the Age of Enlightenment.

I hereby declare the links below Enlightened in the same manner, and hope you enjoy your science with a healthy side of history.

Thanks to the turn towards reductionism and empiricism in the 18th century, the repository of scientific knowledge was expanding at an unprecedented rate. In 1796, English physician Edward Jenner was the first to reveal the key to preventing disease through vaccinations. We're still learning about the intricacies of our genetics and the immune system, though at a molecular level, through newly researched cellular pathways, as Charles from Science and Reason explains. At fight aging!, Reason looks into the genetics of Alzheimers disease.

The world of the very small was generally unknown to the scientists and physicians of 1771, leading to the infection and death of great minds like physicist and astronomer Jean-Jacques D'Ortous De Mairan, who died of pneumonia on February 20th of that year. Mike the Mad Biologist illustrates how far we have come in treating pneumonia with antibiotics.

As the early colonists began to move further into America's wildernesses in the 17th century, there was a marked distaste among many of them for what we would call "the environment" today. Puritan Poet Michael Wigglesworth had this to say:
A waste and howling wilderness,
Where none inhabited
But hellish fiends, and brutish men
That Devils worshiped.
In the Age of the Enlightenment, however, with scientific expansion and deistic ideals taking hold (it could also be argued that the wilderness at this point was more manageable, less dangerous), people's hearts opened a bit more to nature. Philadelphian John Bartram - "the king's botanist" - was said to have the following inscribed on his greenhouse wall:
Slave to no sect, who takes no private road,
But looks through Nature, up to Nature's God!
And so the seeds planted nearly 300 years ago are starting to blossom, especially on the blogosphere: Jen from the Infinite Sphere shares her exploration of Utah with words and pictures. The Scientific Activist ponders the usefulness of art in spreading the word about climate change. Don't tell Oscar Wilde...

The word "dinosaur" was nonexistent in 1771. The first recorded discovery and description of a dinosaur bone comes about 100 years before, though without any correlate, it was not named. In 1763, however, a gentleman named Richard Brookes decided to name the creature for what the piece of bone looked like - Scrotum humanum. The femur was later rightly attributed to Megalosaurus. Nice try, Dick. Diane from Science Made Cool shares similar irritation with pseudoscientific attributions through her experience reading a book on dinosaur behavior somewhat lacking in evidence.

Museums in the 18th century were mostly for researchers and the cultural elite (royalty, etc). As Michael J. Ryan of PALAEOBLOG explains, the British Museum gave those who could afford it a little peek into the efforts and collections of the scientific community in 1759. The British Museum would not open permanently to the public for almost 100 years after, when Huxley had Owen booted from the Zoological and Royal societies of England. We owe much to Huxley's efforts Owen's efforts after his ejection; he gave ordinary people a key to worlds of knowledge previously held captive by the privileged. Bradford Washburn, head of the Boston Museum of Science surely held the same ideals as Huxley Owen; Tim Abbott of Walking the Berkshires gives us the highlights of Washburn's extraordinary life upon learning of the curator's death at 96.

In the 1770's plantations and farms in the New World and Old were beginning to take the shape of modern agriculture, diversifying livestock and cash crops like wheat, tobacco and corn. New inventions like the cotton gin helped farmers conquer some of the problems of the past. In today's world, our agricultural problems are vastly more complex, such as the potential proliferation of Swine Flu as Tara from Aetiology describes, the risks involved with the introduction of non-native bees as crop pollinators, detailed by Jennifer from Invasive Species Weblog, or the misallocation of our crops for fuel, from me.

Plantations are historically connected, at least in the minds of Americans, with slavery, which was still very much accepted in the 18th century. Larry from Riverside Rambles shares another story of oppression and exploitation between Polyergus and Formica ants.

As an idea, Evolution was all but nonexistent in the 18th century; Jean-Baptiste Lamarck had the process right, generally, but his proposed mechanism was entirely wrong. Darwin gave him some props in Origin of Species while discussing vestigial eyes of blind animals, stating that they were "probably due to gradual reduction from disuse, but aided perhaps by natural selection," an idea initially proposed by Lamarck. The eyes have it. GrrlScientist from Living the Scientific Life reviews an accurate study of eye evolution and color, showing our biological prejudice for others of the same eye color, while Phillip from Past Lessons, Future Theories reaches into the distant past to discuss the RNA world hypothesis. Ion Zwitter from Avant News asks the experts: What would the living world's systems resemble if God lost His dice?

LOST POSTS: Mike from 10,000 Birds has a great post making the distinction between an introduced species and a wild species. Martin from Aardvarcheology (formerly of Salto sobrius) highlights the connection between his PhD thesis and one of the 18th century's most famous naturalists: Carolus Linnaeus.

That just about does it for this edition of the Tangled Bank. I hope everyone enjoyed the read. TB will be back in two weeks at Ouroboros, so start sending Chris your submissions.

Shameless plug: For all of you ecology bloggers out there, please check out Oekologie, a new ecology and environmental science blog carnival. We are still looking for hosts and contributors, so let us know if you are interested. Check out the first edition here; the second edition will be hosted at Perceiving Wholes.

The Tangled Bank

Best Sci Blogging of 2006

I don't think Bora sleeps.

He just finished editing The Open Laboratory: The Best Writing on Science Blogs 2006, which was officially launched yesterday. It contains 50 of the best posts (based on submissions and nominations) from the past year compiled into book form.

There is talk of doing this every year, so show your support! Purchase a copy (in PDF or in book form) here.

January 15, 2007

Third Call for Submissions: Tangled Bank #71 and Circus of the Spineless #17

Two carnivals are being hosted here at TVG this month:

The Tangled Bank

January 17th: Tangled Bank #71 will be themed for sure, probably delving into a bit of science history. Deadline is tomorrow.

January 31st: Circus of the Spineless #17. Deadline is January 30th.

Send your submissions to me at thevoltagegate [at] gmail.com or by using the respective Blogcarnival.net forms.

Oekologie Is a Go

Take a few minutes today to check out Oekologie #1, the inargural edition of the 'sphere's only environmental science and ecology blog carnival, up at The Infinite Sphere. There are some great posts on there, perfect for a good read at lunch time.

As Jen says, we're still looking for hosts and contributors, so please let us know: thevoltagegate [at] gmail [dot] com or jpinkley [at] mchsi [dot] com.

Stop by and show a little support for ecology and env sci blogging on the sphere.

January 14, 2007

Happy Belated, Isaac, Me

On January 2, 2007, Isaac Asimov would have been 87 years old. Simultaneously, on the second, I turned 28.

Asimov died of AIDS from a tainted blood transfusion in 1983, a little known fact, even among his fans. It wasn't publicized until his wife, Dr. Janet Jeppson wrote a bit about it in the epilogue of Asimov's memoir It's Been a Good Life, published in 2002. Why wasn't it addressed until then? The following letter explains (following a poorly researched article in Locus magazine):

Dear Locus,

I hope no one will believe that, according to the article in Locus, Isaac Asimov "wanted to reveal he had AIDS but was talked out of it at the time by his second wife, Janet Jeppson." A few years after Isaac's bypass surgery, he had some symptoms that made me read the medical journals---and then I wanted him tested for HIV. The internist and cardiologist said I was wrong. Testing was done only when he was seriously ill and in the hospital for surgery on his by then infected heart valves. The surgery was cancelled, and the doctors told us not to reveal Isaac's HIV. I argued with the doctors privately about this secrecy, but they prevailed, even after Isaac died. The doctors are dead now, and when Prometheus books asked me to write "It's Been a Good Life", Isaac's daughter and I agreed to go public on the HIV.

Janet Asimov

Asimov had many more years ahead of him and an incredible capacity for literary proliferation. The new, fast paced movement of biology in the past decade or so would have been a new challenge for him, and his recorded leanings toward environmentalism through sound science would have surely thrown him into the political arena. A arrogant Asimov facing off against the new agers and the hard right would truly be You Tube-worthy.

But instead, we are left with the task, it seems. It's repeatedly stated that young minds are better applied to new tasks; fresh perspectives, clean slates and flexible cognition.

I don't entirely believe that statement. I see a lot of young minds focusing on one facet of one sub-category of one topic of one field, even when working on their BS (I'm not just talking about science majors, but they are the most extreme in this sense). This is necessary, especially in the biological fields, but it is also incredibly limiting.

Why is it accepted that in order to be creative, one must be good in arts and literature. but terrible in science and math? Why is it laughably okay to be a great scientist or mathematician, but a terrible writer or art aficionado? These are the things we joke about in college: Who's bad at what and why, but that doesn't make it okay.

People have the capacity for engaging both sides of their persona's. We are all imaginative and creative, but possess a system of reason as well. Both sides need to be developed - schooled - if they are to become useful. The successful artist does not wake up one day, pick up the paint brush for the very first time and create a lasting expression of the human experience, just as the shrewd scientist does not waltz into a lab for the first time and craft ingenious experiments to expose the mysteries of the natural universe.

These fields complement each other when one possesses adequate knowledge of both. We lack generalists in a day and age where the information in infinitely available to us all without excuse.

Asimov warned against the overspecialization of science (especially in the short story, Sucker Bait), with good reason; it was the physical manifestation of all that he was not. The man wrote on everything in his life, from the Bible to astrophysics to Shakespeare and beyond. He was the epitomical generalist, and as such, one of the most prolific writers ever to live.

"So what?" or "There are still generalists out there" are fair responses. I'm speaking in general. But I have a feeling that the more versatile your store of information and experience in the mind, the greater the number of connections and correlations can be made, and all stories - fiction and non - are a series of these connections and correlations, touching another's mind for a time and explaining a portion of the world.

Scientists have no excuse for a lack of knowledge of art, writing and literature. Artists and writers have no excuse for a lack of knowledge of contemporary scientific pursuits. Good science is done with touches of artistic, creative elegance, just as good art and writing is done with precision and accuracy, structure and organization.

I feel that Asimov wrote with these notions in mind, and I respect and appreciate him deeply for it. A birthday between us may be a coincidental trifle, but it reminds me of my place and pursuits.

January 12, 2007

The Pittsburgh Zoo's Spring Plans

Recently, Spokesperson Connie George from the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium left a comment explaining a bit about what's happening at the PZPPGA. I thought I would give the info she shared a bit more prominence:

Thanks for the compliments. I love your pictures too! To answer some of your questions, the Pier will be complete by Spring, with more interactive and educational exhibits that have the same look and feel. It will include viewing of sea otters and walruses, and a small amphitheater to view walrus feedings and training sessions. When you exit the pier, you'll roll around under it to go through a 30-foot tunnel under the polar bear pool, so that you can see the bears swimming over your head when they are in the water. Then you'll see sea otters under water when they dive into their kelp forest, and finally another tunnel for underwater viewing of walruses (the only one in the world that we know of). We also plan to add a boat with educational interactives on the outside of the pier that people can walk through and learn a little about conservation while they are having fun.

We should have an octopus soon. Squirt, the octopus we had, recently died from old age. Old age, that is, is roughly four years maximum. We, especially his keeper Jen, loved him, and we miss him very much.

I hope to see you in the spring when the rest of the exhibit opens. Sea otters are really awesome. They have between 600,000 and 1 million hairs per square inch. I wonder who counted all those to figure that out!??

There's lots of other cool facts, but this isnt' a commercial. I just wanted to let you know what's goin on and tell you that I'm glad you like the exhibit.

The plans sound great, but I'm sorry to hear about Squirt. Send my condolences to Jen.

And thanks for taking the time to share, Connie. I will definitely be there in the spring, as should anyone in the Pittsburgh area. I can't say enough in support of this zoo.

January 11, 2007

Feedburner Gone Wild

TVG feed subscribers be patient, please. I just re-tagged all my posts here after switching to the new version of Blogger and for some reason Feedburner is republishing old posts as new ones.


January 10, 2007

Art in Annapolis this Evening

And throughout January.

Heather's opening is tonight at Annapolis City Hall from 5 - 7 pm this evening. Stop by if you're in the area; all are welcome.

January 9, 2007

Science Fiction Down the Tubes

Whenever my brother and I get together, we spend a good portion of our time bitching about the state of modern science fiction. Our father is a huge SF buff; he grew up reading the greats, like Clark, Asimov and Vance. Naturally his sons starting reading the books he had lying around and I still get a kick out them.

I don't like everything that came out of the golden age of sci fi. A lot of it was xenophobic garbage. But I think what I love about that era was most of the authors writing were scientifically trained or scientists themselves. You can almost always count on a well-thought out, clever story.

Generally, it's not so in modern sci fi.

In his lifetime, Asimov noted a decline in scientific literacy among sci fi writers:

Unfortunately, in many cases, people who write science fiction violate the laws of nature, not because they want to make a point, but because they don't know what the laws of nature are.

With the exception of Star Trek, good science-based fiction does not exist anymore, at least, not like it used to. We have fantasy parading as science fiction, dressed up in space suits, pushing faster-than-light drives and toting laser pistols and other futuristic equipment. All you have to know is that it works; authors no longer need to explain how.

It seems to me that is where the real challenge is for the science fiction writer. Creating a situation within the laws of nature (perhaps slightly bent), logistically following through with the idea, and crafting an interesting, believeable story.

I think most modern science fiction is categorized incorrectly. It has very little to do with science, and very much to do with fantasy and its rudiments.

The problem most likely lies in, like Asimov said, most authors’ unfamiliarity with science and the laws of nature. The formula is already there for space opera or post apocalyptica, one only needs to read and regurgitate. Which, by the way, is how fiction works, and should be a natural part of the writer’s process, as it lies beyond his or her hands to block out all influences, but the themes and technology of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings in particular are almost replicated, even by respected authors like Terry Brooks and Timothy Zahn (who seems to write only Star Wars fiction nowadays; it’s easier and probably pays better).

It seems like one of the few science fiction writers monitoring modern science for inspiration is Michael Crichton, especially in his perennial fan fave, Jurassic Park. But Crichton is also a paranoid Bush-hugger and a baseless climate change denier (epitomized by State of Fear). His stories typically have a simplistic singular embodiment of Dr. Faust (like Hammond in JP), we cross the moral boundary (for no other reason than arrogance) and are punished for our greed (because the power goes out on their cages? Give me a break). His ideas are neat, but his philosophy sucks.

Neil Gaiman, author of American Gods and Anansi Boys, as well as creator of the Sandman graphic novel series is another mystery to me. I don’t understand how the guy became popular outside of the comic industry. He is a terrible novel writer: Monotonous, plodding, uninspired and trite—and yet he gets rave reviews for his mediocrity. Gaiman obviously identifies with the Hot Topic folks; his characters are twelve-year-old girls (who wear black) or foul-mouthed outsiders (who wear black) or one-eyed gods (who wear, what else, black). Whereas Crichton, even with all of his hang-ups and inaccuracies should still be topically categorized with science fiction, Gaiman is considered science fiction without any semblance of science incorporated into his work.

I’m calling for a change in categorization, I suppose, if for no other reason than clarifying which stories are actually science based and which are fantasy for my own personal use. I’m tired of endlessly searching the tangle of the bookstore science fiction shelf for something decent to read. There needs to be a distinction for the readers and the writers of true science fiction, especially since the shelves have become needlessly crowded with manga as well.

I imagine that the actual number of science fiction novels (as I have defined them) available is relatively small, but I’d be willing to bet that I’m not the only reader of science fiction who feels the same frustrations.

January 8, 2007

Washington DC: 80 Degrees on January 6

Yes, it's anecdotal, technically, but it sure is strange. My aunt was telling me that the Severn River used to freeze completely over, to the point where she could literally walk miles to different areas. Our waters haven't frozen to that extent in decades now.

The Arbor Day Foundation just released an updated "hardiness map" depicting the creep of warmer climes north. Jen has written a more detailed post about the release worth checking out.

This is the second map of changing temperature averages I've seen in the past couple of days, the first was shown on the evening news on Saturday.

Two other stories caught my eye today, one from the LA Times:

Foreshadowing potential climate chaos to come, global warming on a young Earth caused unexpectedly severe and erratic temperature swings as rising levels of greenhouse gases helped transform the world, a team led by researchers at the University of California at Davis said Thursday.

The transition from a global ice age to global greenhouse 300 million years ago was marked by repeated dips and rises in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and wild swings in temperature, with drastic effects on forests and vegetation, the researchers reported in the journal Science.


Instead of a relatively gradual transition from a cold world to a warm one, as many scientists had believed, Montanez and her colleagues found fever spikes of climate change correlated with fluctuating levels of carbon dioxide, like a seismometer graph of the myriad tremors before and after a major earthquake.

"(Carbon dioxide) goes up and temperature goes up. It drops and temperature drops," Montanez said.

"It suggests," she said, "that the normal behavior in major climate transitions is instability, erratic temperature behavior and carbon dioxide changes."

Take home message: We are observing the same phenomena right now, an instable and irregular climate that is highly unpredictable from week to week. In the past it was due to natural cycling. This time around, it is our fault.

The other story reports recent research that suggests that regional climate change has been the cause of the collapse of empires in the past:

NEW research suggests climate change led to the collapse of the most splendid imperial dynasty in China's history and to the extinction of the Mayan civilisation in Central America more than 1000 years ago.

There has never been a satisfactory explanation for the fall of the Tang emperors, whose era is viewed as a high point of Chinese civilisation, while the disappearance of the Maya world perplexes scholars.

Now a team of scientists has found evidence a shift in monsoons led to drought and famine in the final century of Tang power.


The scientists discovered that titanium sediment and deposits of magnetic minerals in a lake in southeast China indicated that the period was one of intense climate change that left northern China a desolate waste.


According to the scientists, the 8th and 9th centuries saw a worldwide drought in many regions. They conclude that it ruined entire societies.

Chinese chroniclers recorded the decay that set in during the late Tang dynasty, which ended in 907. These correlate with the new scientific evidence.

These civilizations were nowhere near as technologically advanced as we are today, but this time around, the climate change might be global, and I can't think of any contemporary technology that might save us from the effects. People are even more tightly packed by the millions, in highly sensitive regions.

Even with this strange weather, I don't think the sky is falling just yet. These kind of warnings are best heeded, however.