Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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Image: wemidji (Jacques Marcoux).

Nam et ipsa scientia potestas est (And thus knowledge itself is power)
— Sir Francis Bacon.

Since Tangled Bank has gone the way of the Dodo (Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet, Ivory-Billed Woodpecker — insert the name of your favorite extinct species here) and will probably never be seen again, despite promises to the contrary, there is a huge hole in the science writing blogosphere. A hole that must be filled. So I am proposing to do just that by starting a new science blog carnival, Scientia Pro Publica, which provides a public platform that celebrates the best science writing for the public that has been published recently in the blogosphere, just as Tangled Bank has done for years.

So without further ado, here’s the latest installment of Scientia Pro Publica (Science for the People):


Brain and Behavior

Sarah, at the Smithsonian Blog, sent along two contributions that are appropriate for this section. In the first, she describes a study that made a surprising discovery: playing video games improves your vision. Basically, when people play video action games, they’re changing the brain’s pathway involved in visual processing. These games push the human visual system to the limits and the brain adapts to it — generating positive effects that remain detectable even two years after the training was over.

Sarah’s second contribution seems to be farther afield than one might initially expect for the Smithsonian Blog, until you read a little closer. This contribution discusses the relationship between personal finances and human behavior. According to this report, when it comes to finances, the majority of us are really just amateurs (although, if you do some in-depth reading, you will learn that even those with Nobel Prizes in economics end up “losing” more often than they “win” when investing). But how does losing affect our behavior? According to research studies, when we lose money, the amount by which we feel worse is greater than the amount by which we feel better when we experience gains. This results in something called “loss aversion,” and we act accordingly; avoiding loss is more important to us than acquiring gains, so we avoid risk when making investing decisions. Which is something to think about when your next 401(k) statement arrives in the mail.

Speaking of behavior, one of my two contributions describes how birds have demonstrated their savvy about interpreting human gaze and body language. A newly published paper has found that Eurasian Jackdaws, a member of the crow family, are so socially sophisticated that they are better at interpreting human eye gaze and body language than are dogs or even our closest relatives, chimpanzees.

The author of Pleiotropy writes about the evolution of social behavior in an intriguing society that is so strange that it changes what it means to be human. This culture is so foreign that they alter the ways in which we know ourselves. “I no longer need to invoke aliens coming to Earth to imagine how one culture might find another extraterrestrial,” he writes. “The Pirahã will do.” The Pirahã are natives who live in the Amazon, and because their society is so different from ours, philosophies such as Natural Law and absolute morality vacuous notions, dragged kicking and screaming to the gallows by the light of the diversity of human ways.

Environment

My colleague, Chris Rowan, has written about an interesting peer-reviewed paper that shows that We have saved the ozone layer. In short, a research team ran two scenarios of a climate change model and charted the evolution of stratospheric ozone in each. “The first model was based on the current (low) emissions of ozone-destroying chemicals resulting from the implementation of the Montreal Protocol; in the second, rather poetically named “world avoided” model, CFC emissions increase by 3% a year (“business as usual”) after 1974, when the ozone alarm was first sounded (and was presumably ignored in this parallel universe),” Chris writes, Besides being well-written, this essay includes some very interesting data images that should leave no doubt in your mind as to what the researchers found.

A good friend of mine, Bob O’Hara, recently went to York in the UK to attend a workshop. This workshop looked at distributions of species and how they will be impacted by climate change. “A warming world is already making the seasons longer in Finland and elsewhere, and species will have to respond to this. Of course, this is a large area of research at the moment, thanks (in part) to the perceived sexiness of the subject,” he writes. “[The] first step is to know where species are right now: only then can we work out were they will move to. This requires some form of inventory of biodiversity. Whilst systematic surveys can be done, it is difficult to be exhaustive. But there is also a lot of other data out there, for example from amateur naturalists (records from butterfly chasers and birders, for example). This data will be more extensive, but not collected in as systematic a manner. Hence, we need to think more carefully about the biases created by the way the data are collected.”

One of the most controversial ideas in conservation is that of Biocontrol, writes Christie of Observations of a Nerd. The goal is to control invasive species or damaging pests by introducing predators/diseases/etc which kill them. Some attempts at biocontrol have been hugely successful, while others have been disastrous, like the introduction of Cane Toads in Australia. Interestingly, biologists are now suggesting that the solution to Australia’s cane toad problem might just be more biocontrol. But this time they want to use a native species, Australian Meat Ants (Iridomyrmex purpureus), which are nasty little buggers that kill and eat small animals. The reason that scientists are thinking about these ants as biocontrol agents is because new research shows that the invasive toads are more susceptible to these ants than are the native amphibians.

Another contributor, David, who writes Southern Fried Scientist, discusses the ecological disaster that fish farming causes due to the threat of disease and pollution from overcrowding and antibiotic abuse, the risk of escape and the loss of genetic diversity. However, David does something different by then telling us about one particular fish farm that is doing things right, and he lists the reasons why he thinks this so we can check them out for ourselves.

Life Science

When I was in grad school, one of the grad students in my lab, who later was hired by Princeton University, studied Red Crossbills, Loxia curvirostra, and was one of the scientists whose work suggested that these nomadic birds formed a series of morphotypes that likely were distinct species. Now, a friend of mine who writes A DC Birding Blog provides an update on this work by noting that the Red Crossbill population found in Idaho’s South Hills and Albion Mountains retain the same territories from season to season — unique among this nomadic group and yet more evidence that they are probably separate species. He writes; “Banding studies have shown that the crossbills of the South Hills have far greater site fidelity and are more likely to follow a seasonal breeding pattern than other crossbill forms.”

Charlie, one of the co-authors at 10000 Birds, writes about a research project in Ebbaken-Boje, Nigeria focused on conserving the largest roost of wintering Barn Swallows, Hirundo rustica in Africa, which houses an incredible 4 MILLION birds roosting near Ebbaken village. This is an updated essay discussing Pierfrancesco Micheloni’s research, and it includes a plea for funding for this individual researcher so he can continue his work conserving and protecting this swallow roost while teaching the villagers how to feed their children without killing all the birds to do it.

My second contribution to this carnival shows that female Gouldian finches, Erythrura gouldiae, actually choose the sex of their chicks — based on the plumage color of the father’s head. Not only that, but this elegant study shows that biologists have underestimated the role of female choice in determining the sex of their offspring. These findings have both theoretical implications for helping scientists elucidate the mechanisms of evolution, and important applied (conservation) implications, especially for this endangered species. One of several questions I have is; how did this strange breeding system evolve in the first place?

The author of Mauka to Makai, wrote about successfully making babies in a variety of animal species. “Scoring a mate is only the first step in successful reproduction,” she writes. “The real challenge — and the whole point of mating, biologically-speaking — is successfully passing one’s genes on to the next generation.”

Here is a beautifully written essay from The Primate Diaries about group selection in ants. Group selection is the idea that, under certain circumstances, genes will be selected for because they benefit the overall success of the group rather then just the individual. Further, the authors of the paper being discussed suggest a scenario in which group selection could apply to unrelated group members, which might explain how unicolonial populations of unrelated ants originally arose?

My good friend and former SciBling, Carl Zimmer, updates an earlier report about Bonobos that are being readied for release in the Democratic Republic of Congo are suffering from a mystery illness. In this entry, Carl publishes an email he received from one of the people working at the quarantine facility that provides some insight into what the Bonobos and the people who are caring for them are currently dealing with. “We’ve had some people freak out that this is a virus called H5N1 [a specific type of avian influenza virus] which is fatal to humans, but it’s not. [It's] not ebola or bird flu or any other disease lethal to humans,” writes Vanessa Woods in her cited email. “[W]e think it is human respiratory syncytial virus, again non fatal to humans, but we’re not sure.”

Medicine and Health

The author of Tumors Galore, writes about a new innovation that helps doctors identify cancerous tumors. Basically, if a surgeon cannot determine whether he/she is removing tumor tissue or normal tissue from a patient, portions of the tumor may be left in the body, which could cause additional cancer progression and eventually morbidity. But thanks to a new innovation, “tumor paint,” surgeons are able to visualize cancerous cells more easily and remove them.

Physical and Earth Sciences

My good friend and former SciBling, Sheril Kirshenbaum, co-author of The Intersection, sent an interesting opinion piece about how she thinks that our new administration should concentrate more money on earth science instead of astronomy. “In 2009, we need to balance budgets so that we’re doing a better job to foster the next the generation of scientific leaders who are going to pursue the coming decades’ BIG ideas,” she writes. “And we must additionally put a fair share of support into the projects that will preserve what we’ve got at home on Planet Earth.

Here’s Thomas Joseph’s discussion about two methods of carbon capture on his blog, (It’s a … ) Micro World (… after all) — be sure to read the comments because they are more enlightening than the actual contribution itself, which is too brief, in my opinion.

Scientists and Society

Andrew, who writes Southern Fried Scientist, reflects upon comic book heroes and villains who have PhDs .. and he has trouble naming any heroes, but has no trouble naming the villains; “Dr. Doom, Dr. Octopus, Dr. Sivana, Prof. Moriarty, Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. No, Mr. Freeze (Dr. Victor Fries), and of course, whenever any parody of the superhero/spy genre is produced, the archvillain is always Dr. Something – Dr. Evil, Dr. Horrible. Dr. Mad Scientist, PhD is such a staple of the superhero zeitgeist, that we never even think about it.” Perhaps you can go there and help him name a few heroes with PhDs?

Okay, this ends the first issue of Scientia Pro Publica. I plan to host the next edition of this blog carnival while it gains more publicity and momentum and then I will turn it over to volunteer hosts. There are two or three of you who are interested to host this carnival, but this is not enough! If you are interested in hosting Scientia Pro Publica starting in May, please do send email to me, or leave a comment here and I will contact you shortly about scheduling a date for when you can host. I also would welcome your Scientia Pro Publica logos and artwork for advertising and publicity purposes, and even a 500-pixel wide Scientia Pro Publica banner and other images (perhaps one for each category?) that hosts might wish to use to promote and decorate their editions.

To send submissions to the next issue of Scientia Pro Publica, either use this automated submission form or send it directly to ScientiaBlogCarnival at gmail. Be sure to include the URL or “permalink”, the essay title and a brief summary.

Comments

  1. #1 Bjørn Østman
    April 6, 2009

    I’d like to host an edition.

  2. #2 TomJoe
    April 7, 2009

    Thanks for citing me, and duly noted. Longer article next time!

  3. #3 gg
    April 7, 2009

    I’ll be happy to host an edition!

  4. #4 Sheril R. Kirshenbaum
    April 7, 2009

    Great work grrl! Scientia Pro Publica is off to a terrific start!

  5. #5 Heather
    April 7, 2009

    This is fantastic and we look forward to hosting as well!

  6. #6 WhySharksMatter
    April 7, 2009

    Hi! Thanks for featuring Southern Fried Science, but just for the record, it was Andrew, and not me, who wrote and submitted that post. Great carnival!

  7. #7 Kristjan Wager
    April 9, 2009

    I would like to host an edition. I am looking forward to seeing the great posts this carnival will bring.

  8. #8 Allie Wilkinson
    April 9, 2009

    I’ll host an edition!

  9. #9 Steve
    April 21, 2010

    Great!

    (but if it’s “for the people” why is the title in Latin? That is both elitist and backward looking).

    :-/

  10. #10 "GrrlScientist"
    April 21, 2010

    thanks steve for your brilliant and insightful comment.

  11. #11 Steve
    April 21, 2010

    Well there’s no need for sarcasm.

    It’s a really good idea. I just don’t think it benefits from a pretentious Latin title, that’s all. But perhaps you don’t like opinions.

  12. #12 "GrrlScientist"
    April 21, 2010

    the carnival is devoted to translating scientific research into regular boring old english — not dumbing it down. i happen to have several years of latin instruction under my belt, so it seemed appropriate to name the carnival in latin, since that was originally the language of all those “edumacated” and pretentious elites. of course, since you weren’t around, offering your sage advice when the carnival was named, you’re stuck with the name choice as it exists now: it isn’t as if i didn’t ask for advice. let me point out that it would be pretentious, elitist and backward-looking if the blog carnival was actually written and published in latin.

    and of course you are entitled to your opinion. if you don’t like the name and want to use that as a reason not to read the blog carnival, fine, i won’t stop you.

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