Questions, questions

The inimitable John B. of Blog Meridian answered five questions posed to him on his blog, and I volunteered to do the same. His questions are above the fold, click through to see the answers:

1) Recall your first politically-sentient moment.

2) Tell a little about your research at KU in language even a liberal arts major who took his last formal science course 26 years ago (that would be me) can follow.† I ain’t too proud to be talked down to.

3) Ginger or Mary Ann?

4) Pick an actual or potential political candidate for any office (local, state or national).† Poof!† You’ve been asked to be his/her chief advisor for science policy.† What 3 suggestions not having to do with climate change or energy would you you make, and why?

5) Name 5 people, living or dead, you’d want to drink coffee all night at a Waffle House with, and why (mostly, Why a Waffle House with that person, and not the corner Starbucks, aside from the fact that Starbucks doesn’t stay open all night).

1) My first politically-sentient moment was probably pretty early on. Songs like This Land is Your Land were my lullabies even before I understood what it meant when my dad sang:

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

Let alone the much more political verse that follows:

One bright sunny morning, in the shadow of the steeple,
By the relief office I saw my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Current events and political discussions were always pretty common at our dinner table, so my awareness of issues and debates probably preceded my ability to actually engage the substance ? what experience can an 8 year-old really bring to discussions of global economic policy, or the intricacies of the Iran-Contra affair? For what it’s worth, that affair is one of the earliest memories of a political scandal, but mostly I remember that it was getting broadcast live all day, the details didn’t really stick.

I don’t recall being too worked up about the 1988 Presidential campaign, and have no recollection at all of the 1984 campaign (except for some vague knowledge that there was a female candidate for VP). Between ’88 and ’92, I tested out a range of ideas about politics, ranging from some ill-formed conservative leanings to a brief fling with socialism, finally settling somewhere in between, and continuing to evolve as new ideas and experiences come along.

2) The basic question I’m asking in my research is also the basic question underlying a lot of ecological research: why are animals (and plants, I suppose) where they are, and not where they aren’t? Within that broad discussion of the distributions of species, I’m particularly interested in how the interactions between species ? competition, predation or parasitism ? can restrict the actual set of places a species occurs.

It’s fairly obvious why we don’t find sharks on top of mountains, otters in deserts, or polar bears on tropical islands (except in overly elaborate television shows). Each species has some set of requirements ? details of chemistry, temperature, humidity, access to food and other resources ? that have to be right in order to survive and reproduce. In areas where those details are too far off, that species simply can’t persist. The set of conditions within which a species can survive and reproduce is called the niche (technically the fundamental niche, based on a distinction we’ll get to shortly).

To be precise, a species can exist in places with conditions outside the niche, and the species will not occur in all of the places where conditions are within the fundamental niche. For instance, a very bad habitat can sustain a population if it is right next to very good habitat ? we call the good habitat a “source” and the bad habitat a “sink.” The total population size will be steady only because the good habitat has surplus individuals to make up for the deficit in the “sink.” Just as migration can sustain a population outside its niche, migration can prevent a population from occurring in otherwise good habitat. That’s why there aren’t polar bears in the Antarctic, or gazelles in the Great Plains. The habitat may be right, but without boats or airplanes, they can’t get between patches of good habitat.

Furthermore, gazelles introduced into the prairies would find themselves in competition with deer, pronghorn and other existing herbivores. It’s unlikely that a small population of that new species could sustain itself in an ecosystem already well supplied with consumers already adapted to the details of that habitat. Diseases and parasites to which native species have developed immunities would ravage the new species, and a new set of predators would be able to surprise the new species, doing more harm to it than to the native species. This phenomenon is sometimes called “apparent competition” because the effect is the same as if the native species were outcompeting the invader. These sorts of interactions restrict the fundamental niche, producing a new set of conditions within which the species actually occurs. We call this the “realized niche.”

There are a number of existing techniques for modeling the fundamental niche ?†the potential set of environmental conditions within which a species could survive ?†and for mapping a species’ potential range based on that model. There’s a lot of work on those techniques at KU, and they are of interest for a range of users. Conservation specialists want to know where an endangered species might be found, where it should be re-introduced, or where habitat should be protected for it. These modeling techniques can also provide insight into the dynamics of invasive species like the Asian long-horned beetles that were in the news a few years ago, or West Nile Virus. Researchers can use these to identify areas to survey for new species, and there are some fascinating theoretical studies using these models to study evolutionary processes. We can also use these models to predict the effects of global warming or other sorts of environmental change including deforestation, wetlands restoration or dam construction.

My research focuses on ways of integrating the effects of competition and predation, interactions between species, to develop a model of the realized niche. By doing that, we get better models, and we can also test the effects of these interactions in the wild. Better models have important practical consequences, but being able to address the role of competition and predation in structuring communities also gets us to the heart of contentious issues in ecology.

3) My first reaction echoes crocopuff’s response: “When choosing between Ginger and Mary Ann, there are no winners.” More importantly, that “Every woman wants to be a Ginger, and every man wants a Mary Ann. Therein lies the disconnect. When a nation of Mary Ann seekers finds nothing but wannabe Gingers, well … there’s gonna be trouble.”

It’s been a long time since I watched Gilligan’s Island, so my recollections are a little fuzzy, and it’s entirely possible that I’d react differently to the ladies of the island now. That said, I’d have to go with Mary Ann. Not in the 1950s throwback way that crocoPuffs refers to. To me, Ginger represents someone who thinks that surface appearance matters more than actual actions. She is pretty because she has made that the focus of her existence. Mary Ann is pretty, but she doesn’t need that to be her defining trait.

4) Narrowing any area of policy to three must-haves is tricky, and energy policy is so central to everything that it’s hard to avoid even accidentally impacting it. That said, here are three things off the top of my head.

Wild lands protections: Even setting aside the threats from global warming and drilling/mining on public lands, there are major scientific issues to be addressed here. I’ve long been an advocate of ecosystem based conservation, rather than the system we have now, which focuses on individual species without acknowledging the web of relationships that make a wild place truly wild. Getting this right as a matter of public policy would be tricky for various reasons, but the benefits would be enormous. Most of the species under conservation threats are threatened by habitat degradation and can only be protected in their complete ecological context.

Protecting whole ecosystems will protect species already endangered, and will keep species from becoming endangered to begin with. Crafting a law for that purpose alone would be difficult, and finding a balance between concerns of property-owners and society’s need for wild space might be challenging. I think the benefits would be worth it.

There are already groups in government and outside of it that are working to ensure that land conservation decisions are made wisely and in this broader ecosystem context. I’d lean on my politician to strengthen those groups and to give them the resources they need to make and implement the best decisions.

Strengthen our scientific infrastructure: This is a broad category that definitely would include support for natural history collections, assistance for public libraries and research libraries improvements to Internet access and performance, as well as increased funds for graduate student training.
Natural history museums are libraries of our biological heritage, and training grounds for the people who will continue to discover and describe new species. Museum records are vital for documenting historical distributions of species. Researchers use museum specimens to detect how pesticides or other human activities have affected wild populations over time, and the collections and expert curators are vital for supporting economically important research on agricultural pests and game species. The current fascination with molecular biology is drawing resources away from those collections, and many smaller museum collections are falling into disarray. We’ll regret that before long. The same argument holds for libraries. Those issues, like failing to adequately fund and support grad students, is a matter of eating our seed corn.

Improving Internet access and performance: This too is an infrastructure issue, but of a vastly different scale. Most people don’t know what goes on behind the scenes in a museum, and don’t need the latest journals in a science library. They do need the Internet, and the United States is lagging the world in terms of broadband access and the speeds at which people can access the Internet.

The US is larger and less densely populated than many other industrialized nations, which is complicates the “last mile” problem ? getting high speed networks from the provider to each home. In Japan, services as fast as a gigabit per second are available, compared to a couple megabits per second on most American cable modems.

Municipal wireless networks are a solution growing in popularity. Rather than wiring each home in an area, a small number of wireless hubs can be installed to allow at least some access for every residence. People who want faster access can still buy their own, but making broadband wireless widely and cheaply available is good policy. It improves education, access to various public services, and encourages innovation.

5) I think Woody Guthrie would enjoy Waffle House. A lot has changed since he died, and I think Waffle House would be a good place to discuss what hasn’t changed, and what can be done to change it.

Edward Hopper would enjoy Waffle House also. It has the same static quality that his paintings do, it has the same feeling of a pregnant pause frozen forever. Imagine millions of Nighthawks at the Diner spread across the country, and then drop in their artist-in-residence.

Waffle House is a microcosm of sorts for the sprawling semi-urban nation we’ve become. Thomas Jefferson did as much as anyone to make that possible both through the Louisiana Purchase and through his vision of a rural, self-sufficient nation. The world and this nation have changed a lot since he laid its foundations, and I’d like to hear what he thinks about it. I don’t know that Waffle House is his kind of place, but it’s a great vantage point to survey where we are. We might have to explain modern race relations before he committed a faux pas with the staff.

To help Jefferson, I’d invite Martin Luther King, Jr. He was a passionate advocate for America, and had a powerful vision of what it could be, and what needed to be done to get there. I expect that he’d agree with some of what Woody’s advice, and with some of Jefferson’s ideas, but I think the three of them would get into heated disagreements as well.

I’m torn about the final seat. Part of me wants to give it to Barack Obama, or perhaps John Edwards. Either one would be able to hold their own in the discussion, and both would be smart enough to be silent and listen carefully. I’d bring a tape recorder and send them copies though. Another part of me wants to invite Teddy Roosevelt, but if I did that I’d want to invite John Muir and Walt Whitman and Rachel Carson and Supreme Court Justice William Douglas ? author of A Wilderness Bill of Rights. Besides, Teddy would dominate the conversation.

In the end, I have to go with Ed Abbey. I don’t think Waffle House is quite his place, but Starbucks would be worse. He understood solitude the way Hopper does, and understood the American landscape the way Woody Guthrie and Thomas Jefferson did. His perspective on politics wouldn’t align with anyone else, but there’s nothing like a smart and talented provocateur to get a conversation flowing.

The restriction to Waffle House explains why I didn’t invite Gandhi, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Hobbes, Rousseau, Thoreau, Whitman, Shakespeare or any of my scientific heroes. Too many of them would feel out of place there, or at least insufficiently at ease. Waffle House is too much a part of America for even astute foreign observers like Shakespeare or Tocqueville to really appreciate, and is too much a modern phenomenon to connect with ancient philosophers.

If you’d like to answer 5 of my questions, leave a comment below.


  1. #1 John B.
    April 29, 2007

    Thanks not just for volunteering but for these very generous responses. I learned a great deal.

  2. #2 steve s
    April 29, 2007

    1) Recall your first politically-sentient moment.

    I was in elementary school, and some kid, repeating what he’d no doubt heard a parent say, said re black people “We let em outta slavery, and we can put em right back.”

    2) Tell a little about your research at KU in language even a liberal arts major who took his last formal science course 26 years ago (that would be me) can follow. I ain’t too proud to be talked down to.

    My research at KU is like Intelligent Design research: nonexistent. Never even visited KU.

    3) Ginger or Mary Ann?

    Either, thanks.

    4) Pick an actual or potential political candidate for any office (local, state or national). Poof! You’ve been asked to be his/her chief advisor for science policy. What 3 suggestions not having to do with climate change or energy would you make, and why?

    Statistics. Nobody graduates high school until they can see through basic statistical misunderstandings. People face statistical information all the time and make very bad decisions.

    5) Name 5 people, living or dead, you’d want to drink coffee all night at a Waffle House with, and why (mostly, Why a Waffle House with that person, and not the corner Starbucks, aside from the fact that Starbucks doesn’t stay open all night).

    Silvan Tomkins, William Langewiesche, Christopher Hitchens, David Foster Wallace, and Bruce Schneier. And Starbucks would do just fine. In fact, better.

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