Life Sciences

The most memorable remaining landmark from Montreal’s fabulous Expo 67 is the giant geodesic dome designed by architect, engineer and futurist Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) for the U.S. pavilion. The magnificent 62 meter high dome now houses an environmental museum known as the “Biosphere.” Fuller, who dreamed of energy efficient homes, recycling and global sustainability long before these ideas became fashionable, would be pleased. But the famous inventor, writer and designer surely never dreamed that his name would be immortalized in numerous chemistry journals, lectures and textbooks. “…
[This past fall, I taught a course at Emerson College called "Plagues and Pandemics." I'll be periodically posting the contents of my lectures and my experiences as a first time college instructor] Most of this post was written back in September, when it still seemed possible that I would be able to teach the class, write the blog and do science. Please forgive any anachronisms that I failed to purge. Last time, I talked about what science is and why it's awesome. This is the first half of lecture 2, which was originally given on 11 September, 2012. Lecture 2a (reading: Zimmer - The Tangled…
Another list for your reading, gift-giving and collection development pleasure. Every year for the last bunch of years I’ve been linking to and posting about all the “year’s best sciencey books” lists that appear in various media outlets and shining a bit of light on the best of the year. All the previous 2012 lists are here. This post includes the following: Audubon Magazine’s 2012 List of Notable Books. In the Field, Among the Feathered: A History of Birders and Their Guides by Thomas R. Dunlap Bird Sense: What It's Like to Be a Bird by Tim Birkhead How to Be a Better Birder by Derek…
The Jewel Hunter by Chris Goodie is the story, generally chronological, of one man's quest to observe, in nature, every known species of a rare and typically elusive bird: the Pittas. Oh, and all in one year. For a birder, this is the rough equivalent of buying some impossible to pay for sports car as a symptom of midlife crisis. It required being bitten by leeches and scared by snakes. The Pittidae is a family of songbirds distributed in the Old World, mainly in Asia and Australia, but with a few species in Africa. They tend to live in rain forests or at least, denser woodlands and…
Another list for your reading, gift-giving and collection development pleasure. Every year for the last bunch of years I’ve been linking to and posting about all the “year’s best sciencey books” lists that appear in various media outlets and shining a bit of light on the best of the year. All the previous 2012 lists are here. This post includes the following: Library Journal Consumer Health, Memoir, Science & Technology. No Time To Lose: A Life in Pursuit of Deadly Viruses by Piot, Peter Hallucinations by Sacks, Oliver The Undead: Organ Harvesting, The Ice-Water Test, Beating-Heart…
A friend of mine told me this story: As a special forces soldier, a Green Beret, he was alone and traveling through a dense area of jungle in or near Viet Nam during the 1960s. Enemy soldiers were nearby and he intended to pass through their patrol area to arrive at some safe destination, but he fully expected to run into a trip wire, a sentry, or a squadron of hostiles. His rifle was loaded and ready to fire at any moment. Suddenly, a figure loomed in front of him. Without waiting for even a fraction of a second, he fired on it with lethal effect. The figure fell to the floor of the jungle…
This is another addition to my αEP series about evolutionary psychology. Here's the first, and unfortunately there are several more to come. I have a real problem with evolutionary psychology, and it goes right to the root of the discipline: it's built on a flawed foundation. It relies on a naïve and simplistic understanding of how evolution works (a basic misconception that reminds me of another now-dead discipline, which I'll write about later) — it appeals to many people, though, because that misconception aligns nicely with the cartoon version of evolution in most people's heads, and it…
I usually allow my honorary older brother, John Michael Greer to debunk the idea of the apocalypse, Mayan and otherwise.  He's even written a (very funny and, as usual, brilliant) book about it, and he's the master of historical examples in which everyone was pretty sure the world was going to end and it didn't.  While I tend to think that we are closer to a collapse (a word I use in its technical sense, meaning big step down in complexity and function) than most people admit, I am very far from thinking that this will be the end of the world, a term that I think is largely meaningless unless…
Nature is a potential source of guidance for our behavior, morals, ethics, and other more mundane decisions such as how to build an airplane and what to eat for breakfast. When it comes to airplanes, you'd better be a servant to the rules of nature or the airplane will go splat. When it comes to breakfast, it has been shown that knowing about our evolutionary history can at times be a more efficacious guide to good nutrition than the research employed by the FDA, but you can live without this approach. Nature works when it comes to behavior too, but there are consequences. You probably…
The Fossil Chronicles: How Two Controversial Discoveries Changed Our View of Human Evolution is by a scientist Dean Falk, who has contributed significantly to the study of evolution of the human brain, and who has been directly involved in some of the more interesting controversies in human evolution. Back when I was a graduate student I was assigned by my advisor a set of literature to absorb and comment on. The mix of published and soon to be published papers included a series of papers written by Ralph Holloway and Dean Falk. These represented a fight over the interpretation of early…
On March 11th, 2011, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant complex suffered damage from an earthquake and ensuing tsunami that caused multiple nuclear reactor core meltdowns and melt-throughs, explosions, and major releases of radioactive material into the air and the sea. In addition to the reactor meltdowns and melt-throughs spent fuel storage tanks were also damaged and probably contributed to the release. It took about a year for the plant to reach a condition that was stable enough that we stopped checking it every day to see if new bad things were happening. Heroic efforts were…
I have lived among Cannibals, according to a lot of people who claim to know. The number of times that the "tribal" people of the Congo have been called cannibals is too great to be counted, most notably in great literature like The Heart of Darkness but most commonly, I suspect, from the pulpit or soap box by those raising money to spread this or that word. Most Europeans and Americans don't know it, but many people who live in the Congo are quite convinced that the bazunga ... the white foreigners ... are cannibals. I've listened closely to these assertions, made by many individuals, and…
New research rethinks the possible prevalence of life in the Universe, suggesting that our asteroid belt—as disrupted by the gravitational influence of Jupiter—played a key role in seeding the Earth with water and organic compounds. Unable to coalesce, and situated around the solar system's "snow line," the belt provides millions of little ice trays which come smashing into the Earth on occasion. On Starts With a Bang, Ethan Siegel says "getting struck by asteroids can introduce new organics and materials into the ecosystem, and can knock off the apex animals of the time, paving the way for…
"The important point is that since the origin of life belongs in the category of at least once phenomena, time is on its side. However improbable we regard this event, or any of the steps which it involves, given enough time it will almost certainly happen at-least-once. And for life as we know it, with its capacity for growth and reproduction, once may be enough." -George Wald That there's an amazing story of life's evolution on Earth is a scientific certainty. The evidence is encoded in the nucleic acid sequences of every living organism ever discovered, and the history of life on this…
I approve this plan. A number of researchers have gotten together and worked out a grand strategy for sequencing the genomes of a collection of cephalopods. This involves surveying the phylogeny of cephalopods and trying to pick species to sample that adequately cover the diversity of the group, while also selecting model species that have found utility in a number of research areas — two criteria that are often in conflict with one another. Fortunately, the authors seemed to have found a set that satisfies both (although it would have been nice to see the Spirulida and Vampyromorpha make…
Allen's Rule. One of those things you learn in graduate school along with Bergmann's Rule and Cope's Rule. It is all about body size. Cope's Rule ... which is a rule of thumb and not an absolute ... says that over time the species in a given lineage tend to be larger and larger. Bergmann's Rule says that mammals get larger in colder environments. Allen's Rule has mammals getting rounder in colder climates, by decreasing length of appendages such as limbs, tails and ears. All three rules seem to be exemplified in human evolution. Modern humans tend to be larger and rounder in cooler…
You might be familiar with tissue regeneration in amphibians and reptiles where limbs can be fully regenerated following an injury. Until now, tissue regeneration following a wound was thought to be limited in mammals (ex: deer shed and regrow their antlers annually; some mice can regrow the tips of their fingers). Researchers discovered that African spiny mice are able to regrow skin, complete with hair follicles, after an injury. We are not talking about simple wound healing, but actual skin regeneration without scarring. Researchers suspect this unique ability may have evolved to help them…
Adult male lesula monkey discovered in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Image: M. Emetshu. PLOS One, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0044271.g007.   Dr. John Hart, Scientific Director of the Lukuru Wildlife Research Foundation in Kinshasa, discovered the colorful lesula monkey while sifting through photos brought back from a 2007 field expedition to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Shown in the photo was a little girl named Georgette feeding one. The monkeys have blond manes and upper chests with a bright red patch on their lower backs. After extensive genetic analyses and anatomical studies,…
If I told you that evolution was in crisis, what would you think I meant? You would probably think I meant that the theory was on its way out. You would think that new discoveries had shown the untenability of evolution, and that biologists were in despair over their lack of a central organizing principle. You would think that maybe those creationists and ID folks weren't as crazy as you had been told. If you're an old hand at this you might even recall Michael Denton's 1986 book Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, which proved so inspirational to ID folks in the years before Philip Johnson…
In Minnesota’s Lakes Country, what we sometimes call “Up North,” the people have various degrees of knowledge of the land and its wildlife. Cabin people and campers visit briefly and may learn in detail the workings of a particular lake or patch of forest, but are usually poorly informed of the true nature of the landscape. People with “lake homes” (seasonally used cabins on steroids owned by people who live elsewhere) may spend more time in Lakes Country but actually know less about it than campers might because having central heating and air conditioning, a paved driveway, and big-ass SUV…