Scientia Pro Publica 21: Darwin's 201st Birthday Edition

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Image: wemidji (Jacques Marcoux).

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

Welcome to the 21st edition of Scientia Pro Publica, the blog carnival devoted to nurturing and encouraging an online community of blog writers who communicate with the public about science, environment and medicine. Since it was the 201st anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, I think it is important to mention that writing about science for the public has historical precedent: Darwin and other scientists of yore wrote extensively about their ideas for the public. In this blog carnival, you'll find plenty of scientists, doctors and others who are continuing this grand tradition by writing about their work and ideas for you.

I am excitement about the high quality writing in the numerous submissions (54, to be exact) that I received. That said, I was also astonished at how few of these essays had any comments -- most of them had none at all! All of these authors are writing for free. Most of them are writing because there is something special they wish to communicate with the public. So I want to make it a group project where every one of us -- yes, this means YOU, dear readers -- make an effort to leave a comment on at least one of these essays that I've linked here. Let the author know if their writing resonated with you; what did they do well? What could they have explained better? You, as members of the public, are both audience and teachers -- let's make sure that we provide these writers with some encouragement and feedback!

Climate and Earth Science:

This interesting blog essay, published at The Way Things Break, explores the complex relationship between global climate change and hurricane strength -- and finds a positive relationship between global warming and fewer but stronger hurricanes.

An essay by Denis Dubay explains the energetics for how the greenhouse effect and global warming can cause more snow and severe storms -- global weirding!

Anne Jefferson, co-author of Highly Allochthonous, is working to preserve the Strathcona Fiord from coal mining by Westar Resources, Inc., which is also seeking permission to mine the Fosheim and Bache Pennisulas. Mining the coal will permanently destroy the embedded fossils and the possibilities for any additional discoveries at these sites. Discoveries include a variety of important fossils as well as ancient climate change data. In addition to her appeal for your help in a letter-writing campaign, Anne includes some lovely photographs in this essay, too.

Evolution, Ecology and Natural History: working up from the tiniest of the tiny to bigger things

Bob O'Hara writes about how psychologists Jerry Fodor & Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini are "in way over their heads" by writing an entire book that puts an exclamation point on their ignorance of evolution and how scientists explain selection. Noting that in an earlier article, Fodor complained that scientists didn't have the language to describe selection, Bob counters by pointing out that, duh, yes we do: it's called mathematics.

Austin is a self-described grouchy middle-aged bloke. In this essay, he writes an interesting history of Charles Darwin's influence upon the Physiological Society, from the 1870s to the present. He also includes a furor that occurred at his own university some faculty wanted all degrees in biological and biomedical sciences to be "explicitly themed round evolution and natural selection." Even more horrifying, "they also argued that overall teaching time devoted to different phyla should be in direct proportion to the 'amount' of the natural world that different phyla represented." Go bacteria!

Speaking of microscopic creatures, LabRat writes about how some cyanobacteria have the ability to change their color depending on the spectrum of light available in their environment.

My friends at Deep Sea News, also are writing about microscopic creatures, but they write about methods for Sampling the Inverted Benthos -- those microscopic herds of herbivores that swim upside-down beneath Antarctic ice to graze on microalgae and diatoms. These microscopic algae and the zooplankton that feed upon them support the entire web of life in Antarctica, including dramatic and iconic megafauna like Leopard Seals and Emperor Penguins.


Mike Bok writes an analysis of a truly ambitious effort to unravel the deep evolutionary history of arthropods and to resolve long-standing disputes within Arthropod phylogenetics. Of course, like most research, it raises more questions than it answers ...

Becoming a parasite means that, one way or another, you've thrown in your lot with your host. Their food may become your food, their droppings (or flesh) the medium that moves your young to a new home, their habits a template for you to exploit. Diane Kelley, author of Science Made Cool, writes about an interesting paper that shows that sometimes dangers to a host species become generalized to its parasites, too. This analysis describes convergent evolution in a species of parasitoid fly whose larvae feed on crickets. Both insect species are eaten by bats. This study finds that this fly species, linked to a cricket species by parasitism, uses the same strategy to escape predation by bats.

What do goats, beach balls and butterflies have in common? This essay, Why is that butterfly blue? written by scientist Ian Hopkinson will explain. (submitted by Bob O'Hara)


Kind of Curious, who hosted the previous edition of Scientia, writes about the seven ways that terrapins -- turtles -- evolved (although, to me, they look like mini cow pats with legs).

Dinosaurs and Birds:

Originally, it was thought that we would never know the true colors of dinosaurs, but new technologies show that assumption is in error. I write about new research where scanning electron microscopy now reveals that the 155-million-year-old paravian theropod, Anchiornis huxleyi, which resembles a large woodpecker, actually sported flashy black-white-and-red coloration. This piece, which includes a video interview with two of the paper's authors, was recognized with the Editor's Choice award at Research Blogging.

My friend and colleague, Bora ("Coturnix"), writes very engagingly about the interesting study he co-authored that was designed to decipher the relationship between two circadian clocks and their control over egg-laying in wild Eastern Bluebirds, Sialia sialis.

"Migration -- especially very long-distance migration, such as that performed by some shorebirds, which can migrate from the southern tip of Africa all the way to the Arctic -- is incredibly demanding," writes the author of Galley Proofs. "It takes a long time, requires enormous amounts of energy, and is pretty dangerous. For a behavior like that to be maintained in a population, it must provide significant benefits." This essay lists the three main hypothesis about what those benefits might be and analyzes new research designed to identify which hypothesis is true for migratory birds.

Speaking of migration, new research finds that hunting pressure from Peregrine Falcons, Falco peregrinus, is changing the behavior and physiology of Pacific Dunlin, Calidris alpina pacifica, a migratory shorebird. In this case, shorebirds increase their fat reserves to help them survive lean winter months, but as they get fatter, they fly more slowly, with the fattest birds ending up as lunch for hungry Peregrine Falcons, a species that is rebounding from near-extinction. According to this analysis written by my friend, Dendroica, Dunlin are now leaner than they were just 20 years ago. This study is a beautiful example of how conservation actions to benefit one species can have unintended results elsewhere in the ecosystem.


Here's the most recent issue of The Drey Report from my old stomping grounds in NYC. What? You don't know what is a drey? Let the author of the new blog, Out Walking the Dog, explain in this amusing report.

In some bovines (a family that includes cattle, antelopes, wildebeest, muskoxen, and sheep), females bear horns specialized for stabbing predators; in other species, females are hornless. In a 2009 paper, Stankowich and Caro analyze 117 bovid species, and conclude that if you're a large female bovid in an open habitat, horns are a good investment as an antipredator strategy. If you're small and can hide in a forest habitat, and don't defend a territory against other females of your species, then you can dispense with horns. Kristi Vogel, author of The Gulf Stream, also taught me about a pagan god I'd never before heard of: Cernunnos.

I write a skeptical analysis of a recent publication that claims to have found the "speed gene" in racehorses. The research is interesting, but I think the author overinterprets the usefulness of her data, especially because she has co-founded a new company that sells a molecular test to identify this gene for a mere â¬1000 ($1400).

Neurobiology, Psychology and Behavior:

Studying animals in their wild state can provide us with interesting insights into their behavior -- behaviors that we don't see in captive animals, as reported by Jared, author of Mors Dei. This is one submission that I accepted that (I think) should have been longer .. a more extensive report of the study and the author's thoughts about it would have made for some interesting reading.

"Success comes from experience, and experience comes from failure," observes Bjørn, author of the blog, Pleiotropy. In this short essay, he links to and briefly comments on a Wired article that discusses the neuroscience of screwing up.

Livia writes a short-but-sweet report on an experiment that tested the effect of including a colored brain picture in a scientific research article. In this experiment, participants read papers either with bogus claims or realistic research, and each article was either accompanied by a bar graph or a brain image. The participants were then asked to rate the article's believability -- so, before you click the link, answer this question; which reports do you think were more believable?

This is a thoughtful analysis where the blog author, Doris Non-woo, asks a chicken-and-egg question about meth addiction. Interestingly, her blog has a colorful brain picture as its icon, and her essay includes several brain pictures .. let me know if these pictures affects your perception of her piece's believability.

Here's another nature-nurture conundrum: the relationship between genetics and environment in brain development. More specifically, which came first, dyslexia or faulty brain wiring? Scientists studied Norwegian students to learn whether the dyslexic brain is tackling reading differently from the very beginning or if these brain differences arise after some reading experience, perhaps reflecting compensatory strategies that the children may have developed.

Learning a new skill elicits changes in the brain at many different levels, over different time scales and in different areas. The primary motor cortex, an area highly involved in the control of our movements, is especially important for motor skill learning. Interestingly, a recent study shows that synaptogenesis occurs much earlier during skill training than previously thought, says Jean-Jacques Orban de Xivry, author of the blog with the same name. This research has interesting implications for the proper training of parrots, housecats and indeed, even husbands.

Observation changes even the smallest of observed particles. Can it change moments and memories, too? This beautifully written piece, Prosthetic Memory: A Camera That Gives Back Lost Moments, by Meera Lee Sethi, rounds up a series of psychological studies conducted with a tiny wearable camera called the SenseCam. This blog essay was published on the Inkling magazine site, which is devoted to writing about science for women.

Ryan, author of Evidence-based Public Health, writes about a new study in a group of African-American students that shows abstinence-only is as effective as sex-education in postponing loss of virginity. He says that this study should encourage further research on randomized trials of behavioral sex interventions, especially in more diverse populations, and with clearer, more objective follow-up measures.

The DSM-V promises to rank and classify all autistic people according to presumed autism "severity." But Michelle Dawson, author of The Autism Crisis, cautions us by pointing out that autism "severity," and "severe" autism, may not be what you think.


A new study apparently links low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin to SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome). The author, Andrew Bernardin who writes The Evolving Mind, is appropriately skeptical, pointing out that serotonin "is all the rage lately, being implicated in depression, social phobia, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, irritable bowel syndrome, and poor fashion sense," although he points out that even if this hypothesis proves to be a dead-end, at least it has been investigated and ruled out as a potential cause of this mysterious syndrome.

Michael Kennedy writes about the paradox of medical testing: basically, he cautions us that we shouldn't be blinded by the idea that testing is always a good idea in every circumstance and for every age group. Doctors need to carefully consider each disease, test, and the individual's unique family history before ordering specific medical diagnostic tests.

Stephen Curry writes about the first ever publicity stunt he has ever attended: the 1023 overdose event, initiated by the Merseyside Skeptics, that was held in cities around the UK and the rest of the world. This was an anti-homeopathic publicity stunt where skeptics and at least one scientist take an overdose of homeopathic 'remedies'. Stephen opts to overdose on arsenic, and he then writes about it for our own secret pleasure.

Science and Society:

Scientific research and the law is not something that most of us think about, but it is important to be aware of how the law can affect our research. Adam Doerr, who contributes to the Genomics Law Report blog, wrote a piece about litigation that affects the fate of more than 5 million blood samples collected from newborn babies in Texas during the past seven years. This piece is rather detailed reading for those who are not familiar with legal writing, but I think all of us will come away with a basic understanding of this court ruling and how it affects research.

Last but not least, here is a poem written by my friend, Digital Cuttlefish (author of the blog with the same name), celebrating Charles Darwin's 201st birthday.

This ends the 21st edition, of Scientia Pro Publica (Science for the People). It is already tomorrow morning in Europe, and I am exhausted, so I will crawl into bed and get some sleep before I root around in email to tell you who I promised can next host of Scientia to (or, if you are out there reading this, you can tell me!). I am sure this is filled with typographical errors, so I plan to fix them as soon as I can see again.

I apologize to all those whose submissions did not make it into this edition of Scientia Pro Publica. Several pieces were not accepted because they were published longer ago than 60 days, they were not essays, or they were slightly off the target of what Scientia seeks to do. Due to the sheer volume of writing submitted, all submissions received on or after 14 February have been held in reserve for the next edition's host.


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Well, it was a pretty short paper without a whole lot to discuss, I perhaps could have included some of the discussion regarding the potential complex interplay between Hamilton's Rule and predation. I appreciate the feedback.

"they also argued that overall teaching time devoted to different phyla should be in direct proportion to the 'amount' of the natural world that different phyla represented."

Oh wow...I'd like to be on that course! Bacteria, bacteria, bacteria, algae, and the occasional lost-looking nematode :)

It's Not Darwin's or Wallace's Theory.

Yes Darwin, as well as Wallace, wrote about their work for public consumption.They also publicly admitted that they were beaten to the idea of natural selection by William Charles Wells and Patrick Matthew(Search Google for "Wainwrightscience" for more details).Strange how this simple fact has been overlooked by Darwinophiles and lazy historians!

Prof. Milton Wainwright,UK

By Prof Milton Wa… (not verified) on 16 Feb 2010 #permalink

Thanks so much for including my article in Scientia Pro Publica 21. I'd like to add your widget to my site, but can't seem to figure out how to do so. I've added it as a jpg and linked back to this page through text. It works just fine. But advice wd be welcome on the widget situation. Cheers, and thanks again!

Thanks much for the appeal for comments on the blogs featured in Scientia Pro Publica! It garnered one at This View of Earth, yay! More welcome of course. All are welcome.

jared: not a problem!

labrat: i was wondering about the overlooked beetles ..

Prof Milton Wainwright: are you trying to diss me? if so, reread what i wrote before painting (incorrectly) with a broad brush.

Melissa: do you have the code for the widget? i can email it to you (comments will not allow me to post it here, unfortunately)

denis: YAY! excellent.

Great roundup. One problem (so far). The link to Austin's piece on Darwin and the Physiological Society failed to work for me. I just got the Nature Network front page.