Roll up! Roll up! Lay-deeeez and Genne-men! Step right in! We have here today for your delectation and amazement a veritable cornucopia of comeliness, a festival of fecundity, a very large bucket of sciency bits, in all their wondrous and freakish varieties. We present Scientia Pro Publica Number Twenty-Two!
Like a barnacle’s penis, this edition of Scientia Pro Publica is long and strange and packed with seeds–for thought. There was a veritable plethora of submissions, ranging from flit-stops that sought only to highlight single point of interest to deeply rewarding essays on the nature of knowledge and the conduct of science. To help you navigate this landscape of riches, I have arranged the posts into sections that arose fairly naturally from the content. Please peruse all the way down to the very bottom; there is, I hope, something for everyone. My own personal favourites I have marked with a pair of asterisks**.
You will not believe the bizarre creatures on offer in a magnificent post by Henry Gee that describes some of the planet’s freakiest animals** and celebrates their diversity: “These creatures still have the power to instil a sense of wonderment, reducing us all to slack-jawed six-year-olds.” But this creaturely diversity is not confined to the large animals that roam our planet: the Lab Rat blog begs us to consider the wonders of multi-celled bacteria and the curiouser Volvox, which likes to dance!
But that is by no means all. Kathlyn Stone reports on recent discoveries that the dinosaurs were a more colourful crew that we had supposed, and declares that “the books saying the color of fossil animals is a great unknown will have to be rewritten.” Bec at the RunningPonies blog is also re-writing the book on dinosaurs. She tells us that one of them–Sinornithosaurus–may have been endowed with venomous fangs and in an witty twist imagines the troubled life the venomous dinosaur might have led had it relied too much on its fangs during social intercourse.
Speaking of intercourse, who would have thought you could suffer penis envy next to a barnacle? But as Kelsey at the Mauka to Makai blog writes of the barnacular appendage–in a fabulously funny post** that had me laughing out loud–“It’s really, really long and covered in chemosensory bristles…!” More hilarious still are the descriptions of how the scientists investigated this phenomenal organ. It is not to be missed. But nor is Kevin Zelnio’s more serious but no less fascinating take on Darwin’s eight-year study of the barnacle — a key contribution to the evolution of his theory of evolution.
And the wonderment doesn’t end there. Kelsey returns with the peculiar tale of what a crazy old ant-eats-toad-which-doesn’t-eat-sugar-devouring-beetle world it is in Austrialia. No less strange is Steffi Suhr’s account of a photo, taken at 4000m beneath the sea, of mysterious fairy rings. Her post draws a response from an old colleague, the photographer, who waxes poetic at the memory of the enigmatic rings. Scientists are as varied as the creatures they study.
Far from the sea bed are the city streets, the modern habitat of the much maligned pigeon. But look again, Ladies and Gents, as Jess Porter Abate seeks to sanitise the reputation of the rock dove: they are not the couriers of disease that many people believe them to be.
ATOMS AND MOLECULES
Things can be pretty strange and surprising at the atomic and molecular level too. Tom Tritton at Periodic Tabloid, for example, writes about the possibly pernicious–but still mysterious–effects on disease outcome of just four little atoms, three of hydrogen and one of carbon, that make up a methyl group. The role of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in causing devastating disease is more well known, of course, but continues to bewilder. David Munger describes how the tiny HIV protein molecule Vif prevents the human immune system from disarming the HIV virus.
To see these atomic and molecular actors requires machines and techniques of great ingenuity. In the Wood for the Trees blog, Maria reports on the penetrating power of the latest and greatest nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) machine and on how the community of scientists that use this technology to visualise molecular structure is harnessing the tools of Web2.0 to share their skills and move science forward, faster.
MATHS, PHYSICS AND PINKS
Atoms are at the heart of the realm of physics but the reach of this subject is broad and wide. While Alyssa Gilbert–an astronomer who has recently made a career shift into the the study of earthquakes–was reading the literature to get up to speed on her new field she was delighted to find a surprisingly intimate connection with her stellar interests.
Meanwhile, Kathlyn Stone at Flesh and Stone writes about an Aussie fashion designer who, simultaneously inspired by a Simon Singh documentary on Fermat’s last theorem and taken aback by Lawrence Summers’ archaic views on female science ability, solved the equation by coming up with Maths Jeans for Girls. It’s probably too early to say how successful these will be. Podblack Cat is likely to be pessimistic; news that Dell are selling pink Dell laptop led her to a reflective post on gender stereotyping through toys. Though she recounts the tale of one computer scientist who was inspired by the complex braiding work she did as a child with the tail of her My Little Pony, this seems to be an exception. More commonly, gender stereotypes are reinforced by the images and colours transmitted through playthings to boys and girls.
Toys are also the subject of Edmund Harris’s entry. He takes the humble spirograph, a favourite of my own childhood, whose wheels within wheels can generate the most elaborate patterns (as long as you had a steady hand) and, with a dash of computer wizardry, generates spirograms in glorious 3D**.
3D spirogram from Edmund’s “Maxwell’s Demon blog”:http://maxwelldemon.com/2010/01/14/spirographs-and-the-third-dimension/
THOUGHT FOR FOOD
Back in two dimensions, Luigi from the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog recently viewed the Mosaics of the Seasons that pattern the walls of the 5th century Byzantine church at Petra in Jordan and started to think about what the Natabean people managed to grow in their desert country.
Moving swiftly forward to the present day, but keeping with the agricultural theme, Jeremy from the same blog was impressed by Sendhil Mullainathan’s TED talk on how to overcome traditions to persuade Indians to introduce new and more productive farming techniques. Eric Michael Johnson considers a similar problem of economic incentivization in Haiti. He discusses a recent paper that evaluates the Haitian governments’s options for improving its farmer’s livelihoods and protecting its environment: turns out incentives may be better than taxes.
YESTERDAY AND TODAY
Rewinding into the mists of time gone by, Eric is on hand again to deliver a gruesome, grotesque and grievous story of hairy excretions in a woman’s urine that baffled medics 300 years ago and continues to do so today. Less gruesome but kind of curious is the tale told at, well, KindofCurious, about Jefferson’s use of biology to score diplomatic points agains the French!
History is on Kristi Vogel’s mind too in a lovely post that weaves together the physics and physiology of the skeleton riders–lately seen careering down the mountainside at the Vancouver Winter Olymics– with the artistry of their helmets and the history of locomotion over snow and ice. You may be gratified to learn that “humans can now ski 2.6 times faster for the same fuel costs, as they could in 542 CE.”
On a more sober note, African American PhD student Danielle Lee at Everyday Citizen, casts a sombre eye on the tragic shooting in the Biology Department at the University of Alabama, Huntsville on the morning of February 12th. Having looked forward to a future where she might rub shoulders with other black professors, she notes sadly that, although only 1-3% of American PhDs are awarded to blacks and other minorities and fewer still progress to professorial status, two of the three faculty members shot dead by Dr. Amy Bishop were African Americans like herself, while the third was Indian American.
HUMAN BRAINS AND BEHAVIOUR
It seems unlikely that anyone could have predicted Amy Bishop’s state of mind on that fateful morning. The complexity of the human brain and the mind that it engenders are still in many ways beyond our ken. Nora Volkow takes this as her subject and reflects on developments in brain science in the past 20 years, noting that even the mature adult brain is “far more plastic–changing and malleable–than we originally thought”, while Warren Davies explores some of the difficulties in understanding the complexities of human behaviour through genetics.
Elsewhere, The Autism Crisis blog presents a surprising and fascinating post** on a recent paper that purports to show how treatment with oxytocin can strip autistic individuals of their altruism and make them as hypocritical as the rest of us, while Livia Blackburne considers impact of a recent paper on theories of dyslexia – is the condition due to deficits in auditory or visual processing or both? As so often in science, it is too early to tell.
Stepping more lightly, David Bradley forages deep into Gladwell territory to discuss whether people’s perception of how lucky they feel depends on the month they were born. It’s a nice example of the the difficulties in explaining differences in human psychology as a function of simple parameters like birthdays.
SEEING AND BELIEVING
The brain is the centre of perception and, though capable of many feats (some of the more impressive ones listed at the Nurse Nut blog), it can easily deceive us too.
In what I thought was one of the most interesting submissions to this carnival, Alexandre Couto de Andrade (Science Culture and Knowledge) presents a compulsive and multi-faceted essay on acculturation and the institutionalisation of knowledge** that challenges our perceptions of what we think we know. “The volume of information produced everyday is so overwhelming that even specialists are frequently incapable of knowing what is new in their own fields, let alone what happens in other areas. This generates a bizarre situation in which, in spite of everything that humankind already knows, the vast majority of us remain chained to false beliefs and delusion. Not even the most well informed people are immune to that.” You will need to read the whole post to properly appreciate its richness.
Hard as it is to understand how we think, it can be difficult for us even to have a true grasp of what we see. Brian Clegg wonders about the (un)reliability of eye-witness testimony, while GrrlScientist reveals that even in science some visual observations–in this case ‘sightings’ of the ‘extinct’ Ivory-Billed Woodpecker–may also be highly questionable, grounded more in faith than in fact.
At The Evolving Mind blog, Andrew Bernadin notes there can be a disconnect between what individuals honestly report and what is actually the case but goes on to describe work that seems to show that women’s responses to sexually arousing stimuli are considerably more complex than men’s, which strikes me as being rather accurate. What the views of barnacle’s are on this important matter is, unfortunately, not recorded.
CAREERING IN AND OUT OF SCIENCE
Careers seems to have been on several people’s minds of late. At the Weird Science blog Greg Fish considers the general question of supply and demand in university level education. He argues passionately for “institutions which encourage people to explore and broaden their horizons” but which emphatically do not propagate the irresponsible myth that degree programmes are right for everyone or “will eventually yield a career which can ensure a stable living wage.”
Co-incidentally, these ideas on the economy of education and employment were taken up by several posters on Nature Network last week who collectively provide a clear window onto the difficult real-life issues faced by scientists as they try to get established as independent investigators. Jennifer Rohn focuses on the crazy and sometimes cruel career structure offered to scientists and calls for nothing less than a revolution**. This stimulates a long and thoughtful comment thread which is well worth reading. Bob O’Hara also tackles the economy of science careers and–as a principal investigator–provides an interesting counterpoint to Jennifer’s post.
These threads stimulated further, personal reflections. Ian Brooks, a former postdoc who reluctantly left the lab and now works in science administration writes frankly and movingly about the transition, but also of his delight at re-discovering that his scientific muscles are still working. By contrast, Eva Amsen describes making the positive choice to move away from lab-work having recently and enthusiastically embraced a career in scientific publishing.
A CLIMATE OF OPENNESS
And finally, the recent hue and cry over various ‘scandals’ in climate science has stimulated a lot of nonsense in the blogosphere, but also a deal of absorbing analysis. There seems to be a consensus view that the best remedy to the perceived ills is to strengthen the open nature of scientific work.
At Wood for the Trees, Maria draws some interesting parallels between the reluctance of some climate scientists to publish their raw data with the early years of the Protein Data Bank which, though resisted by some at its inception, is now the repository de rigeur for life scientists who have worked out the structures of biological molecules such as proteins and RNA.
Climate science is a preoccupation at Southern Fried Science where, in a tongue-in-cheek swipe at climate change sceptics, Southern Fried Scientist writes from the perspective of an observer who sees the tide going out and draws a rather drastic conclusion!
More seriously, David Colquhoun is somewhat surprised to find himself writing about climate science, since he is better known as a scourge of quack medicine. But he thinks that the climate science debate “provides a good context to think about trust in science” and does not disappoint. His inspiring and wide-ranging post** knits together several important themes relating to scientific honesty (some of them touching upon issues raised in the posts about scientific careers) and is a rallying call for the value and values of science. It ends with an intelligent and moving video, that everyone should watch, in which Jacob Bronowski defends science as a quintessentially human activity.
If you enjoyed this Carnival, be sure to check out previous additions listed on the Scientia blog. And don’t forget to keep thinking about submitting posts for the next Carnival which will be hosted on 15th March at Pleiotropy.
And GrrlScientist is always on the look out for new hosts. I can tell you that hosting is a bit of work but a great way to expand your blogospheric horizons!
Postscript: Please feel free to comment below to mention your own favourites as a further guide to Carnival readers but make sure to leave a comment on the authors’ sites as well to let them know of the impact of their writing.
Post-Postscript: Let me know asap if you find any broken links!