Archive for October, 2007


The CD was invented while I was in high school. Late each night, my local Florida radio station used to showcase one newly remastered CD in its entirety, in a show called “Laser Holography.” A gravelly voice would invite us to ease back into our leather armchairs and surrender to the pure digital sound experience. Steve Miller or Bob Seger would ensue.

So imagine my surprise when I learned today that far from being a passe (and possibly cheesy) method of listening to classic rock, laser holography is totally brand-new. And you use it for watching killer plankton hunt down their prey inside a drop of water.

Researchers from University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins studied two kinds of tiny dinoflagellates from Chesapeake Bay. Don’t be fooled by their size: “dinoflagellate” means “terrible whip,” and once the scientists got the interference pattern from their backscattered collimated laser beam magnified and fed into a high-speed digital camera (creating a holographic image), they sure found out why.

The single-celled organisms flagellated their terrible whips, scooting through the water as they tracked down even smaller single-celled creatures. The holography kept everything in sharp focus “like being at NASCAR with a magical pair of binoculars,” according to lead researcher Robert Belas.

In the picture above, the dinoflagellate Karlodinium sidles up to an unsuspecting herd of plankton and then pounces. It scares the bejeezus out of all but one of them, which is too dead to be scared. The green line shows the stalker’s track; the inset pictures are snapshots of the action. Another species, Pfiesteria, took down its prey on raw speed alone.

Read all about it in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: Digital holographic microscopy reveals prey-induced changes in swimming behavior of predatory dinoflagellates. All told, it’s a considerably more thrilling way to spend an evening than Take the Money and Run.

image: National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.A. and Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission


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A herring gull in Scotland has earned equal parts scorn and adoration for taking on the law: stealing chips from a convenience store. The local news station has a good time with the story, which is now all over YouTube. The report is kind of hokey, but the footage is good and the reporter strays toward the Monty Python-esque about halfway through.

It may be a little too “America’s funniest home videos” for the more serious Scribble readers. But there’s something impressive going on here, too. Here’s a bird that learned to recognize that something completely manmade and unappetizing-looking could be turned into a meal. And it became so convinced of its reasoning, apparently, that it was willing to venture inside a shop. One envisions the gull, after innumerable dumpster dives, finally saying to itself, “You know, there’s got to be a better way of doing this.” Imagine its reaction when it discovered that not only does it work, but that the bags start out FULL…

At any rate, it’ll keep you going until things calm down around Scribble central. Thanks for reading.

***P.S. Geeky title alert: Herring gull = Larus argentatus

Thanks, Allison!

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Brother Blows Up


Update: Owen reads on All Things Considered

That would be blows up in the frothing SoCal grom sense. As in, splashed all over the Washington Post blowing up. As in elbowing aside Garry Trudeau’s ho-hum quotes about his favorite type of pen blowing up.

Admittedly, Trudeau got in a good one about how mighty his Uni-Ball Vision Elite is and what it might be mightier than. But, scant paragraphs later, Owen pops up threatening to do a blog post on Chuck Norris-themed graffiti in Iraq’s Port-a-Potties. The kid is unstoppable.




o_theo.jpgThis week, Sgt. Roy Batty, a.k.a. my brother Owen, fresh off the plane from Germany, toured Washington D.C. and sat down with Garry Trudeau and another uniformed blogger to sign copies of The Sandbox, a new book compiling the blog’s best dispatches from Afganistan and Iraq. Owen has several pieces in it, including one of my favorites about a dog he and his Humvee team nearly adopted. Go read it.

pics: Owen squints at the mean streets of Alameda, Ca. They behave. Later, he takes time out from clearing buildings for a swing with nephew Theo.

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penguin.jpg A momentous and long-awaited e-mail arrived on Friday:

I am in receipt of your TRW, and passport information forms.

The RPSC Medical data base shows that you are physically qualified.

I’m not sure what my TRW is or how anyone came to be in receipt of it. But the rest of the message is all good news. “Physically qualified” is the official way of saying that I’ve been judged a safe bet not to drop dead or nearly dead anytime in the next several months, and that therefore I will be allowed to spend the holidays in Antarctica.

Antarctica! Ah, finally it becomes clear (to anyone I haven’t leaked this to yet) why I’ve been piling it on so thick with the Worst Journey. I’m going to Antarctica as part of Woods Hole’s Polar Discovery team to write about penguins and lava.

All told, the trip is 5 weeks, from just before Thanksgiving to just after Christmas. At least three of those weeks will be spent in tents, 30 or more miles from the nearest electric heater. If all goes well, we’ll have Christmas dinner in a tent on Cape Crozier, the point of rock where Cherry, Wilson, and Bowers waited out that horrible blizzard that ripped the roof off their igloo.

In coming weeks, keep an eye on the website for more details of our expedition. Don’t worry, I’ll remind you.

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Here’s to good old Al Gore for winning (or sharing, to be exact) the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Scribbler admits to having laughed off Gore’s chances just the day before the prize was announced. I mean, he’s done an incredible job of getting this issue onto people’s radar screens, and finally there’s a slight intimation that we, as a planet, may actually start taking some baby steps to reduce the rate at which our emissions are increasing.

But peace? It’s a fair argument that staving off climate change will avert wars over resources (and, let’s face it, over plain dry land). But it’s a stretch to say that talking about doing something about staving off climate change qualifies as work for peace. On the other hand, Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres, and Yitzhak Rabin got their Peace Prize for shaking hands – and then Palestine imploded six years later.

Another angle, perhaps, is that there’s not a whole lot of peace breaking out in the world right now.

Ridiculed as he may be by the right-wingers, Gore deserves some respect. Outside of an unfortunate period of focus-grouping in mid-2000, he has spent his energy promoting a cause he actually thinks is important – a refreshing tactic for a politician. He survived the indignity of losing an election by getting more votes than his opponent, went home to think, and returned with an honest conviction to talk incoveniently.

That’s not grandstanding, it’s not opportunism, and it’s not political maneuvering. It’s leadership. Remember that?

Previously on s.b.s: The Al Gore Union

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frontispiece.jpgAmundsen who? It’s almost inconceivable that the man who breezed up first to the South Pole and left a note pinned to his tent for Scott to find could be so much less famous than the men who inched their way up and then staggered back to die, however heroically, in their tracks.

The last Scott heard from Amundsen before leaving for the Antarctic, in 1910, was that he was making a trip to the Arctic. Then, a marvelously brief telegram reached them in Melbourne:

Madeira. Am going South, AMUNDSEN.

Cherry has the analysis:

The telegram was dramatically important, as will appear when we come to the last act of the tragedy. Captain Roald Amundsen was one of the most notable of living explorers, and was in the prime of life – forty-one, two years younger than Scott. He had been in the Antarctic before Scott, with the Belgica Expedition in 1897-9, and therefore did not consider the South Pole in any sense our property…. When he reached Madeira he sent this telegram, which meant, ‘I shall be at the South Pole before you.’ It also meant, though we did not appreciate it at the time, that we were up against a very big man.

They put the telegram at the back of their minds for the next several months. They were down on the ice, just returned from the Depot Journey that had taken eight of their ponies and seen Scott plunge down a crevasse to the length of his harness. Campbell had sent word from his side-expedition eastward:

‘Every incident of the day,’ Scott wrote, ‘pales before the startling contents of the mail-bag which Atkinson gave me – a letter from Campbell setting out his doings and the finding of Amundsen established in the Bay of Whales.

For an hour or so we were furiously angry, and were possessed with the insane sense that we must go straight to the Bay of Whales and have it out with Amundsen and his men in some undefined fashion or other there and then.

Amundsen had chosen a starting point 60 miles closer to the pole than Scott, and his dogs were able to start nearly two weeks earlier than Scott’s ponies.

From Campbell’s eye-witness report:

The Norwegians are in dangerous winter quarters, for the ice is breaking out rapidly from the Bay of Whales which they believe to be in Borchgrevink’s Bight, and they are camped directly in front of a distinct line of weakness. On the other hand if they get through the winter safely (and they are aware of their danger), they have unlimited dogs, the energy of a nation as northern as ourselves, and experience with snow-travelling that could be beaten by no collection of men in the world.

“The energy of a nation as northern as ourselves”! Here is just a hint of that colonial racism that simmered just below the surface in polite society. Cherry himself, two pages later, casually drops a slur of bewildering dimensions, dressed up as a compliment:

The truth was that Amundsen was an explorer of the markedly intellectual type, rather Jewish than Scandinavian, who had proved his sagacity by discovering solid footing for the winter by pure judgment.

It’s the natural arrogance of a culture that thinks itself at some sort of pinnacle of evolution (sound familiar to anyone?). The French were just as bad, 50 years later. Here’s Mario Marrett, a French explorer who spent a winter with the emperor penguins along with seven men. One was Australian:

An interesting thing that struck me was that he was the only one of us to fix up a photograph of someone dear to him – in his case his wife….

On consideration I came to the conclusion that the simple, direct, and almost naive way in which Dovers pinned his heart on his sleeve had something healthy and vital about it. That sort of thing is probably typical of an unsophisticated pioneering people. Americans, Australians, and Canadians all have something simple and natural in their behavior which makes us people of older civilizations seem sophisticated.

Moving on: In the end, it was indeed Amundsen that reached the pole a month ahead of Scott and in very much better shape, behind a horde of dogs and without man-hauling his sledge a single mile.

I have described what it had cost Scott and his four companions to get to the Pole, and what they had still to suffer in returning until death stopped them. Much of that risk and racking toil had been undertaken that men might learn what the world is like at the spot where the sun does not decline in the heavens, where a man loses his orbit and turns like a joint on a spit, and where his face, however he turns, is always to the North. The moment Scott saw the Norwegian tent he knew that he had nothing to tell that was not already known.

There’s quite a bit more dissection of Amundsen strategy vs. Scott strategy. It’s not all pro-Scott revisionism, but most of it is. There’s the chivvying at Amundsen:

The very ease of the exploit makes it impossible to infer from it that Amundsen’s expedition was more highly endowed in personal qualities than ours.

But the main excuse? Science:

We were primarily a great scientific expedition, with the Pole as our bait for public support, though it was not more important than any other acre of the plateau.

He goes even farther, a bit fancifully, here:

The practical man of the world has plenty of criticism of the way things were done…. He is scandalized because 30 lbs. of geological specimens were deliberately added to the weight of the sledge that was dragging the life out of the men who had to haul it; but he does not realize that it is the friction surfaces of the snow on the runners which mattered and not the dead weight, which in this case was almost negligible. Nor does he know that these same specimens dated a continent and may elucidate the whole history of plant life….

he has no patience with us, and declares that Amundsen was perfectly right in refusing to allow science to use up the forces of his men, or to interfere for a moment with his single business of getting to the Pole and back again.

Here you realize that even though the “practical man” is right – that Amundsen was wiser, more experienced, more practical, more deserving – Cherry (and Scott) had their own degree of perverse rightness, too.

but we were not out for a single business: we were out for everything we could add to the world’s store of knowledge about the Antarctic.

Somehow, it comes off as both preposterous and admirable.

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cycad.jpg I recently wrote a press release about Barry Sinervo’s American Naturalist paper on a three-parted mating strategy in lizards. In two different and very widely separated species, male lizards seem to be born with one of three philosophies: that of the bully, the sneak, or the faithful. Each philosophy seems to be the antidote to one – but only one – of the others. It’s like a game of rock-paper-scissors, and Sinervo, who has been studying this problem for 20 years, thinks it’s a fundamental dynamic that shapes many societies, even our own.

So what headline do you give to such an intriguing story of strategy and power? If you’re Fox News, you call it  Three-way lizard sex war goes back 175 million years.

Sometimes I think the only reason newspapers run science stories is the bizarre headlines they get to think up. The KSJ Tracker has a nice compilation of similar ones concocted for an otherwise extremely cool story about cycads and their complicated, push-pull relationship with their pollinators. Top prize for unabashedness goes to ABC Australia: Plants enjoy hot, smelly sex in the tropics.

Cycads are, to the undiscerning eye, palm trees with monstrous, scaly, torpedo-shaped cones of pollen or seeds. (I say undiscerning because they’re not actually even faintly related to palms.) The species under study in this week’s Science paper is pollinated by tiny, odd insects called thrips that dwell in the cracks between the scales on those great big male and female cones.

Trouble is, thrips are so tiny that a between-scale crevice is plenty of room to live out their lives – leaving them little cause to periodically trek over to a female cone with a bucketful of pollen. So the cycads give the thrips a gentle shove out the door each day by upping their metabolism and raising the temperature in their male cones by as much as 12 degrees.

This volatilizes a turpentine-like resin in the cones that can be toxic at high concentrations. On cue, the pollen-dusted thrips head out and find themselves irresistibly drawn over to the female cones, which are giving off a faint perfume of their own. At the end of the day everything cools off, the male cones give off the fainter scent, and the thrips migrate back over.

This kind of push-pull manipulation of the pollinator is astounding in both its spontaneous complexity and its simplicity (the faint, attractive scent turns out to be just a lower concentration of the toxic turpentine-like chemical). So why does it all get boiled down to hot, smelly sex in the headlines?

But then, headlines are a kind of push-pull strategy themselves. They draw in you good readers to someplace you might not normally go, then push you back out again, moments later, to pollinate the world with new ideas. On second thought, maybe three-way lizard sex wars are good for the human race after all.

***Two notes about thrips: First, they are not beetles, as Science‘s editors unaccountably claim in their table of contents blurb. And second, my favorite thrips editorial fact: You can never have one thrip – only one thrips. They’re kind of the opposite of deer in that way.

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