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Archive for the ‘reflection’ Category

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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frontispiece.jpgI really didn’t plan it this way, but it turns out that while complaining about outdoor magazines I’ve also been reading perhaps the great book about a group of men going somewhere and either nearly dying or actually dying. It’s The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who was the youngest officer on Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s disastrous trip to Antarctica from 1910 to 1913.

By “worst journey,” Cherry doesn’t even mean the journey to the pole on which Scott and four others died. That journey was in the summer. The previous winter, Cherry and two others had made a 130-mile round trip journey in total darkness to study emperor penguins incubating their eggs. They did it wearing dogskin mittens and dragging 275 pounds apiece on sleds. Their sleeping bags (reindeer hide) weighed 12 pounds when they were dry, which was never.

They drank hot water cooked over seal blubber before bed so their feet could thaw their sleeping bags enough to get into them. They welcomed the occasional blizzards, because they were warm: minus 25 F instead of minus 70. They made around two miles per day.

Anyway, knowing that you Scribble readers are industrious sorts, you may not have time to digest the entire 600 pages. But if your work week is getting you down, perhaps reading the occasional Cherry-picked passage will help you survive until Thursday. Here’s something that seems appropriate for the illustration.

I wish I could take you on to the great Ice Barrier some calm evening when the sun is just dipping in the middle of the night and show you the autumn tints on Ross Island. A last look round before turning in, a good day’s march behind, enough fine fat pemmican inside you to make you happy, the homely smell of tobacco from the tent, a pleasant sense of soft fur and the deep sleep to come. And all the softest colours God has made are in the snow…. How peaceful and dignified it all is.

Or, there’s this from a night at minus 70:

There was one halt when we just lay on our backs and gazed up into the sky, where, so the others said, there was blazing the most wonderful aurora they had ever seen…. most of the sky was covered with swinging, swaying curtains which met in a great whirl overhead: lemon yellow, green and orange…. I did not see it, being so near-sighted and unable to wear spectacles owing to the cold.

Read along here.

Illustration: Edward Wilson, expedition head scientist and leader of the Winter Journey. Eight months later, he died in Scott’s tent on his way back from the pole.

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July’s Outside magazine featured a story of survival. That was it: a guy trying to survive. Thayer Walker, the author, dropped himself off on an uninhabited Panamanian island and allowed himself to starve for three weeks. At the end, he picked up the phone, called a nearby resort, and a boat came to pick him up.

In the meantime, he ate termites, limpets, coconuts, and some sugarcane that someone had planted and then abandoned. He snorkeled around the island’s reefs for an hour or so a day. He tried to weave baskets. He failed to make a fire.

In the end, he learned that he really didn’t like pina coladas much anymore. Too coconutty.

backlit-lizard-on-leaf_n.jpgWhile I admire Walker’s ability to gut it out for so long, I don’t understand why he did it or why Outside decided to tell us about it. We used to read about life-or-death struggles endured on quests with at least partially noble motives. Into Thin Air, about the 1995 Everest disaster, springs to mind. Or a better example, Farley Mowatt’s Canadian summers watching wolves and getting by on voles.

But those kinds of stories upped the ante, and now poor travel writers have to think of ever-more obscure ways of nearly dying in order to catch our attention. Last year, a BASE jumper had to jump from a bridge into a canyon continuously for 24 hours, puffing back up the hill every time, to get our attention.

Told well, and when real drama is involved, it’s gripping. But has anyone noticed that the person is occupying more and more of the frame these days? The outdoors is getting squeezed into smaller and smaller nooks – and I don’t know about you, but the outdoors is why I go out into the outdoors.

Walker went to a 5-day survival school before his trip. He was bent on learning to make fire with a bow and stick, and succeeded once or twice, although his teacher’s words were prophetic: “Fire is always most difficult when it’s most important.” But did he do any other preparation? Did he learn what the common plants and animals were likely to be? Which plants might be edible? What might be fruiting? Whether to eat termite larvae or termite adults?

There’s almost no jungle in Walker’s story beyond the word “jungle.” Didn’t he see anything interesting while he was looking for food or tinder? No snakes, no cool bugs, weird flowers? At least on the first well-fed days, didn’t he marvel at anything around him? There’s none of this kind of detail – just steely lines about eating limpets and throwing up.

Maybe this isn’t Walker’s fault – maybe he discarded page after soulful page because his editors wanted this instead. But for us it amounts to the same thing: an article about a person. Somewhere. Trying to nearly die.

oropendola-nests_n.jpgOutdoor magazines seem to have decided that the 20-something upwardly mobile male is the only person worth publishing for. They’re turning into Maxim, just with more granite: hence recent Outside articles on a Playboy bunny at Everest base camp and “How to Shag on a Portaledge” (Cheesy first line: “So you’ve just climbed a 5.12 with a 10.0 and you’re all sweaty and hot”).

A recent National Geographic Adventure ran a story on road-tripping through Baja California. The captions – which outweighed the rest of the text – told us what each person was wearing and how much it cost. At this point, the Patagonia catalog is doing a better job of being an outdoor magazine.

Back in the day, Tim Cahill did some actual research for his Outside stories. He looked up historical accounts of anacondas and their fearsome size before going out to look for them. And then when he did rustle one up, he admitted it was a lot smaller than it was cracked up to be. David Quammen used to fill us in on actual things happening outdoors, like asteroidal craters in Kamchatka and illegal immigrants jumping desiccated border fences and why we ought to revere the mosquito. Sound interesting? It is.

I don’t mean to pick on Walker and his plucky, if pointless, quest to survive. But survival has become just another additive, like high fructose corn syrup or guarana extract, that we get in everything now whether we want it or not.

We’ve got YouTube for when we want to see someone point a videocamera at his face right before doing something foolish. So could the outdoor magazines please pan back around to our surroundings now? It’s pretty out there.

All images: Charles Eldermire, taken during fieldwork in Costa Rica.

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Paper in a recent issue of Climatic Change: Understanding public complacency about climate change: Adults’ mental models of climate change violate conservation of matter

And we’re not talking about out-of-touch middle Americans, either. We’re talking 212 MIT grad students. When asked to anticipate CO2 levels under two emissions scenarios, more than 3/4 gave answers that would require carbon dioxide to disappear from the universe.

The authors, John Sterman and Linda Booth Sweeney, are from MIT, too – so they likely weren’t intending to take a cheap shot at MIT’s reputation. Rather, they were pointing out how tricky it is to imagine complex systems at work – and how our brains gravitate toward easy (but error prone) ways of thinking.

At the heart of the problem is our obsession with CO2 emissions and removal rates. As the MIT students demonstrate, it’s all too easy to think that if we can level off our emissions (itself an almost unimaginably remote goal at the moment), CO2 levels and temperatures will start to drop. Problem is, that misses the (dare I say it?) inconvenient truth that emissions already outpace removal by more than 2 billion tons per year. So just leveling off emissions still means a steady, uncompromising rise in atmospheric CO2.

The authors do a nice job of drawing comparisons: We typically deal with the world on some sort of a “wait-and-see” basis. Is the kettle boiling? Wait for the whistle. Is the bathtub full? Turn off the tap. That’s how most of us operate. When even slightly more complicated relationships are left to the public to decide, it’s always a struggle: look at the battles we’re still fighting to get people to wear seat belts and vaccinate their kids.

If reasonably smart people are prone to making foolish errors when it comes to climate change, it’s even easier to lead them into those errors with some sophistry. That’s what Myron Ebell, of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, has made a career doing: popping off fallacies and ad hominem attacks with the unerring regularity of Wallace’s automatic porridge-flinger.

He probably doesn’t realize it, but he got his comeuppance this month, in a Vanity Fair interview. He scoffed his way through his questions, insulting climatologists’ pedigrees rather than addressing their research (NASA’s Jim Hansen “isn’t even a climate scientist!” Right, he’s, uh, an atmospheric physicist. Your point?). Fortunately, interviewer Michael Shnayerson cut away regularly to get counterpoints from actual climate scientists.

Ebell’s ability to lap up disapproval, badmouth the opposition and crow about his own brilliance is infuriating, especially for someone whose own climate credentials add up to an undergrad degree in philosophy. But it reminds me why critical thinking is still the most important subject in school.

Documentary director Martin Durkin takes unsavoriness one step farther. In “The Great Global Warming Swindle,” Durkin falsified data on temperature graphs and claimed they came from NASA when in fact they came from an obscure journal populated by other climate skeptics. And all this in the name of revealing some sort of carefully concealed truth to the public.

Tellingly, e-mails from the U.K.’s Times asking Durkin for explanation received unprintable replies. When you don’t have anyplace left to argue from, you start yelling. Squeaky wheels are the same the world over.

I’d write something unprintable myself, but I’m holding fast to the belief that people can still tell a shaky argument by the way it’s delivered. Shrill, blustery, self-congratulating, or circular? Not interested. Reasonable premise, reliable evidence, intact logic? Let’s talk.

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pencilchew.jpgMaybe the occasional Scribble Reader has wondered just who in the heck this Scribbler is. But let me tell you, that ain’t nothin’ compared to how much I wonder who the heck you guys are.

But that’s the beauty of Web 2.0, ain’t it? No more agonizing over the wording of your letter to the editor of Omni Magazine in the hopes of seeing your name in print. Just hit the Comments button and fire away.

So here’s your chance to do some scribbling of your own and fill me in on one or more of the following 15 pressing questions:

1. How did you get here? (no need to get cosmic on this one)

2. Have you visited this site before?

3. Are you just here for the baby turtles? (you would not believe how many people search the Internet each day for baby turtles)

4. What kind of posts do you like the best? (a) ocean science (b) climate change (c) birding (d) surfing (e) other?

5. Are the posts (a) about right or (b) too damn long?

6. Would you like more coverage of (a) climate change (b) islands being devastated by rats (c) weird deep-sea creatures (d) earthquake-type stuff (e) celebrity feuds and/or adoptions (f) sex (g) atmospheric physics (h) other (please specify)?

7. How educated are you: (a) made it out of high school; curious about the world (b) still interested in most things (B.S.) (c) able to detect the infantile flaws in some stories; peripherally interested in all the rest (M.S.) (c) basically humoring me (Ph.D.)?

8. Do you wish the words I use were (a) longer (b) shorter (c) funnier (d) snarkier (e) less stupid (f) rhyming?

9. Do you occasionally wonder what possesses me to spend an hour or so writing about such obscure topics?

10. More pictures? (Of what?)

11. Are you not leaving comments because (a) the posts arrive fully formed and inviolable (b) you never make it to the end of a post (c) it’s interesting, just not that interesting (d) try writing about something that matters (e) you have a lingering feeling that even though only a tiny fraction of the world’s population will ever look at a comments page, you might come off sounding stupid and someone, somewhere, might snicker at you from the lonely confines of their poorly lit hovel

12. If scientists were to turn their collective intellectual power toward designing one and only one robot animal, what animal should that be?

13. I am an heir/heiress and I would like to contribute ___ million dollars to further the Scribbler agenda

14. Do I know you? How?

15. Setting aside the surfing and the birding for a moment, if there was one thing in the world you’d like me to write about, what would it be?

I’m really not kidding about this. Answer as much or as little as you see fit. Post a comment – or – if you don’t feel like going totally public – send aphriza at gmail dot com an e-mail. Thanks for reading.

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Ripples of excitement and indignation are spreading across the Internet following the releases of a deliberately provocative TV show and well-timed book. Both chalk up climate change to natural causes such as cosmic rays. Science aside, the ripples show us something about the public’s level of scientific involvement.

The book, by Nigel Calder and Henrik Svensmark, suggests that cosmic rays – not carbon dioxide – are responsible for changes in the Earth’s temperature. The argument is that cosmic rays bombard the atmosphere with high-energy particles that induce cloud formation. Clouds reflect sunlight, so when the Earth gets more cosmic rays it’s likely to cool. Regardless of how big a carbon-dioxide blanket we may have thrown up into the atmosphere.

The folks at RealClimate do a pretty thorough job of countering this argument (briefly: no trend in cosmic-ray arrival over the last half-century; plenty of other causes of cloud formation; and the relationship holds only if you factor out upper- and middle-atmosphere clouds and concentrate on low clouds).
Still, read the comments on a BBC news blog for a glimpse of how the public feels. Comments are fairly equally divided between people who believe the IPCC and people who are still in denial. Many post long, impassioned treatises.

A few points recur:

1. as consensus about climate change grows, skeptics take increasing pride in their position

2. arguments in favor of doing something about climate change are often emotional calls to restore dignity to the Earth – making them suspect in the eyes of skeptics, who see themselves as pragmatic and canny

3. all opponents are characterized as cherry-picking their examples

4. people seem to believe there is some simple way to present the evidence, and they don’t understand why it hasn’t been made available

5. people don’t believe they misunderstand the science; they believe the media has misrepresented it

It’s science’s very democratic nature that’s at fault here. The public does at least understand that science is an ongoing argument and that the truth can be arrived at by level-headed inspection of the evidence. The problem seems to be that people don’t expect the evidence to be so complicated.

When a pattern is presented simply – like the hockey stick graph – some people get the nagging sense it has been manipulated to look that way. Explanations for why data manipulations are justifiable lead back to the complaint that it shouldn’t be so complicated and that the real, simple answer is being concealed. Even worse – bogus manipulations can be camouflaged in similar justifications, leaving the rest of us at a loss for whom to believe (skim the RealClimate article for a typically bewildering example).

I suppose we can take some comfort that the public is so clearly interested in this sort of science. But I’m disturbed by the way science-journalism-for-profit finds itself at odds with their readers’ best interests. A Danish professor bubbling with enthusiasm for cosmic rays is a quaint news story. It’s not right to present it as a nail in the coffin of anthropogenic climate change, just to increase circulation. Nigel Calder, as a past editor of New Scientist, ought to know better.

Sadly, capitalism seems to have won out already: Amazon suggests five similar titles that, for between $11 and $33 (eligible for free shipping) will reassure you that global warming isn’t your fault, and it’s everybody else who’s crazy.

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Call it self interest, but I was most interested at AAAS by science journalist/all-around original thinker Margaret Wertheim, who spoke about where science journalism is going. She gave some impressive statistics about readership for the science magazines (around 20 million per month) and then pierced whatever chest-puffing may have ensued with some scale: the readership of women’s magazines is at least 70 million per month.

It gets worse: sci-mag readership is overwhelmingly male, middle-aged, and wealthy (81% male, 49 years old, making $115,000/year in Scientific American’s case for instance). Wertheim, an Australian, has managed to write a science column for the Australian versions of Vogue and Elle as well as produce a science TV show aimed at teenage girls. She thinks the rest of us can do that sort of thing, too – but she warns it’s the hardest work she can think of.

Wertheim has had a dream career, writing books with whimsical titles like Pythagoras’s Trousers, producing Australian TV, and starting the Institute for Figuring, which loves fractals, paper-folding, the kindergarten roots of modernism, and the aforementioned crocheted model of the Great Barrier Reef.

The reef is going on display next month at the Andy Warhol museum. It’s been discussed in the New York Times, New Scientist, and NPR. The technique is based on hyperbolic geometry, a 200-year-old branch of study that no one had been able to give three-dimensional reality to until 1997. A Cornell mathematician devised a simple, crochetable algorithm and then used a few ounces of yarn to disprove Euclid’s fifth postulate, which had been lying around for 2,000 years, unproved but grudgingly accepted, like a splinter. A few years later, Wertheim and her sister were sitting around crocheting in the living room of the Institute for Figuring when they noticed the resemblance to coral animals.

(Inkling take note: the IFF has the hands-down geekiest address ever: “Anchored in the conceptual landscape, the Institute for Figuring is located on the edge of the Mandelbrot Set.” Specifically it’s at 0.7473198, i0.1084649 . If you’re not familiar with the neighborhood, here’s a map, of a sort.)

So where does Wertheim think science journalism is going? Wertheim’s fantastically creative work takes abstract science to an unlikely audience, but it doesn’t seem to have a business model. Wertheim says the IFF is continually running on financial fumes. In that sense, it’s a shining example of what’s possible in the essentially volunteer outreach that the Internet has enabled. But it’s not really part of the future of science journalism.

When I asked Wertheim where quirky creativity like the IFF could find financial sustainability, she laughed. “That’s easy,” she said, “We just need the foundations to step in and fund us.” To me, that’s like saving biodiversity with captive breeding programs: Dedicating huge amounts of resources to prop up a few wonderful examples against ecological realities. Wertheim never mentioned the word “profit,” and she left me as confused as ever about how science news is going to survive in the new economic jungle.

(image: Institute for Figuring)

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